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U.S. Drug War Expands to Africa

September 5, 2012 Leave a comment

WASHINGTON — In a significant expansion of the war on drugs, the United States has begun training an elite unit of counternarcotics police in Ghana  and planning similar units in Nigeria and Kenya as part of an effort to combat the Latin American cartels that are increasingly using Africa to smuggle cocaine into Europe.

The growing American involvement in Africa follows an earlier escalation of antidrug efforts in Central America, according to documents, Congressional testimony and interviews with a range of officials at the State Department, the Drug Enforcement Administration  and the Pentagon.

In both regions, U.S officials are responding to fears that crackdowns in more direct staging points for smuggling — like Mexico and Spain — have prompted traffickers to move into smaller and weakly governed states, further corrupting and destabilizing them.

“We see Africa as the new frontier in terms of counterterrorism and counternarcotics issues,” said Jeffrey P. Breeden, the chief of the D.E.A.’s Europe, Asia and Africa section. “It’s a place that we need to get ahead of — we’re already behind the curve in some ways, and we need to catch up.”

The initiatives come amid a surge in successful interdictions in Honduras since May — but also as American officials have been forced to defend their new tactics after a commando-style team of D.E.A. agents participated in at least three lethal interdiction operations alongside a squad of Honduran police officers. In one of those operations, in May, the Honduran police killed four people near the village of Ahuas, and in two others in the past month American agents have shot and killed smuggling suspects.

To date, officials say, the D.E.A. commando team has not been deployed to work with the newly created elite police squads in Africa, where the effort to counter the drug traffickers is said to be about three years behind the one in Central America. The United Nations says that cocaine smuggling and consumption in West Africa have soared  in recent years, contributing to instability in places like Guinea-Bissau. Several years ago, a South American drug gang tried to bribe the son of the Liberian president to allow it to use the country for smuggling. Instead, he cooperated with the D.E.A., and the case resulted in convictions in the United States.

American counternarcotics assistance for West Africa has totaled about $50 million for each of the past two years — up from just $7.5 million in 2009, according to the State Department. The D.E.A. also is opening its first country office in Senegal, officials said, and the Pentagon has worked with Cape Verde to establish a regional centre to detect drug-smuggling ships.

While the agency has not sponsored units in West Africa before, it has long worked with similar teams — which are given training, equipment and pay while being subjected to rigorous drug and polygraph testing — in countries around the world whose security forces are plagued by corruption, including the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala and Panama. West Africa is now facing a situation analogous to the Caribbean in the 1980s, where small, developing, vulnerable countries along major drug-trafficking routes toward rich consumers are vastly under-resourced to deal with the wave of dirty money coming their way.

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