UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Although the flow of cocaine through West Africa has declined, its wholesale value in Europe is a staggering $1.25 billion, the United Nations said in a report circulated Monday.
The U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime said in the report on organized crime in West Africa that it remains unclear whether drug trafficking played a role in last year's takeover of Mali's vast northern region.
But the report said there's little doubt that the recent flood of perhaps 10,000 to 20,000 weapons from Libya enabled Islamist rebels to gain control of northern Mali.
The U.N. agency, known as UNODC, expressed growing concern at the increasing production of methamphetamines in West Africa, said at least 10 percent of imported medicines in the region are fraudulent, and called Togo the new hotspot for pirate attacks on petroleum tankers in the Gulf of Guinea.
Based on an assessment of cocaine seizures in Europe, UNODC said the flow of the drug through the region appears to have declined from an estimated peak of 47 tons in 2007 to an estimated 18 tons in 2010.
"While this is good news, it does not take a lot of cocaine to cause trouble in a region with poverty and governance problems," the report said. "The entire military budget of many West African countries is less than the wholesale price of a ton of cocaine in Europe."
UNODC said that in the last decade the world cocaine market has undergone a dramatic shift with cocaine demand in the United States decreasing but demand in Europe doubling which has led to an upsurge in trafficking from South America through West Africa.
In 2011, the report said 30 percent of foreigners arrested for cocaine trafficking in four European countries — Germany, Italy, Switzerland and Portugal — were from West Africa, a poverty-stricken region comprising 16 countries and some 325 million people.
Cocaine-related corruption "has clearly undermined governance in places like Guinea-Bissau," it said.
UNODC expressed concern that trafficking could fund rebel forces in the Sahel and the terrorist group al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
"Much of the cocaine headed to West Africa today comes from Brazil, where Nigerian crime groups are exporting the drug," it said.
Another worrying development, UNODC said, is the emergence of methamphetamine drug production in West Africa.
Two methamphetamine labs were discovered in Nigeria in 2011-2012 and an estimated 3,000 methamphetamine couriers traveled from West African countries — including Benin, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Guinea, Nigeria and Senegal — to Asian countries, primarily Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and Thailand, in 2010, the report said.
"The drugs carried by these couriers sold for about $360 million," UNODC said. "Unlike the cocaine flow, the bulk of the profits accrued to West African traffickers."
As for prescription drugs, the agency said in the last year at least 37 tons of illicitly imported painkillers have been seized in West Africa, mostly in Benin and Togo, most likely destined for markets in the Middle East.
"Unless the flows of contraband are addressed," UNODC said, "instability and lawlessness will persist, and it will remain difficult to build state capacity and the rule of law in the region."