Comprehensive regional response launched to combat trafficking in West Africa

Cocaine seizure in Guinea Bissau. Photo: A. Scotti23 April 2009 - A lucrative cocaine trade is flooding West Africa, which is fast becoming a key transit hub for hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of cocaine smuggled from Latin America to Europe. Taking advantage of porous borders and weak State and security institutions, traffickers are operating largely with impunity. The exploding drug trade is breeding widespread corruption and threatening security in the subregion.

West Africa is under attack. UNODC first sounded the alarm in 2004. In a report from October 2008 entitled Drug trafficking as a security threat in West Africa, UNODC revealed that cocaine seizures had doubled every year for the previous three years. At an African Union summit in February 2009, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon appealed for action to "roll back this dangerous phenomenon."

In October 2008, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) held a ministerial conference in Cape Verde, which resulted in a political declaration and regional action plan to combat drug trafficking and organized crime in West Africa.

Through an initiative launched yesterday, UNODC, the United Nations Office for West Africa, the Department of Political Affairs, the Department of Peacekeeping Operations and Interpol will support implementation of the ECOWAS regional action plan to address drug trafficking, organized crime and drug abuse in West Africa (2008-2011).

The initiative will build national and regional capacities in the areas of law enforcement, forensics, intelligence, border management and money-laundering, as well as strengthen criminal justice systems. A key element will be the establishment of specialized transnational crime units, initially in Cote d'Ivoire, Guinea Bissau, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Presenting the joint initiative, UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa said organized crime posed "as much of a threat as warring factions". "It has an impact on practically every United Nations peacekeeping or peacebuilding operation. Therefore, we urgently need more effective tools and operations to tackle this threat."

Said Djinnit, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for West Africa, said that the subregion's daunting challenges "are not a fatality. With strong political will, adequate resources and robust partnership between the subregion and the international community, these challenges can be overcome".  The impact on the ground of the transnational crime units could be felt quickly. Special attention should be given to fragile countries such as Guinea "where the United Nations is expected to play an increasingly important role in accompanying the country towards the rule of law".

Andrew Hughes, Police Adviser in the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, stressed the need for institutional integrity. Harper Boucher of the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) highlighted the need for maritime safety and better communications on air, sea and land movements. INTERPOL's pioneering I-24/7 system could allow law enforcement agencies to share intelligence and request assistance with transnational investigations 24 hours a day.