UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.N. agency that fights drugs and crime estimated that cocaine trafficking is generating some $900 million annually in West and Central Africa as South American cartels use the shortest route to transport drugs to Europe.
Yuri Fedotov, the head of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, told the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday that in addition to an upsurge in cocaine trafficking, West Africa is experiencing an increase in piracy, arms and human trafficking.
He said South American drug cartels were not only exploiting poverty but a lack of border controls, weak law enforcement, and endemic corruption in West Africa to reach Europe.
"The West African transit route feeds a European cocaine market which in recent years grew four fold, reaching an amount almost equal to the U.S. market," he said. "We estimate that cocaine trafficking in West and Central Africa generates some $900 million annually."
That estimate is up from an April 2011 UNODC report that put the figure at $800 million for 2009.
Fedotov said illegal drug consumption is also growing fast in the region, where there are now up to 2.5 million drug users.
He said greater understanding is needed of the extent to which drug trafficking may be linked to piracy off West Africa's coast.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said there is growing concern about stability in West Africa and the Sahel region to the north because of the rise in organized crime, drug trafficking and piracy, a growing food crisis, the influx of weapons from the upheaval in Libya, and the reported links between insurgent groups, criminal groups and terrorist organization.
"There is even fear that we could see in this region a crisis of the magnitude of the one in the Horn of Africa," Ban said, a reference to Somalia which remains a failed state, with the al-Qaida-affiliated militant group al-Shabab challenging a weak transitional government.
He told the council that an assessment mission he sent in December to look at the effects of the Libya crisis on the Sahel "found that terrorist groups, such as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, have begun to form alliances with drug traffickers, and other criminal syndicates."
"Such alliances have the potential to further destabilize the region and reverse hard-won democratic and peacebuilding achievements," the secretary-general warned.
Benin's Minister of State for National Security Issifou N'Douro said the dispersal of Libya's arsenal and mass departure of Libyans following the ouster of Moammar Gadhafi "has considerably worsened the challenges that West Africa and the Sahel in particular are facing in terms of combatting organized transnational crime."
The Libyan fallout has led to the growth and radicalization of rebel groups in the Sahel states and "a resurgence in pernicious forms of coordinated criminal activity" such as kidnapping with ransom demands and shootouts between security forces and insurgents with better weapons, he said.
Togo's President Faure Gnassingbe, whose country holds the Security Council presidency this month and organized the meeting, said terrorist actions in Nigeria and the Sahel have added to West Africa and the Sahel becoming "channels for trafficking of all kinds."
He proposed an International Contact Group on Organized Transnational Crime which would include interested countries to better coordinate material and financial help to the region and individual governments.