Africa is poised to become "the market of the future" for illegal drugs, according to a top United Nations drug official.
Speaking at an international summit in Panama, Pierre Lapaque, the West and Central Africa representative for the UN's Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), said the continent is already a major transit hub for drugs on their way from Latin America to Europe.
In its recent HBO segment "Lines in the Sand," VICE followed the cocaine trail from Latin America to Africa — a transit point for a growing proportion of drugs consumed in Western Europe.
In an interview with VICE News, Lapaque explained that political instability, corruption among officials, and criminal gangs — including terror groups — have turned the region into a trafficker-friendly "buffer zone."
As well as being a transit point for drugs destined for the European market, he explained, the steady flow of illegal drugs in West Africa is also contributing to the emergence of a new market on the African continent.
VICE News: What makes you think Africa could become the world's next big market for illegal drugs?
Pierre Lapaque: It's simple, really. The average drug user is male and is aged 25 and under. Now that the North American (Canada and the US) and European markets are completely saturated, profits and growth are limited, and dealers have a hard time finding potential buyers. They have had to look elsewhere for emerging markets. In the future, the drugs trade will thrive in regions where an important share of the population is aged 25 and under, whose purchasing power has increased. So they're turning to Africa. Half of the people living in Africa today are under 25. And since the continent is an emerging market, consumer spending has increased, as has the access to illegal drugs. It's a potentially huge financial market; it seems obvious that Africa could become the market of the future for illegal drugs.
Why are more drugs coming through Africa?
We know that Africa acts as a buffer zone. Before, the drugs supplying the European market were transported from the producers in Latin America directly to the countries where they were being consumed. But the efforts of the police and of customs officials paid off, and the traffickers were forced to find a "springboard" area to continue supplying the European markets. West Africa was an obvious choice, because of its great political instability, because the law is seldom enforced, and because there is a lack of good governance. Conditions that drug traffickers see as "ideal" for criminal activity. It is estimated that 35 to 40 metric tons of drugs pass through the region each year.
How are the drugs moved?
Half of the drugs [from Latin America] are headed directly to Western Europe, while another part is stockpiled in the sub region. They do this is to keep the prices stable — cocaine fetches 80 to 100 Euros ($91 to $114) per gram in the European capitals — and to avoid flooding the market. You also need reserves in case drugs get seized, to maintain a tight flow. Drugs are pumped regularly into the market. It's pure business sense. The remaining part of the cocaine is sold in West Africa to develop the drugs market there. According to reports, between one and three million people in the region are currently using drugs.
Is there a link between drug trafficking and jihadist organizations in the region?
It's a touchy subject. Jihadist organizations need to be financed, and they have to tap different sources for this financing. One of the ways in which they received money used to be through ransoms. But because of the radicalization [of these groups], there are not as many demands for ransoms as before, and the groups have started to execute hostages. But a dead hostage doesn't make any money. So they need to find new sources of financing.
Some of them move [drugs] and other are involved in trafficking [buying and selling drugs]. Many are involved in some sort of trafficking. It could be smuggling cigarettes. Don't forget that Mokhtar Belmokhtar [leader of terror group Al-Mourabitoun, which just pledged allegiance to the so-called Islamic State] was nicknamed "Mr. Marlboro" for being involved in cigarette smuggling. And it's easy to slip from one type of trafficking into another. Some groups are more involved than others but it's still a bit unclear. What we can say is that they're all more of less involved, and to varying extents, in one or more forms of trafficking.
What are the African states that are affected by this problem doing to tackle the issue?
They are thoroughly involved. They know about the links between the jihadist organizations and the drug traffickers. They are at risk because the jihadists can carry out bigger [terror] strikes. The international community is helping the states in the sub region figure out what measures to take. We need to focus on counterterrorism and the fight against corruption to make the environment hostile to criminal gangs. But there is no panacea.
Are French troops stationed in the Sahel as part of military operations Serval and Barkhane involved in the fight against drugs trafficking?
During Operation Serval [January 2013 to July 2014], the drug traffickers operating in northern Mali were forced to suspend their activity. There was a lull because the region was a war zone. But now things have more or less gone back to normal, people can move around freely again. I am concerned that trafficking may have started again [in the region]. Barkhane was launched to fight terrorism, but if officers receive information about a convoy transporting drugs, they will intervene. But it's important to remember that the Sahel is a vast expanse of sand — it's impossible to have eyes everywhere. The security system — be it French or local — is not watertight. The only way to make progress is to work with intelligence, to know when a load of drugs will be passing through, and to prepare the troops for an intervention.
Follow Mélodie Bouchaud on Twitter: @meloboucho