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Reuters AlertNet / Reuters, Sept. 22, 2005
by Daniel Flynn
DAKAR, Sept 22 (Reuters) - Colombian drug cartels are flooding West Africa with tonnes of cocaine bound for Europe but police in Senegal say a crackdown in the major regional port of Dakar can help stem the tide.
With hundreds of containers passing through the port every day, Senegal is launching a new brigade of police and customs agents this month to tackle drug smuggling in cooperation with the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
"Cartels active in South America have come to Dakar and set up here," said Abdoulaye Niang, Senegal's top anti-narcotics policeman. "Since last year we have discovered structured networks composed of Senegalese, Colombians and Europeans."
The price of cocaine on the streets of Dakar had slumped as drugs flooded the market, Niang said, with the cost of a gram halving over the past year to 8,500 CFA francs, or around $16.
"International trafficking is rising, especially cocaine," he said. "We are talking about tonnes of cocaine passing through the port. Last year, in an operation with Spanish police, 15 tonnes were seized -- and that is just a tiny part."
The pilot project in the port of Dakar will have just 10 men but may be expanded. Given Senegal's entire anti-drugs force numbers just 75 agents, it is an important boost.
"We do not have enough (men). The World Bank told the government to cut spending and that touched the police," said Niang, who heads Senegal's anti-drugs police division, Ocrtis.
World Bank programmes have called on Senegal to make public spending more efficient to cut poverty and reliance on aid.
West Africa is an attractive back door into Europe for international drug traffickers because of its underfunded police, established criminal networks and widespread corruption which means gangs often operate with impunity, officials say.
"The problem of drugs in West Africa falls on very fertile ground because of the inability by the state to exercise its powers, to administer law and order," said Antonio Mazzitelli, regional head of the UNODC based in Dakar.
Some European crime bosses have even set up residence in Dakar, using it as a base to run their regional operations.
"It's not just Dakar, all of West Africa's capitals are being used as transit points or even drug depots," Niang said. "Lots of ships from South America are flooding West Africa with cocaine -- especially Senegal, Togo and Ghana."
Conflict in other West African states has encouraged gangs to concentrate on Dakar. While Ivory Coast was a major route for heroine trafficking from Asia, the civil war which began in 2002 forced many groups to shut down operations, Mazzitelli said.
Typically, cocaine bound for Europe would leave Brazil and pass through Dakar before being changed to another boat, often in the former Portuguese colony of Cape Verde, a group of islands off the West African coast.
"The drugs come mainly from Brazil, but what you notice is that the owners are Colombian," said Niang. "It comes to Dakar to camouflage its tracks: a few days or perhaps a week."
According to Niang, many major drugs seizures made in Europe rely on information from the Dakar police.
"The gangs think we know nothing, we are an underdeveloped police. But that suits us. It makes us more efficient," he said.
(Additional reporting by Diadie Ba in Dakar)