Los Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel are using Atlantic Ocean drug routes to West Africa with increasing frequency, according to authorities.
Once organized crime groups have smuggled the narcotics – cocaine, marijuana, heroin and synthetic drugs – into West Africa, they transport them, often in vehicles or small airplanes, to Europe.
Other transnational criminal organizations based in other parts of Latin America also are trafficking drugs to Europe through West Africa, authorities said.
Among the criminal groups which are sending greater amounts of drugs to Europe through West Africa include the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian Norte del Valle cartel.
Latin American drug traffickers are using two basic methods to transport drugs to Africa and Europe, authorities said:
- By sea, transnational criminal organizations hide drugs in large ships that travel from Latin America to Africa and Europe. Drug traffickers set up fake export operations and hide their drugs in the cargo of the phony export businesses, authorities said. Once the large ships have reached their ports, organized crime operatives often use smaller “fast boats” to transport the drugs from the ship to land;
- By air, organized crime groups hire travelers, who are known as “drug mules,” to hide drugs in their luggage, clothes or even inside their bodies.
Once the drugs have reached West Africa, drug traffickers often load the drugs into land vehicles, such as SUVs, and transport them to their distribution points in Europe.
Security forces in Latin America and the United States have succeeded in recent years in slowing the amount of drugs smuggled north to the U.S. and Mexico by transnational criminal organizations.
This success has made the Atlantic drug routes to Africa and Europe more important to narco-traffickers, said security analyst Alfredo Rangel Suárez, the director of the Democracy and Security Center at Colombia’s Sergio Arboleda University.
“The fight against crime and the closing of border crossings by authorities in countries where cocaine is directly introduced have forced the FARC, Los Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel to look for new routes to satisfy demand in the European drug market, which means ports in Western Africa,” Rangel Suárez said.
For Colombian narco-traffickers, “the Atlantic route is becoming more important than the Pacific one,” according to the World Drug Report 2013 of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
Many Brazilian drug traffickers ultimately transport their drugs to Portugal in part because they speak Portuguese, making communication easier, according to the UNODC report.
Sixteen African countries comprise the main points of entry for Latin American drug traffickers, according to a report by the American Police Community (AMERIPOL), a continental police organization of 18 countries in the Americas, including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Nicaragua, and the United States.
The African countries commonly used as entry ports are: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Togo and Sierra Leone.
Los Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel
Two Mexican transnational criminal organizations, Los Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel, smuggle cocaine from Colombia, Ecuador, and Brazil into Sierra Leone and then to Europe, according to Rangel Suárez. Los Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel, which is led by fugitive kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, often collaborate with other Latin American organized crime groups.
For example, Guzmán has formed alliances with Colombian organized crime groups, such as the Oliver Solarte cartel. Guzmán also has partnerships with criminal organizations in several European countries, including Spain, Portugal, Germany, Italy, Poland, and the Czech Republic, according to the European Police Office (EUROPOL), the European police agency that handles intelligence.
Los Zetas has partnerships with organized crime groups in Central America and the Caribbean. The cartel also has established an alliance with‘Ndrangheta, a Mafia organization in Italy, according to the report “Mexico: The Invisible War,” by Libera, an Italian human rights organization.
“This alliance is beneficial for both criminal groups. Los Zetas transports the drugs to and within Europe while ‘Ndrangheta guarantees secure distribution points,” the report stated.
The FARC is responsible for many of the drugs that are transported to West Africa and then to Europe, Rangel Suárez said.
“The FARC is the biggest cocaine smuggler in the world,” he added. “In Colombia, more than half of the drugs produced and exported to other countries are marketed by the FARC.”
Three other Colombian organized crime groups – the Popular Revolutionary Anti-Subversive Army of Colombia (ERPAC), Los Urabeños and Los Rastrojos – also transport drugs to West Africa and on to Europe.
Transnational cooperation among security forces is crucial in the battle against drug traffickers, according to Colombian National Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón.
Countries need to share information, experience and technology to fight transnational criminal organizations, the defense minister said.
The AMERIPOL report agrees.
“What we do know for a fact is that international police cooperation is a key element to undertake joint actions and respond in an adequate and firm manner to this [transnational] criminal phenomenon,” the report stated