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The African Connection

August 28, 2012 Leave a comment

The deadly cocaine trade always follows the money, and its cash-flush traffickers seek out the routes that are the mostly lightly policed.

Beset by corruption and poverty, weak countries across West Africa have become staging platforms for transporting between 30 tons and 100 tons of cocaine each year that ends up in Europe, according to U.N. estimates. 

Drug trafficking, though on a much smaller scale, has existed here and elsewhere on the continent since at least the late 1990s, according to local authorities and U.S. enforcement officials.Earlier this decade, sea interdictions were stepped up. So smugglers developed an air fleet that is able to transport tons of cocaine from the Andes to African nations that include Mauritania, Mali, Sierra Leone and Guinea Bissau.What these countries have in common are numerous disused landing strips and makeshift runways — most without radar or police presence. Guinea Bissau has no aviation radar at all. As fleets grew, so, too, did the drug trade.

The DEA says all aircraft seized in West Africa had departed Venezuela. That nation’s location on the Caribbean and Atlantic seaboard of South America makes it an ideal take-off place for drug flights bound for Africa, they say.

A number of aircraft have been retrofitted with additional fuel tanks to allow in-flight refueling, a technique innovated by Mexico’s drug smugglers. (Cartel pilots there have been known to stretch an aircraft’s flight range by putting a water mattress filled with aviation fuel in the cabin, then stacking cargoes of marijuana bundles on top to act as an improvised fuel pump.)


Ploys used by the cartel aviators to mask the flights include fraudulent pilot certificates, false registration documents and altered tail numbers to steer clear of law enforcement lookout lists, investigators say. Some aircraft have also been found without air-worthiness certificates or log books. When smugglers are forced to abandon them, they torch them to destroy forensic and other evidence like serial numbers.

The evidence suggests that some Africa-bound cocaine jets also file a regional flight plan to avoid arousing suspicion from investigators. They then subsequently change them at the last minute, confident that their switch will go undetected.

One Gulfstream II jet, waiting with its engines running to take on 2.3 tons of cocaine at Margarita Island in Venezuela, requested a last-minute flight plan change to war-ravaged Sierra Leone in West Africa. It was nabbed moments later by Venezuelan troops, the report seen by Reuters showed.

Once airborne, the planes soar to altitudes used by commercial jets. They have little fear of interdiction as there is no long-range radar coverage over the Atlantic. Current detection efforts by U.S. authorities, using fixed radar and P3 aircraft, are limited to traditional Caribbean and north Atlantic air and marine transit corridors.


The aircraft land at airports, disused runways or improvised air strips in Africa. One bearing a false Red Cross emblem touched down without authorization onto an unlit strip at Lungi International Airport in Sierra Leone in 2008, according to a U.N. report. When police searched the aircraft, some 600kg (1,320lb) of cocaine was discovered along with gallons of fuel and several AK47 and AK48 rifles were discovered with 339 rounds of cartridges.The spokesman said roadblocks were set up and police later arrested seven foreign nationals – three Colombians, two Mexicans, a Venezuelan national and a US citizen – in a car 10km (six miles) from the airport.

Late last year a Boeing 727 landed on an improvised runway using the hard-packed sand of a Tuareg camel caravan route in Mali, where local 
officials said smugglers offloaded between 2 and 10 tons of cocaine before dousing the jet with fuel and burning it after it failed to take 
off again.For years, traffickers in Mexico have bribed officials to allow them to land and offload cocaine flights at commercial airports. That’s now 
happening in Africa as well. 

In July 2008, troops in coup-prone Guinea Bissau secured Bissau international airport to allow an unscheduled cocaine flight to land, according to Edmundo Mendes, a director with the Judicial Police.

“When we got there, the soldiers were protecting the aircraft,” said Mendes, who tried to nab the Gulfstream II jet packed with an estimated 
$50 million in cocaine but was blocked by the military.

“The soldiers verbally threatened us,” he said. The cocaine was never recovered. Just last week, Reuters photographed two aircraft at Osvaldo Vieira International Airport in Guinea Bissau — one had been dispatched by traffickers from Senegal to try to repair the other, a Gulf-stream II jet, after it developed mechanical problems. Police seized the second aircraft.


One of the clearest indications of how much this aviation network has advanced was the discovery, on November 2, of the burned out fuselage 
of an aging Boeing 727. 

Local authorities found it resting on its side in rolling sands in Mali. In several ways, the use of such an aircraft marks a significant advance for smugglers.Boeing jet liners, like the one discovered in Mali, can fly a cargo of several tons into remote areas. They also require a three-man crew — a pilot, co pilot and flight engineer, primarily to manage the complex fuel system dating from an era before automation.

Hundreds of miles to the west, in the sultry, former Portuguese colony of Guinea Bissau, national Interpol director Calvario Ahukharie said 
several abandoned airfields, including strips used at one time by the Portuguese military, had recently been restored by “drug mafias” for 
illicit flights.

“In the past, the planes coming from Latin America usually landed at Bissau airport,” Ahukharie said as a generator churned the feeble air-conditioning in his office during one of the city’s frequent blackouts.

“But now they land at airports in southern and eastern Bissau where the judicial police have no presence.”

Ahukharie said drug flights are landing at Cacine, in eastern Bissau, and Bubaque in the Bijagos Archipelago, a chain of more than 80 islands off the Atlantic coast. Interpol said it hears about the flights from locals, although they have been unable to seize aircraft, citing a lack of resources.

The drug trade, by both air and sea, has already had a devastating impact on Guinea Bissau. A dispute over trafficking has been linked to the 
assassination of the military chief of staff, General Batista Tagme Na Wai in 2009. Hours later, the country’s president, Joao Bernardo Vieira,
was hacked to death by machete in his home.

Asked how serious the issue of air trafficking remained for Guinea Bissau, Ahukharie was unambiguous: 

“The problem is grave.”The situation is potentially worse in the Sahel-Sahara, where cocaine is arriving by the ton. There it is fed into well-established overland trafficking routes across the Sahara where government influence is limited and where factions of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb have become increasingly active.

The group, previously known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, is raising millions of dollars from the kidnap of Europeans. Analysts say militants strike deals of convenience with Tuareg rebels and smugglers of arms, cigarettes and drugs. According to a growing pattern of evidence, the group may now be deriving hefty revenues from facilitating the smuggling of FARC-made cocaine to the shores of Europe.

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