Cyber-enabled drug trafficking: How UNODC CRIMJUST and Cybercrime programmes hope to thwart its growth in Africa

Almost 30 years ago, Lieutenant Sagna joined the Senegalese police force, where he investigated crimes of all kinds in and around Senegal. He is now mostly involved in drug traffic repression with the Senegalese police, but a lot has changed since he joined the force. The term 'cybercrime' was rare thirty years ago. For Lt Sagna to be effective in his role, he needs to be familiar with various aspects of the cyber and tech world. He and 28 other investigators from Benin, Cote d'Ivoire, Senegal, and Togo recently took part in a capacity-building training on cyber elements of drug trafficking investigations organized by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) CRIMJUST Global Programme, in collaboration with the Global Programme on Cybercrime.

With support from the European Union and the US Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, 'Cyber elements of drug trafficking investigations', launched by CRIMJUST and Cybercrime in 2021, is a series of hands-on exercises designed to provide law enforcement and judiciary officers with the knowledge, tools, and training necessary to investigate and prosecute cyber aspects of drug trafficking, so Lieutenant Sagna believes it was a timely initiative. “Every day we follow up on drug traffic cases that put our civilians and nation at risk.” Lt Sagna says.” As time changes, so too do the methods these criminals use to sell their products, including technology. We need to keep up with them on every front.” He concludes.

Nevertheless, digital advances are not just a Senegalese problem. It is an African problem, too. Several countries particularly in West Africa struggle with illicit drug trafficking, despite the fact that the vast majority of these drugs are not intended for the African market. UNODC estimates that over 50 tons of narcotics are trafficked via West Africa yearly and with the Covid19 pandemic, these criminal organizations amended their already advanced digital modus operandi, finding new ways to transport illicit substances, betting on digital tools that guarantee rapidity and anonymity. Consequently, agents of law enforcement, especially in African countries that have apprehended drug traffickers, need to be aware of the latest trends and tools used by these criminals in order to conduct effective investigations that will ensure appropriate judicial action.

According to Dr. Amado Philip de Andrés, the UNODC’s Regional Director for West and Central Africa “Drug trafficking and related organized crime threaten security and public health in affected communities and undermine governance as well as rule of law. In this context, capacity building of relevant national authorities to equip them with necessary skills that would allow them to address drug trafficking and related organized crime in an effective manner is essential.”

Over 100 law enforcement and judiciary officials have been trained through the CRIMJUST and Cybercrime global programmes, 30 per cent of whom are women from 10 African countries depending on the participant profile, the training generally introduces or strengthens capacity in a wide range of cyber-related aspects, from open-source tools used to detect and investigate illicit drug transactions and drug-related forums to darknet mining, and even best practices for collecting and securing digital evidence in accordance with human rights and national law. The ‘Cyber elements of drug trafficking’ training doesn’t just aim to instruct participants on cyber-enabled drug trafficking and how to tackle it. The forum serves as a venue for participants to build transnational links to share information and knowledge, says Carmen Corbin, the Head of Counter Cybercrime Programming for UNODC in West and Central Africa.  “Through this training, I got to meet and exchange ideas with people who work in the same field as me in other countries. These exchanges revealed that a lot of the challenges we face in our day-to-day work are the same and that we can collaborate and find durable solutions together.”

Currently, Lieutenant Sagna intends to not just seize drugs from traffickers and apprehend them, but also disintegrate the whole drug chain, a goal UNODC is working towards on the African continent through this type of training.

These CRIMJUST and Cybercrime activities were funded by the European Union under the framework of the "Global Illicit Flows Programme" [GIFP] and by the United States. They join existing efforts to enhance law enforcement and judicial counter-narcotic strategies beyond interdiction activities and to foster transnational responses targeting each stage of the drug supply chain.