DOD, Agencies Cooperate to Confront West Africa Trafficking
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May. 17, 2012 With a senior State Department official declaring West Africa under attack by drug traffickers during congressional testimony yesterday, a defense official reported progress being made through the interagency West Africa Cooperative Security Initiative to confront this threat.
“West Africa is one of the most fragile regions of the world,” Johnnie Carson, assistant secretary of state for African affairs told the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control. Fifteen of its 17 countries have experienced coups, and weak institutions, political instability, corruption and poverty create an inviting climate for traffickers, he noted.
Meanwhile, deterred by law enforcement efforts in the Western Hemisphere and increased demand for cocaine in Europe and elsewhere, drug traffickers increasingly have turned to Africa, William Wechsler, deputy assistant secretary of defense for counternarcotics and global threats, told the panel.
“As they target the lucrative and growing European market for cocaine,” he said, “we are also concerned about trafficking of southwest Asian heroin, as well as other drugs, such as khat.”
Wechsler also underscored the “alarming trend” of more trafficking of methamphetamine and its precursor chemicals in West Africa. He identified Ghana and Nigeria as likely hubs for meth production for export to international markets.
These developments have cascading negative effects on the transit countries’ social fabric, stability and security, Wechsler reported. “Drug trafficking is destabilizing, promotes corruption and undermines governance,” he said, while also supporting transnational organized crime that bankrolls terrorist organizations.
“In some cases, criminal groups threaten and challenge the state’s control of its territory,” he said, pointing to Guinea-Bissau as an example. They also promote other criminal activity on the continent that relies on the same logistical and financial networks as drug traffickers, from armed robbery in the Gulf of Guinea to piracy off the coast of Somalia.
The Defense Department, as a partner in the State Department’s West Africa Cooperative Security Initiative, focuses primarily on strengthening regional counter-drug forces. “The department invests in building capacity through training, equipment, information sharing and infrastructure to enable these partners to take ever-greater responsibility for their security,” Wechsler told the senators.
He noted U.S. Africa Command’s robust training efforts on the continent, with U.S. defense and law enforcement personnel training partner nations in airport interdiction and skills associated with intercepting clandestine meth lab operations, money laundering and other illicit activities.
In addition, a threat finance cell being stood up at Africom headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, will coordinate with U.S. government agencies and partner nations to counter financial networks that finance criminal organizations.
Wechsler highlighted some of the successes Africom is helping achieve in West Africa. One of the more dramatic was the seizure of 1.5 metric tons of cocaine in October by the Cape Verdeans, using capabilities of the new Counternarcotics and Maritime Interagency Operations Center there that Africom helped to support.
Africom also collaborated with the State Department and Drug Enforcement Agency to help Ghana establish a specialized counterdrug unit. The unit worked with DEA and other organizations to investigate a Ghana drug trafficking organization shipping heroin to the United States, resulting in several seizures and arrests.
This successful model is being replicated in Nigeria and Kenya, Wechsler told the panel, calling these specialized investigatory units “the cornerstone of our efforts” able to facilitate coordination with Western Hemisphere partners.
Meanwhile, DOD is working with DEA to increase awareness among West African law enforcement partners about meth production and trafficking and its far-reaching consequences, he said.
Looking to the future, Wechsler said, drug traffickers will continue to adapt to take advantage of perceived gaps in defenses against them.
“Many West African states have made remarkable progress in the past decade” in overcoming their vulnerabilities and standing up to traffickers, he said. “But the insidious destabilizing effects of narcotics trafficking and transnational organized crime have the potential to reverse many of these gains.”