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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 November 2007, 16:52 GMT
UK joins Ghana in war on smugglers
By Steven Shukor
BBC News, London

A drug prevention poster outside Kotoka International Airport in Accra
West Africa is a new staging post for Class A drugs headed for the UK

The arrest which led to two British college girls being convicted of drug trafficking was a joint initiative between UK and Ghanaian officials.

The west African state and its neighbours have been identified as the new frontline in the war on international drugs smuggling.

Ghanaian authorities approached the UK to help them set up a programme to tackle rising levels of cocaine smuggling.

Launched in November 2006, Operation Westbridge builds on the success of a similar initiative, Operation Airbridge, in Jamaica.

Airbridge focused on catching drugs couriers with internal concealments of Class A drugs before they boarded planes from Jamaica.

The number of drug mules flying into the UK from Jamaica has dropped from 1,000 a year to five in four years, according to HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC).

"Our operation targeting swallowers coming from the Caribbean has been very successful," said Beryl St James, of HMRC.

"It meant that traffickers had to find a different route.

Putting machines and dogs at airports is accepting the system has failed
Olga Heaven
Hibiscus director

"West Africa was identified as a key trafficking route for drugs coming into Europe from South America."

"Ghana quickly recognised that their country was being targeted.

"Many Ghanaians were being arrested while carrying drugs through European airports.

"The country does not want to gain a reputation as a drugs gateway."

Packages burst

Operation Westbridge cost 250,000 in its first year and Ms St James says it is money well spent.

"It costs 35,000 to lock someone up in the UK but if you arrest them abroad you are already saving money."

Yasemin Vatansever being taken out of court, 18 July 2007
The girls are to appeal against the guilty verdict

Since the launch of Westbridge, 62m of cocaine has been recovered at Kotoka International Airport in Ghana's capital Accra.

Apart from the staffing and training provided by HMRC, the UK has provided sophisticated scanning equipment for luggage and humans.

"The scanner could detect a grain of cocaine in an Olympic-size swimming pool filled with sand," said Ms St James.

She said drug gangs were indiscriminate about who they recruited to smuggle out their product and "they certainly have no care for your welfare".

In July 2006, a woman known as Mary Kofi, was dumped outside St Helier Hospital in south-west London shortly after arriving on a flight from Ghana.

The middle-aged woman, whose identity has never been confirmed, died after some of the 61 packages of cocaine she had swallowed before travelling had burst.

In Wellingborough in 2005, a swallower had a pole inserted into his anus by a drugs gang who were impatient to get their goods.

"He survived his ordeal and later testified against those who held him," said Ms St James.

'System failed'

Yet the temptation is clear. Couriers can reportedly earn up to 5,000 a trip.

The girls convicted on Wednesday, Yasemin Vatansever and Yatunde Diya, have claimed a Ghanaian in Britain called Jay paid for their airfares and told them to meet two people at the airport.

Mark Ewuntomah of Ghana's Narcotics Control Board said Jay had promised them US$3,000 each to bring him two laptop bags.

He said the cocaine was discovered concealed in false bottoms in the laptop bags.

The Ghanaian government has been running a public information campaign warning of the dangers of becoming involved in drugs smuggling.

Hibiscus, a charity which works with Westbridge, said education was key if people are to be discouraged from becoming drugs mules.

The London-based organisation, which cares for foreign nationals in UK jails, has been to Ghana to educate young people about the dangers of drug trafficking.

"Putting machines and dogs at airports is accepting the system has failed," says Hibiscus director Olga Heaven.

"The women often don't know any better. You cannot realistically penalise people if they don't know the consequences."



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