We chatted with producer Alex Chitty about the trail of cocaine running from Caracas to a small, strange town in Niger called Agadez.
On this week's episode of VICE, we're exploring the connection between the manufacture and sale of cocaine in Latin America, and the drug-running operations that fund Islamist groups in Sub-Saharan Africa. Producer Alex Chitty is the one who brought this story to your living room, and the experience of putting it all together sounds like it had quite an effect on him. When I talked to him earlier today, he had so many stories, I could barely keep up.
VICE: What was the genesis of this story?
Alex Chitty: We went to Venezuela, where we got driven out to one of the nastiest bits of Caracas, which is one of the murder capitals of the world. We walked into this drug storage house where this guy was like "You guys have balls of steel. You could be leaving here feet first! But I like you guys." He showed off his load of coke, and said "We have ten more houses like this one." That house had 120 kilos, which is worth about ten million dollars.
Then you followed the cocaine to Africa?
We went to Niger, and there's an illegal trafficking boom happening in this town called Agadez. Weapons, cigarettes, people, oil, and drugs. Kind of a weird place to see cocaine.
It's a conservative, Islamic place, so you don't expect to find large amounts of coke there. We got hold of a short, hidden camera video weeks later, and that didn't make it into the HBO film.
There's also a bunch of hidden camera footage from the DEA that shows the crazy lengths the DEA will go to catch people smuggling coke that could end up funding Jihadis. They put up these super-elaborate stings and we got exclusive footage of those. You see these FARC guerrillas in West Africa trying to get a guy to smuggle coke through al Qaeda-controlled territory and confirming that he would then pay al Qaeda money to do that. Therefore, supposedly, this proves there's a link between cocaine-smuggling and jihad.
That footage is our exclusive?
Tell me more about this Agadez place.
It's weird. This Californian lady had arranged an amazing sounding music festival out in the desert. She would get tribesman to come and play this crazy Jimi Hendrix-type music in the middle of the desert. We waited about two days out there and the military never came to get us. That was because an Islamist black flag had been raised in a village near Agadez, so everyone was on high alert.
Is there a military presence?
There are French, Canadian, and US special forces, and drone strikes just constantly doing stuff in the air around there, and you never hear anything about it. Canadian special forces moved into the hotel where we were, and we could hear them plotting all this shit.
You could hear them planning covert operations?
They were in the restaurant next to us. We could hear them clearly talking about specific airfields they were gonna fly to. We asked them what they were doing, and they were like "Oh, yeah. We're planning an exercise," which is bullshit.
These are ongoing military campaigns?
Everyone knows there are constant drone strikes going on there. Someone told me it's like whack-a-mole. They don't even hope to kill the jihadists in the desert. They just try and harass them, and mess with them every now and again.
What else happened that didn't make it into the show?
There's this human trafficking truck you can see in the show, and we heard the following day that 25 kilometers out of Agadez, it got hijacked by bandits. Apparently the driver was dead, and a bunch of human trafficking victims were missing. That might have been bandits. No one knows.
Oh and a Toubou tribesman told us about how a drug trafficking convoy got marooned in the desert by another tribesman, and then he phoned in a ransom demand to the owner of the convoy back in Agadez. He got a ransom paid back in Agadez through intermediaries, all the time negotiating from a sat-phone in the desert. And then he let the convoy go on its way.
And he got away with the whole thing.
I think so, yeah.
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