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Out of (or into?) Africa

Gregg Reese | 1/30/2013, 5 p.m.

"In the 19th century, Europe's hunger for slaves devastated West Africa. Two hundred years later, its growing appetite for cocaine could do the same." --Antonio Maria Costa, executive director, U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime

Starting in the 16th century, European merchants established a triangular trade route to distribute commodities around the transatlantic sea lanes. Manufactured items from the sellers' homeland were transported south to Africa where they were sold or bartered for slaves, which were then shipped westward to the New World and, especially the Caribbean, to labor on sugar plantations, with sugar being moved back to Europe to be distilled into rum, completing the cycle.

The second and most famous phase of this excursion is known today as the Middle Passage, the primary route by which most of today's population of African descent gained entry into the Western Hemisphere.

Today, traders of a different sort are retracing this historic route to deliver another type of cargo eastward to quench the growing European craving for psychoactive substances.

Jeffrey Scott, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice, describes this condition bluntly:
"Africa, specifically the West Africa region, is being exploited by drug traffickers based on its strategic geographic location, weak government institutions, political instability, endemic corruption, and ill-equipped law-enforcement agencies," he states.

Global narcotic consumption is now shifting eastward from the New World into Europe, and smugglers are utilizing the 10th parallel north, the circle of latitude bisecting the Caribbean and onward through Central Africa, so often it has earned the moniker "Interstate 10."

The path of least resistance
"...trafficking organizations are adept at shifting their operations and trafficking routes to the paths of least resistance . . . . As governments in the Western Hemisphere have increased the pressure on traditional transit routes through Central America and Mexico . . . West Africa has grown from an alternate drug-trafficking route to a full-fledged narcotics distribution hub." --Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) before the Senate in May of 2012.

As the scourge of cocaine blanketed Florida in the 1980s, the United States stepped up its interdiction efforts to curb shipments from the Caribbean. So successful were these countermeasures, implemented by then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, that Colombian cocaine barons (then and now, the major players in coca distribution) shifted the nation's principal point of entry westward from Miami in 1985, and utilized Mexican smugglers to move their product across the 2,000-mile border between California and Texas.

At the same time, the consumption of illicit drugs in the United States, traditionally dwarfing the appetite of the rest of the globe, has over time plateaued, while consumer demand for cocaine in Europe is escalating, especially in the United Kingdom and Spain.

Former Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) official Mike Braun suggests that "Europe today is approximately where America was in the mid-1970s, in terms of the impact of cocaine."

Increased surveillance along America's borders resulted in a saturation of radar coverage in the region, meaning that the process of delivering product to the lungs, noses, and veins of the Yankee end-user has become significantly more difficult.

Steve McDonald, director of the Africa Program and Project on Leadership at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, agrees: "Certainly increased enforcement on U.S. borders and in Mexico has turned suppliers' eyes to the East," he says.

In all this, paths can be seen emerging: criminal ventures seek alternative markets away from the increased scrutiny of American law enforcement, while remaining vigilant to new, more lucrative markets in which to ply their goods. Africa in turn offers unique incentives: the availability of a vast "staging area" with thousands of miles of poorly guarded coast line for easy access; and myriad countries with chronic instability and precarious finances.