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Page last updated at 18:13 GMT, Thursday, 11 September 2008 19:13 UK

'Progress' in W Africa drugs war

By Will Ross
BBC News, Accra

Cocaine (File pic)
West Africa has become a key stop-off point for South American cocaine

The UN body fighting drug trafficking in West Africa says progress is being made, despite serious problems in bringing suspects to face justice.

In recent years West Africa has become a major hub for drug trafficking from South America to Europe.

Some 40 tonnes of cocaine were smuggled through the region last year.

In recent months there have been two major seizures in both Guinea-Bissau and Sierra Leone, with more than a tonne of cocaine intercepted.

If you want to learn how hard it is to catch drug traffickers in West Africa, the case in Guinea-Bissau is a lesson.

Two months ago, a plane landed at a military airport with an estimated half a tonne of cocaine on board.

A Venezuelan pilot and three Colombians were arrested but in what was later explained as a judicial error, they were all freed on a hefty bail of almost $180,000 (102,000) and have now fled the country.

Drug traffickers know now that somebody is checking on their movements
Antonio Mazzitelli
UN Office On Drugs and Crime

It is not clear where the drugs are, but this week the authorities in Guinea-Bissau announced the military had finally handed over the empty plane to the detectives.

It might appear that these are all the symptoms of a failing "narco-state" where the drug money is more powerful than the rule of law.

But for the head of the UN Office On Drugs and Crime in West Africa, Antonio Mazzitelli, there is cause for optimism despite the fact that the suspects have gone.

"Certainly drug traffickers know now that somebody is checking on their movements," he said.

"Somebody is ready to arrest them and... their space of manoeuvring of corrupting is reducing. It is reducing, I would say, very consistently and in a quite short time."

Since the plane's seizure both Guinea-Bissau's Justice Minister Carmelita Pires and Attorney General Luis Manuel Cabral said they received death threats as they tried to carry out their investigation.

Volatile

This too might look like a worrying sign, but the head of the UN's anti-drugs team is positive.

"This is a sign that the traffickers themselves are under pressure from the rule of law. They are resorting to open threats because they themselves feel threatened by the authorities," Mr Mazzitelli says.

Guinea-Bissau navy officer
Authorities are ill-equipped to tackle drug smuggling in Guinea-Bissau

Even so, the situation in West Africa remains extremely volatile and dangerous.

In Ghana a two-year joint operation between the British and Ghanaian customs officials has brought in almost half a tonne of cocaine.

But there are questions over how committed the police in Ghana are and how embedded the drug trade is within the airport in Accra.

"The drug traffickers in the region have enormous power and there is enormous appetite amongst the local partners for gaining more and more money and using this money in order to protect their own interests," Mr Mazzitelli says.

In the Guinean capital, Conakry, the police recently went on strike and in the process computers were destroyed in the anti-narcotics unit.

This was either an attempt to destroy evidence or send out a warning to those fighting the crime.

The UN says before Ivory Coast's civil war, the country was the main transit point in West Africa for heroin.

Recent research suggests it is slowly but progressively regaining that reputation.

Several other countries along this leaky coast are also of great concern including Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal, Togo and Benin.

Meanwhile Sierra Leone's judiciary faces a great test as people wait to see whether its recent huge cocaine haul will see people put behind bars.


SEE ALSO
Africa - new front in drugs war
09 Jul 07 |  Africa
Fear after Bissau death threats
01 Aug 08 |  Africa

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