Author Archive

Colombia Offers Africa Security Advice

Colombia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said they were willing to share strategies with Africa for fighting organized crime, as the region is now a primary bridge for cocaine heading to Europe.

Foreign Affairs Minister Maria Angela Holguin made the comments during a four-day seminar in Bogota on fighting drug trafficking in Colombia and West Africa. While Colombia’s top police officials were present, as well as US agents like the DEA director for its Andean field offices, the Ministry did not specify which representatives from African nations were present.

Holguin said that Colombia’s experience in strengthening its law enforcement institutions could provide a helpful case study for Africa. She added that Colombia is still struggling to fight terrorism, drug trafficking and organized crime, but that the country could still provide useful advice and support for other nations facing the same problems. 

She did not specify whether this proposed cooperation would include training courses for the security forces in some African countries.·

Colombia’s offer to play an advisory role to Africa is another sign of just how important that continent has become for transnational drug traffickin groups. Last year, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said that Africa is now a major transit area for cocaine being sent to Europe, and local African groups are playing an increasingly significant role in the business, displacing the South American traffickers. Brazil in particular has become an important bridge for cocaine 
exports headed to southern Africa. 

Two Half Tonnes of Cocaine Seized in The Gambia

At least two tonnes of cocaine with a street value estimated at $1bn has been seized in The Gambia, bound for Europe.

In addition to the huge haul of drugs, the Gambian authorities have arrested a dozen suspected traffickers, and seized large quantities of cash and arms.

Gambian investigators made the first arrests then called in British agents to gather forensic evidence.

West Africa has become a major transit hub for trafficking Latin American drugs to markets in Europe.

Drugs cartels are taking advantage of the region’s poverty and weak security and judicial systems.

Agents from the UK’s Serious Organised Crime Agency – the rough equivalent of the US FBI – helped discover the haul of highly concentrated cocaine behind a false wall in a warehouse basement an hour’s drive from the Gambian capital, Banjul.


The Gambia has sentenced eight foreigners to 50 years each in prison for trying to smuggle over two tonnes of cocaine from Latin America to Europe.

The eight – four Venezuelans, two Dutch, a Nigerian and a Mexican – were held last year in a fishing village following the seizure of the cocaine.

Another suspect – a Venezuelan – died in jail on Sunday, days before a court passed the sentence. The West African state is a notorious transit point for drug traffickers.

In his judgement, Magistrate Lamin Tabally said The Gambia was determined to curb trafficking.

“The Gambian government has made its position known on issues relating to drug trafficking and, as a result, I am going to send a signal to other drug traffickers that The Gambia is a no-go area for them,” he said.

Harsher laws
One of the accused men, Dose Fermin, died at a prison in the capital, Banjul, on Sunday of natural causes, said the prison’s chief medical officer, Babucar Jatta.

They were arrested in June 2010 in a fishing village near Banjul after 2.1 tonnes of cocaine was found hidden in a warehouse belonging to a fishing company.

Last year, Attorney General Edward Anthony Gomez said the government would introduce harsher laws to curb the illegal drug trade, including the death penalty for anyone convicted of possessing more than 250g of cocaine or heroin.

The West African coast has emerged as a busy route for drugs from Latin America to Europe, with cartels taking advantage of the region’s poverty and weak judicial systems.

Are You A Bleacher?

Skin lightening (bleaching) cosmetics and toiletries are widely used in most African countries. The active ingredients in these cosmetic products are hydroquinone, mercury and corticosteroids. 

Several additives (conconctions) are used to enhance the bleaching effect. Since these products are used for long duration, on a large body surface area, and under hot humid conditions, percutaneous absorption is enhanced.

Corticosteroids: Side Effects and Adverse Reactions  The potent effect of corticosteroids can result in serious side effects which mimic Cushing’s disease, a malfunction of the adrenal glands resulting in an overproduction of cortisol. 

The list of potential side effects is long and includes:
increased appetite and weight gain, deposits of fat in chest, face, upper back, and stomach water and salt retention leading to swelling and edema
high blood pressure, diabetes, black and blue marks, slowed healing of wounds, osteoporosis, cataracts, acne, muscle weakness, thinning of the skin, increased susceptibility to infection, stomach ulcers, increased sweating, mood swings, psychological problems such as depression
adrenal suppression.

Hydroquinone Side Effects and Adverse Reactions
In 2001 hydroquinone was banned as an ingredient in cosmetics after it was shown to cause leukemia in mice and other animals. The mechanism of permanent whitening with hydroquinone is known for centuries. In 500 B.C. in Iran, farmers and civil workers used pure hydroquinone to keep their skin white and soft. Hydroquinone whitens skin by killing skin pigment cells. It is a strong inhibitor of melanin production, meaning that it prevents skin from making the substance giving skin its colour.

The mechanism of permanent whitening with hydroquinone is known for centuries. In 500 B.C. in Iran, farmers and civil workers used pure hydroquinone to keep their skin white and soft. Hydroquinone whitens skin by killing skin pigment cells. It is a strong inhibitor of melanin production, meaning that it prevents skin from making the substance giving skin its colour.

Side Effects
Severe allergic reactions (rash; hives; difficulty breathing; tightness in the chest; swelling of the mouth, face, lips, or tongue); blistering; blue-black darkening of the skin; excessive redness, stinging, or irritation.

Mercury Side Effects and Adverse Reactions
Some of the mental and physical effects of chronic exposure to mercury are known to us all, immortalised in Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter in ‘Alice in Wonderland’. Mercury salts were used historically in the manufacture of felt hats and absorption of these compounds through the skin gave rise to body burdens sufficient to cause the symptoms of madness among this profession. Likewise, the use of mercury salts in the 19th Century for the treatment of syphilis gave rise to severe side effects and many deaths.

Symptoms Characteristic of Low-Dose Mercury Exposure
For fetuses, infants, and children, the primary health effect of methylmercury is impaired neurological development. Methylmercury exposure in the womb, which can result from a mother’s consumption of fish and shellfish that contain methylmercury, can adversely affect a baby’s growing brain and nervous system. Impacts on cognitive thinking, memory, attention, language, and fine motor and visual spatial skills have been seen in children exposed to methylmercury in the womb. 

In addition to the subtle impairments noted above, symptoms of methylmercury poisoning may include, impairment of the peripheral vision;
disturbances in sensations (“pins and needles” feelings, usually in the hands, feet, and around the mouth), lack of coordination of movements,
impairment of speech, hearing, walking; and muscle weakness,
tremors, emotional changes (e.g., mood swings, irritability, nervousness, excessive shyness), insomnia, neuromuscular changes (such as weakness, muscle atrophy, twitching), headaches, disturbances in sensations, changes in nerve responses.

Categories: Are You A Bleacher?.

Africa’s White Economy Part 6

Organized crime and cement often go together, but in Guinea Bissau this happens in an untraditional way. The cement importing and sales company, SOMEC, was salvaged by Colombian Juan Pablo Camacho, a convicted drug trafficker who spent five years in prison in Miami on drug trafficking charges. 

He and his partner, Luis Fernando Ortega Mejia, bought the company that had been ruined in 1998 by Guinea Bissau’s civil war. Camacho and Mejia were both detained in September 2006 in the biggest bust the country had ever seen. The Judiciary Police seized firearms, ammunition, grenades, laptops, 674 kilos of cocaine and $39 million in various currencies. Unusual, for a cement company.

The Colombians, however, were able to walk away. The cocaine and money were stored in the treasury vaults, for safekeeping. The next day, the army seized both the drugs and the cash, and the evidence vanished. No evidence, no case. The Colombians were freed, thanks to Carlos Lopes Correira and Armando Mango, the same lawyers who defended Augusto Bliri.

Camacho denied every accusation and said that his wife and five children, who were still in Bogotá, would soon arrive in Bissau and that he planned to live there for the next few years. The Colombians are said to have left the country since, skipping bail, but the suspicion is that they still trade drugs, through a local network.

The Bissau-Conakry Strategy
Several years ago, two long-friends met in Guinea Conakry to talk about some business opportunities. They were Lasana Conte and Joao Vieira, the presidents of Guinea Conakry and Guinea Bissau. It was 2006 and cocaine trafficking in West Africa was at a development stage.

President Lasana Conte proposed that his counterpart Nino Vieira come on board, and then easily convinced him to allow Latin American traffickers to use Guinea Bissau as point of transit for their business. The profits would be huge, the risks minimal.

In late December 2008, Conte died, after almost forty years of dictatorship. A few hours after his death, a bunch of soldiers seized power in a coup d’etat. According to this new, untried military junta that has ruled Conakry since the coup, the overall goal is to clean up the country from corruption and extirpate cocaine trafficking — and to do so before the next scheduled elections, in 2010.

On February 26th, three days before Viera was killed, Lasana Conte’s oldest son Ousmane was arrested by the military on drug charges. He confessed on national television his involvement in drug trafficking, admitting his ties with some Colombian partners.

Ousmane Conte’s trial was broadcast on TV because the junta is trying to convince the Guinean people that they’re doing something necessary for their country, something good.  It is a sort of propaganda. But according to some analysts at the UN Office of Drug Control, this is really a strategy to put the South American traffickers out of the game — to open a new era of African drug trafficking organized by Nigerians and Guineans, in cooperation with Guinea Bissau and Conakry armies.The vacuum left by the double assassination of Vieira and Tagme and the situation in Conakry opens a new scenario in West Africa. The big plan is to transform the whole region into a sort of traffickers’ paradise, a dangerous plan that may seriously destabilize West Africa, leading to new conflicts in a region that is trying to heal from bloody civil wars from the past decade in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ivory Coast.

Crack and Prostitution, Cocaine’s Other Face
I drive through Reno, Bissau’s poorest slum, heading to Justino’s house. He’s 16 and a crack addict. Justino started to smoke quisa, as they call crack in Bissau, one year ago with his sister, Sadia. Now they both spend the whole day smoking the drug. Since they started, their old lives vanished. Justino lost his job and Sadia began to sell her own body. It’s 10 a.m. when I park my car in front of their house. Sadia waits by the door, holding her cachimbo, the crack pipe that has become her best friend. All around the house it’s garbage, rotten water and pigs.

This sounds like any other crack story, but there’s a difference: We are in Guinea Bissau, a place where crack was totally unknown until traffickers decided three years ago to target this country.

Sadia’s eyes are lost into the emptiness that surrounds her life. She waits for her brother to bring the drug. He comes with a friend and they immediately start smoking. I sit on the house floor with them. Sadia stretches out on a mattress while Justino and his friend feed the pipe; they start the ritual, which lasts at least 40 minutes. They completely ignore me. They ignore everything but the cachimbo. Their entire lives revolve around the drug.

The situation in Bissau is particularly sad. There is no prevention, no rehabilitation. The issue is so new that there is no data available. It’s impossible to say how many people are lost in crack addiction. And mostly, there is no consciousness among the people about the long-term effects of this plague. 

I meet Sadia and her group of friends at Baiana’s, at night. They are all prostitutes, all crack addicts. They spend most of the time waiting for a client to take them to a brothel. At one point a white, brand new, four-wheel-drive Toyota parks in front of the restaurant. On the doors, the Portuguese flag and the logo from the Cooperacion Portuguesa. The driver and his friend sit to drink some beers when Nadi and Tusha, two of Sadia’s friends, join the men. They will leave a few minutes later, on the Jeep.

Prostitution in Bissau is not for locals. Nobody can afford to pay a prostitute, and in the local culture, women cannot refuse a man. All the clients are foreigners. Sometimes sailors from anywhere, but mostly people who work for NGOs, the UN or Embassy employees. Almost every night I shared a coffee with Nadi, Tusha, Sadia, Fatima, Carolina and other prostitutes. They are somewhat proud of their work, and they see crack addiction as a minor issue. Smoking a cigarette or doing quisa – it’s just the same, to them.

They all dream of going to Europe – to Spain or Portugal or Italy. Nadi has a daughter who lives in Spain. She had the child with a Spanish businessman who used to travel to Bissau often: she doesn’t live with her child but says she is happy all the same, for the 250 Euros per month she receives from the father.

Nuno (an alias name) is a Portuguese sailor. He used to work on a ship but was forced to stay in Bissau after he fought with the captain. He asked his family to send him money to come back, but then got lost into alcohol. He’s a usual client of the girls and he has AIDS. He’s always drunk and spends his nights at the Baiana before heading off with two or three girls. The alarming issue is that none of the prostitutes that I met use condoms.

Since cocaine arrived in Bissau crack has spread, prostitution has increased and so has HIV-AIDS. Drug trafficking has destroyed the precarious political stability of Guinea Bissau and destroyed the lives of thousands of people. They are paying the price of Europe’s voracious appetite for coke.

Marco Vernaschi

Mexican Cartels Exploit North Africa Turmoil

Mexican cartels have moved into North and West Africa, a former DEA official said, taking advantage of the upheaval in the region to move drugs into Europe.

“Mexican cartels are not sitting around waiting for other global drug traffickers to reap all the profits of the emerging European and Soviet markets,” observed former Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Operations Chief Michael Braun in an interview with El Universal earlier this week.

Not only does the euro buy more than the dollar, he said, but the lack of state control over huge regions in North Africa has created an open invitation for Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) to operate there.

Analysts have been observing the expansion of Latin American DTOs in North and West Africa even before the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) released a special report calling attention to the issue in 2007.

Since 2003, Colombian traffickers have been observed in African nations ravaged by war and poverty, like Guinea-Bissau, where the DTOs benefit from weak law enforcement and government controls. Over the next several years, the discovery of rogue jet aircraft loaded with cocaine — like a Cessna 441 that landed in Sierra Leone in 2007 — also pointed to the increased importance of Africa as a transhipment point between Europe and South America.

Behind the scenes are traffickers like Colombian Daniel Barrera, alias ‘El Loco,’ who is based in Venezuela and is believed to control much of the network that coordinates boats and aircrafts from Venezuela to Europe, possibly using Africa as a transit hub.

Africa’s White Economy Part 5

 A gangster’s paradise

In Bissau I met a former journalist who had been a correspondent for a Portuguese magazine, I ask him to show me where the local drug lords live. We meet at night, in front of my hotel and we go for a ride through the darkness, where he felt safer than in bar.

“It all started when the fishermen found the drug in the sea…” he tells me while I drive “…a load of cocaine was dumped overboard, from a ship that was intercepted by the Senegalese coast guard, in 2005. The fishermen in Biombo found these packs and didn’t even know what it was. Some of them used it to fertilize their crops, some to paint their bodies and others simply kept the packs in their house. In this country very few knew what cocaine was.” He shakes his head, and smiles bitterly. We pass in front of the UN Building, taking a dark deserted road.

“See this? That’s where Augusto Bliri lives”. My journalist friend points to a huge mansion with a yellow Hummer parked in the courtyard. “That’s the traffickers’ neighborhood. This other house is where Bubo Na Tchuto used to live before he fled to Gambia… I guess the house is empty now… Look, over there, that was Pablo Camacho’s hideout”.

I keep on driving through this kind of Hollywood where the actors are drug lords and show biz is replaced by cocaine trade. Each mansion is guarded by armed security.

One is the local gangster, one the Colombian trafficker, and one, Na Tchuto, a former Rear Admiral for Guinea Bissau’s navy. Neighbors, and business partners. Augusto Bliri is a young but talented drug lord who is legend in Bissau. He’s the one who started the cocaine business in the country. He lived in Germany for several years, so when the fishermen found the mysterious packs with the white powder, he instantly knew what to do: he bought some kilos for almost nothing and converted them into hundreds of thousand of Euros. He spends most days driving around in his yellow Hummer and he often visit the Samaritana, a small bar in front of a parking lot in the centre of Bissau. 

In this place, traffickers and dealers share drinks while watching children cleaning their SUVs for few coins. Bliri’s gang is the strongest in town, that everyone either respects or fears, depending on the point of view. A few months ago one of Bliri’s lieutenants killed a Spanish trafficker in Bissau who had tried to steal some cocaine.  The police arrested and imprisoned the suspected killer but after three days he was freed. No trial, no evidence. Nothing. 

The same happened when Bliri was busted and convicted in 2006. The Police found firearms in his Hummer and a large amount of money. He was sentenced to four years but his lawyer, Carlos Lopes Correira, convinced the judge to let him go; his client was sick, Correira argued, and the basement where he was imprisoned was unhealthy.

I ask Lucinda Barbosa, chief of the Bissau police, if Bliri’s gang is in some way connected to the Lebanese network. “Of course they are. The Lebanese are too smart, and would never put their own hands in the fire, so they protect these gangs because they need someone to do ‘the job’. These kids are untouchable, and they know it. They resolve any problem with bribes so they don’t fear anyone.”

I managed to infiltrate into Bliri’s gang, but in two months I never met him personally. The Interpol knew I wanted to infiltrate, so they provided me with valuable advice and information. 

I approached one of Biliris’ lieutenants (I will call him Omar, an alias that I promised to use to protect his identity) the third day I was in Bissau. He was smoking marijuana with his friends at the Samaritana. After an improvised conversation about cars and music I suddenly ask him to meet me, this same night.

“I’ll be waiting for you at the Kilimanjaro, at 11 o’clock,” Omar replied. The Kilimanjaro is an isolated, dark patio with a grill that the owner calls “a restaurant.” While approaching the table where Omar was waiting, I realized there was nobody else in this place. Even the owner was gone. But I already was there, with him.

“Have a sit and let’s talk… what can I do for you?” he said shaking my hand. I was a bit nervous, but I sensed he was tense, too. My strategy was to be straight and tell him exactly who I was and what I was looking for. “I know who you are and what your business is but, frankly, I don’t care. I have no intention to denounce you, nor to give you troubles. I just need you to show me how the whole thing works. I’m a photographer and I’m making a book on cocaine. But don’t worry; nobody will know your name nor see your face. I promise. Would you help me?”

That’s exactly what I told him, word by word. I waited for few seconds, until he replied. “Holy crap… I don’t know if you’re crazy or brave, but what you are asking for is really risky. I have great respect for you, brother, but you’re a little mad! Do you know you could have been killed if you would have met someone else rather than me?” His answer kind of surprised me, but reading between the lines I understood this was a sceptical “yes”. After the conversation we had a drink. He took my phone number, and then we both left.

In the weeks that followed I met him almost every day. He tested me several times, gradually opening up to reveal his world. He introduced me to his people, inviting me three times in one week to share dinner with his gang. I’m still not sure if this was a way to have his friends pass judgment on me or if it was, in some way, a spontaneous and sincere attempt at socializing.

In any case I was gaining credibility and Omar’s respect, and after two weeks I felt we really trusted each other. It was carnival in Bissau, and I was invited for a beer at the cabañas of barrio Bra, a place where no stranger would go alone. Everyone was drinking and dancing to the loud beats of Bissau’s pop music. Omar was a little high and started to tell me about his problems with his girl. I think we had become, somehow, friends after this night.

The cliché of drug trafficker that we all have in mind is something that we inherited from Miami Vice or similar movies. In Bissau, most of the gangsters are still very naïve as the drug trade’s dynamics are still new to them. They are mostly kids who never had a single chance, most of them have been living in poverty their whole life, and cocaine trafficking is an unexpected, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the only real chance to achieve something and leave their slums. 

Augusto Bliri is the local hero because he was the first who took this chance. He’s smarter than every other local drug lord in Bissau and he’s extremely dangerous, always carrying a gun on his person and an Uzzi in his Hummer. After some weeks, I ask Omar if Bilri knows that I exist. I already know the answer, but I need to test Omar. He laughs at the question, “If Augusto wouldn’t know about you, we wouldn’t be here now. I gave him my word that you’re reliable. If you do something wrong I will probably get killed, but in this case I wouldn’t be the only who would die. You know, we have our rules here. This is Africa, brother”.

One of the things I liked most about Omar was that he was honest, direct and clear. And he was always on time, a rare quality in Bissau.
We gather for another party in an apparently abandoned lot where the gang set up a wall screen with a DVD projector playing one of 50Cent’s concerts. The grills are crowded with dozens of camaraos tigre, a jumbo shrimp the size of a lobster. Four buckets are filled with beers and a group of girls, the gang’s groupies, dance and shake just like Beyonce taught. The men keep on drinking.

None of them speaks English, but to celebrate they salute 50Cents with a loud “Go, mother fucker!” followed by a big laugh. I’m pretty sure they have no idea what it means, but it’s what the singer says. “One of these days I’ll show you what happens to those who break the rules” says Omar, holding my arm. He had a strange smile on his face and his eyes were shining when he pointed at mine. I was shivering and asked what he meant to say. “Ah-ah-ah!” He erupted into a loud laugh “You don’t have to worry, nothing is going happened to you… unless you break some rule…” He keeps laughing, my face paralysed and my eyes clearly betraying my emotions. “No one is going to die, don’t worry… we don’t kill people that often here… we’re cool. I’m just going to show you something, but not tonight.”

Omar is a good guy, but sometimes he’s a little scary. When I leave the party I keep wondering what he was talking about; but it was a few  days later before I had an answer. I was in my room, ready to sleep, when my phone rings, a few minutes before midnight. You should come now. There’s something I promised to show you… remember? Go to the airport, in the parking lot.You will find my friends there in half an hour… and don’t forget your camera!”

I don’t know what to do, I’m freaking scared and I don’t know what I’m about to see. I’m not sure accepting the invitation is wise but it could be maybe dangerous not to. A waltz of doubts and theories starts to dance in my mind, but after half an hour I’m at the airport.

When I arrive, nobody is there. I lock my car, wait for a few minutes, and then a four-wheel-drive arrives. They approach my car and, from the window, a guy tells me to jump on the front seat. Omar is not in the car but I recognize the guy who drives. I don’t know his name and I never talked with him before, but he’s always around at the parties. When I get in the car I see there are three other guys in the back seat. The one in the middle is blindfolded with the two guys at his sides holding a rifle each. One of them wears a SWAT hood, holding a pistol against the hostage.

That’s way too much for me; I want to leave. But I can’t. I wish I was in a movie and I feel ridiculous with my cameras. We drive toward Quinhamel, a little village 30 minutes from Bissau, when the car suddenly takes a secondary road, surrounded by cashew trees. Nobody in the car say a single word. I smoke two cigarettes. In a few minutes the car finally stops. The three guys get off, with their hostage.

“If you want to take pictures, do it. Just make sure not to take my face… I’ll check your camera later”. The driver seemed to be extremely relaxed.

I’m praying they won’t kill him, and I stay in the car. I nervously start to photograph, through the windshield, while outside the gangsters point their rifles at the hostage. They speak Creole, so I don’t understand a single word, but it was clear they were threatening this poor guy with death, asking questions that he never answered. He was so scared he didn’t even cry.

While two of the guys were questioning the hostage, the driver disappeared under a tree. He was comfortably smoking a cigarette.
I get out of the car, with caution. I shoot two or three pictures before they force the hostage on his knee. They point a gun to his head and after more threats they kick him to the ground. The man is shaking. The driver suddenly says we must go, so we get into the car. The hostage is left in the middle of nowhere, at 2 in the morning and far from Bissau. But at least he’s alive.

“You knew we wouldn’t have killed him, right? This guy talked too much … he should pay more attention. The next time he could have serious troubles…”

Africa’s White Economy Part 4

The Latin American connection
Al Qaeda and Hezbollah’s long arms extend from West Africa to Latin America. The tri-border area where the frontiers of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay meet is considered a trafficker’s paradise. 

A number of drug cartels and terrorist groups affiliated with the Middle East operate in the frontier area, according to international agencies and the U.S. military, and it is viewed as a a nexus between South America and West Africa, especially Guinea Bissau and Nigeria.

This area is strategically critical for several criminal activities, as among them money laundering and smuggling, and it’s the drop-off for air travel between South America and West Africa. The Brazilian government estimates that $12 billion is laundered annually through the tri-boder area; the U.S. Southern Command puts the annual total much higher, at between $50 to $500 billion.

Since the majority of drugs leaving South America for Europe exit Brazil and travel through terrorist strongholds in West Africa, these established ties may increase. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has identified West Africa as a developing hub of narcoterrorism, and there is evidence that Latin American traffickers are collaborating with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Hezbollah to smuggle cocaine to Europe. In December 2009, the UNODC informed the UN Security Council that drugs were being traded by “terrorists and anti-government forces” to fund their operations. That same month, authorities arrested three individuals in Ghana for cocaine trafficking who reported that they were supporting al-Qaeda.

Drug trafficking is not new to either Brazil or West Africa, but the level of sophistication of today’s global drug traffickers has raised international concern. Several security agencies have reported that drug dealers have their own goods containers and their own jet aircraft network that links the cocaine-producing regions of South America and West Africa for eventual transport to Europe. It is estimated that the fleet includes twin-engine turboprops, executive jets and even a Boeing 727 (which can carry up to 10 tons of cargo). In 2009, drug traffickers landed a Boeing 727 on a makeshift runway in Mali and unloaded as much as 10 tons of cocaine before setting the plane ablaze when it failed to take off again. The transportation fleet gives terrorist groups like the FARC, al-Qaeda and AQIM the ability to move vast amounts of illicit materials back and forth between Brazil and West Africa

In West Africa, the rise of the drug trade has increased fears that weak states could become criminalized “narco-states.” The growing drug trade has also been blamed for increasing political instability and violence elsewhere in the region, including, in 2008, riots in Cote d’Ivoire, an attempted coup in Guinea-Bissau and an actual coup in Guinea. The number of West African organized crime groups involved in drug smuggling is growing; some even have their own armies and caches of weapons

The lack of domestic security architecture, along with insufficient equipment, corruption and poor training for police are common problem across the region. For example, until last year, Guinea did not have a single scanner at its international airports. Nigeria only began using body scanners at its airports in 2010.

The attention to air smuggling is timely. When sea interdiction efforts increased, drug traffickers switched to air transport in Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, and Sierra Leone. It is well documented that the drug traffickers freely use abandoned airfields and landing strips in these countries where police have no presence. Authorities in Mali, where AQIM has now infiltrated, are so overburdened and under-resourced that they “lack the capacity to patrol the northern parts of their country.

Like Brazil, West African nations are beginning to recognize the value of regional cooperation. Last fall, Gambia hosted a regional forum on illegal drug trafficking and organized crime. In 2010, delegates from 34 countries gathered at the Fourth Session of the African Union Ministerial Conference on Crime Prevention and Drug Control to discuss harmonization of legislation across countries and the creation of a coordination, collection and data processing organization to assess the drug and crime threat

Out of this diverse criminal activity  emerged a terrorism-financing network, led by Lebanese clan of Assad Ahmad Barakat, who according to the FBI and the U.S. Treasury Department was a key financier to Hezbollah. Barakat was arrested by Brazilian and Paraguayan authorities working in cooperation with the U.S. Government but his clan kept on sending money to Lebanon and elsewhere in Africa.

The Lebanese network operating in Bissau is the next link in the chain. It acts to distribute the drugs but mostly provides the environmental conditions that keep the business alive. President Nino Vieira’s policy during the last three years focused on allowing the Lebanese to do their business. In return he reaped considerable personal benefits, and the country itself benefited from a surge in foreign investments, mostly from the Middle East, that in in 2006 totaled over $42 million.

Put those numbers together and Tarek Aretzki’s Palace Hotel starts to make a little more sense. But Guinea Bissau’s role and ties in Latin America drug trafficking dynamics is not limited to its connections with the Triple Frontier. During the last few months Buenos Aires has turned into one of the major points of shipment for the cocaine smuggled into Africa, in particular to Guinea Bissau and South Africa (where traffickers are stored big quantities for the 2010 World Championships). 

On March 12th, 10  days after Vieira was killed, the Argentinean Collection Agency declared that the Consulate of Guinea Bissau in Buenos Aires was involved in criminal activities related to money laundering, drug trafficking and illegal arms trade. What possible connection is there between Argentina and Guinea Bissau? Arms trafficked from Argentina to Bissau, but mostly the shipments consisted of the base ingredients to produce ephedrine and methamphetamines, trafficked from South America to West Africa and then smuggled through Mexico — eventually to the U.S.. All supervised by the Lebanese network in the Triple Frontier and in Bissau with the cooperation of then President Nino Vieira, in partnership with South American and Mexican cartels.

The position of Consulate of Guinea Bissau in Buenos Aires was held by an unconventional Honorary Consul; Enrique Oscar Montinel, who according to the Argentinian army register had died on March 11th, 1997. When I met him in his office to get my visa, in January 2009, he was alive and well; he asked questions on the purpose of my trip for two hours. Montinel appeared a little concerned when I told him I was a journalist, so I explained that the intention of my trip was to write an article for a travel magazine, to promote tourism in his country. I’m not sure he believed my story, but he stamped a six months visa on my passport and gave me some local contacts, including the president’s phone number. 

The Argentinean authorities started to investigate this case by mid August 2008, when the corpses of Sebastián Forza, Damián Ferrón and Leopoldo Bina were found not far from Buenos Aires. The three had been killed in perfect mafia style, in mysterious circumstances and all of them were in, or connected to, the pharmaceutical business.

A few months later Nestor Lorenzo, owner of the pharmaceutical Multipharma and a strong supporter of Argentina’s President Cristina Fernández Kirchner, Esteban Pérez Corradi (investigated for supplying ephedrine), Martín Magallanes and Marcelo Abasto (pharmacy and drugstore owners) and Walter Pérez (arrested for illegal medicines trade) were all investigated for ephedrine trafficking and illegal trade of medicines, considered to be the base for ephedrine and crystal meth.

All these people were “clients” of the Consulate of Guinea Bissau, which used to change cash into checks or checks into cash. The Consulate received the checks, charged a fee, and made operations through ghost companies. All such companies were exempt from paying taxes on the checks and the entire business was held locally by a bunch of former military involved in arms trafficking.

The Argentinean Prosecutor, Javier López Biscayart , estimates that for these services the Consulate was able to change up to $2 million a day. On June 5th he brought that trade to at least a temporary halt, by ordering that the Consulate by seized, as well as other buildings that had been controlled by Enrique Oscar Montinel.

Mali Hook Up

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 

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.”

Categories: Mali Hook Up

Africa’s White Economy Part 3

March 28, 2012 Leave a comment

Hezbollah, al Qaida and the Lebanese Connection
The nightlife in Bissau is usually so boring that sleeping is probably more exciting. After spending too many nights in my room I headed out one evening to the Palace Hotel — a huge, Chinese-quality building on the way to the airport surrounded by a series of luxury bungalows that are always closed and empty.

A place like this, in a city like Bissau, makes no sense. On the hotel’s website there’s a quote from its owner, Algerian entrepreneur Tarek Arezki, declaring that he “wanted to achieve one of his dreams: to build a hotel.“ But why Bissau, the city that always sleeps, where in two months I didn’t see a single tourist and where business is so depressed that TAP, the only airline that flies to the country, operates just one flight a week?

The answer is evident in the hotel’s European-style disco-bar. This is the place in Bissau where drug traffickers and friends hang out at night, drinking bottles of whiskey that cost $100 and smoking puros imported from Cuba.

I decide to jump into the beating heart of Bissau’s nightlife, when a drunken guy who speaks French drags me out of the bar. I realize the situation is tense when five other guys materialize out of the blue: they are all Lebanese, with few good intentions. They ask me what I was doing at the bar and what was the purpose of my visit to the country. They tell me they know I’m a journalist.

“We all know what the foreign journalists look for in this country and I know your name, so if I see anything published from you that mentions drug trafficking I will find you, wherever you are.”

When I tell him he can’t threaten me, he smiles and replies that this wasn’t a threat. It was simple advice. After that, he calls his friends to take a group-picture, all together, so he’d have a souvenir of the night. Of course I can’t refuse. When he holds me for the picture I feel his gun against my body.

The Palace Hotel became famous on Friday, January 11th 2008, when the French intelligence and the Judiciary Police arrested Ould Sinda and Ould Sidi Chabarnou, two al Qaida terrorists from the Maghreb wing of the organization, the Baqmi. They had killed a family of four French tourists in Mauritania and then fled to Bissau, with the aim of reaching Conakry. They spent some days at the Palace pretending to be businessmen and never left the hotel, probably waiting for a contact or for instructions.

The presence of the Lebanese community and the arrest of the two terrorists in Bissau are an alarming sign. Since the 9/11 attacks West Africa has been directly connected to the global anti-western jihadist ambitions of Osama Bin Laden. Al Qaida made logistical inroads into West Africa, seeking to radicalize regional Islamist sentiment and to benefit from the pervasive influence of organized crime.

Reports by Interpol and United Nations agencies detail evidence that cocaine traded through West Africa accounts for a considerable portion of the income of Hezbollah and Hamas, the Islamist movements based respectively in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. These reports say Hezbollah uses the Lebanese Shi’a expatriate populationin South America and West Africa to guarantee an efficient connection between the two continents.

In Latin America, both Hezbollah and Hamas are particularly active in Ciudad del Este, on the “tri-border area” where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay converge. This freewheeling border town is famous for cocaine trafficking, piracy and contraband goods, which are often smuggled across the Parana River into Brazil. Guinea Bissau is a strategically unique trait d’union between Latin America and Europe.

Operatives and supporters of Hizbollah are accused of being deeply involved in drug trafficking, smuggling and money laundering operations throughout South America and Africa by US military and intelligence officials. The officials point to a series of intelligence reports and the arrests of accused Hizbollah members as evidence that the group wields an unprecedented international fund-raising and operations network.

Working with US intelligence and anti-drug officials, Colombian authorities last October announced the arrest of at least 36 members of a cocaine-smuggling ring that trafficked drugs from Colombia and Brazil through way-stations in poor West African states by air, before sending the cargo on to Europe and the Middle East.

More than 100 suspects were arrested in Colombia and overseas on charges they trafficked drugs and laundered cash for Colombia’s Norte del Valle cartel and for outlawed paramilitaries in a network that stretched from South America to Asia, the attorney’s general office said.
Among those arrested in Colombia were three people suspected of coordinating drug smuggling to send some of their profits to groups such as Hezbollah, the office said.

Those suspects — Chekry Mahmoud Harb, Ali Mohamad Abdul Rahim and Zacaria Hussein Harb — used front companies to send drug cash overseas, it said without providing further details.

Chekry Harb, a Lebanese national who uses the nickname “Taliban”, was arrested as the leader of the group and described by Colombian and US authorities as a “world-class money launderer” who cycled hundreds of millions of dollars a year in drug proceeds through banks from Panama to Hong Kong to Beirut.

“The profits from the sales of drugs went to finance Hizbollah,” Gladys Sanchez, the lead investigator in Bogota, told the Los Angeles Times in October. “This is an example of how narco-trafficking is of interest to all criminal organisations.”

In South America, businesses run by members of sizeable Shiite communities in Colombia, Venezuela, Paraguay, Brazil, Argentina and other countries often serve as cover for Hizbollah fund-raising cells.

To maintain and expand its political-social activities in the Shiite community in Lebanon and elsewhere, Hezbollah needs money. The estimated $120 million given annually by Iran is just a little slice of the cake. The United Nations estimated that international drug trade generates $322 billion annual revenue, making drugs by far the most lucrative illicit activity.

Most of Hezbollah’s support comes from drug trafficking, a major moneymaker endorsed by the mullahs through a particular fatwa. In addition to the production and trade of heroin in the Middle East, Hezbollah facilitates, for a fee, the trafficking of other drug smuggling networks, such as the FARC, in the case of cocaine.

The main reason why Guinea-Bissau became a major drug trafficking hub is its location and geographic characteristics. It is an archipelago of 90 islands, an inviting staging point along the route from Latin America to Europe, where the Euro is stronger than the US currency and the voracious appetite for coke is growing. When shipments from Latin America reach the cost of Guinea Bissau, the cocaine is broken into smaller consignments that are then sent by fast boats to the cost of Morocco and Senegal or moved in trucks through Mauritania and across the Sahara to the Mediterranean cost.  A startling 50 tons of cocaine is transported through West Africa each year, according to the latest United Nations estimates. The value of this illicit trade dwarfs entire economies and has the potential to corrupt the region’s fragile states, which are just pulling out of decades of bitter civil wars.

Convoys of heavily armed four-wheel-drive vehicles travel through the Sahel, across regions controlled by a network of terrorists associated with al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. The Lebanese network based in Bissau makes business at the source, directly with the FARC, on behalf of Hezbollah. The associated al Qaida cells, based in the Sahel, receive a sort of fee when the smugglers cross their territories, in Mauritania.

According to the 2008 annual report of the International Narcotics Control Board, another worrying narco-business that is growing in West Africa – and also controlled by the Lebanese, according to Interpol — is methamphetamines. Criminal networks with ties to Mexico are setting up fake pharmaceutical companies to transit substances used to make methamphetamines. These companies use fake import-permits to illegally divert ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, which are found in cold and flu medications and are ingredients in the highly addictive crystal meth. They then ship the substances to Mexico to feed drug manufacturers.

Ronald Noble, secretary general of the Interpol, confirms that cocaine trafficking in West Africa supported several Hezbollah operations in Lebanon as well as al Qaida since at least 2006. Analysts and counter terrorism experts explain that the Lebanese network controls and administers several illegal activities in West Africa. Cocaine trafficking is the more profitable but they also specialize in oil trafficking and rough-diamonds smuggling. In Nigeria, for example, 80,000 barrels of oil a day are siphoned from illegally tapped pipelines, for an estimated $4 billion in annual cash flows. In Sierra Leone and Liberia, al Qaida and Hezbollah have begun investing in diamonds.

Liberia Hook Up

March 25, 2012 Leave a comment

Two Defendants Convicted For Conspiring To Traffic More Than $100 Million Worth Of Cocaine In Culmination Of Joint Undercover Operation In Republic Of Liberia, CHIGBO PETER UMEH and KONSTANTIN YAROSHENKO, participants in an international narcotics trafficking ring, were convicted today in Manhattan federal court of conspiring to import cocaine into the United States.

UMEH, who is from Nigeria, was a broker who assisted various international narcotics suppliers in shipping numeroustons of cocaine from South America to West Africa, from where the cocaine was transported to Europe or elsewhere within Africa.

YAROSHENKO, who is from Russia, was an aircraft pilot and aviation transport expert who transported thousand-kilogramquantities of cocaine throughout South America, Africa, and Europe.Yaroshenko was offered $4.5 million for trafficking the cocaine from Venezuela to Liberia and another $1.8 million for trafficking drugs to Nigeria and then to Ghana. From Ghana, part of the drugs were to be 
transferred to the United States. 

Yaroshenko was arrested together with Chigbo Peter Umeh in Liberia in May 2010. They were soon extradited to the United States. Umeh was sentenced to 30 years in prison on July 28, while Yaroshenko was given 20 years behind bars.

Categories: Liberia Hook Up