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The Timbuktu region covers more than a third of northern Mali, where the parched, scrubby Sahel shades into the endless, rolling dunes of the Sahara Desert. It is an area several times the size of Switzerland, much of it beyond state control.

Moulaye Haidara, the customs official, said the sharp influx of cocaine by air has transformed the area into an “industrial depot” for cocaine.

Sitting in a cool, dark, mud-brick office building in the city where nomadic Tuareg mingle with Arabs and African Songhay, Fulani and Mande 
peoples, Haidara expresses alarm at the challenge local law enforcement faces.

Using profits from the trade, the smugglers have already bought “automatic weapons, and they are very determined,” Haidara said. He added that they “call themselves Al Qaeda,” though he believes the group had nothing to do with religion, but used it as “an ideological base.”

Local authorities say four-wheel-drive Toyota SUVs outfitted with GPS navigation equipment and satellite telephones are standard issue for 
smugglers. Residents say traffickers deflate the tires to gain better traction on the loose Saharan sands, and can travel at speeds of 
up to 70 miles-per-hour in convoys along routes to North Africa.

Timbuktu governor, Colonel Mamadou Mangara, said he believes traffickers have air-conditioned tents that enable them to operate in areas of the Sahara where summer temperatures are so fierce that they “scorch your shoes.” He added that the army lacked such equipment. A growing 
number of people in the impoverished region, where transport by donkey cart and camel are still common, are being drawn to the trade. They 
can earn 4 to 5 million CFA Francs (roughly $9-11,000) on just one coke run.

“Smuggling can be attractive to people here who can make only $100 or $200 a month,” said Mohamed Ag Hamalek, a Tuareg tourist guide in 
Timbuktu, whose family until recently earned their keep hauling rock salt by camel train, using the stars to navigate the Sahara.

Haidara described northern Mali as a no-go area for the customs service. “There is now a red line across northern Mali, nobody can go there,” 
he said, sketching a map of the country on a scrap of paper with a ballpoint pen. “If you go there with feeble means … you don’t come back.”

Speaking in Dakar this week, Schmidt, the U.N. official, said that growing clandestine air traffic required urgent action on the part of the 
international community.

“This should be the highest concern for governments … For West African countries, for West European countries, for Russia and the U.S., 
this should be very high on the agenda,” he said.

Stopping the trade, as the traffickers are undoubtedly aware, is a huge challenge — diplomatically, structurally and economically.

Venezuela, the takeoff or refueling point for aircraft making the trip, has a confrontational relationship with Colombia, where President Alvaro Uribe has focused on crushing the FARC’s 45-year-old insurgency. The nation’s leftist leader, Hugo Chavez, won’t allow in the DEA to work in the country.

In a measure of his hostility to Washington, he scrambled two F16 fighter jets last week to intercept an American P3 aircraft — a plane used 
to seek out and track drug traffickers — which he said had twice violated Venezuelan airspace. He says the United States and Colombia are 
using anti-drug operations as a cover for a planned invasion of his oil-rich country. Washington and Bogota dismiss the allegation.

In terms of curbing trafficking, the DEA has by far the largest overseas presence of any U.S. federal law enforcement, with 83 offices in 

62 countries. But it is spread thin in Africa where it has just four offices — in Nigeria, Ghana, Egypt and South Africa — though there are plans to open a fifth office in Kenya.

Law enforcement agencies from Europe as well as Interpol are also at work to curb the trade. But locally, officials are quick to point out 
that Africa is losing the war on drugs.

The most glaring problem, as Mali’s example shows, is a lack of resources. The only arrests made in connection with the Boeing came days after it was found in the desert — and those incarcerated turned out to be desert nomads cannibalizing the plane’s aluminum skin, probably 
to make cooking pots. They were soon released.

Police in Guinea Bissau, meanwhile, told Reuters they have few guns, no money for gas for vehicles given by donor governments and no high 
security prison to hold criminals.

Corruption is also a problem. The army has freed several traffickers charged or detained by authorities seeking to tackle the problem, 
police and rights groups said.

Serious questions remain about why Malian authorities took so long to report the Boeing’s discovery to the international law enforcement 
community.

What is particularly worrying to U.S. interests is that the networks of aircraft are not just flying one way — hauling coke to Africa 
from Latin America — but are also flying back to the Americas.

The internal Department of Homeland Security memorandum reviewed by Reuters cited one instance in which an aircraft from Africa landed in 
Mexico with passengers and unexamined cargo.

The Gulfstream II jet arrived in Cancun, by way of Margarita Island, Venezuela, en route from Africa. The aircraft, which was on an aviation watch list, carried just two passengers. One was a U.S. national with no luggage, the other a citizen of the Republic of Congo with a diplomatic passport and a briefcase, which was not searched.

“The obvious huge concern is that you have a transportation system that is capable of transporting tons of cocaine from west to east,” said the aviation specialist who wrote the Homeland Security report.

“But it’s reckless to assume that nothing is coming back, and when there’s terrorist organizations on either side of this pipeline, it should be a high priority to find out what is coming back on those airplanes.”

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