DAKAR, Senegal – Cocaine shipped to West Africa by Latin American drug cartels is now being traded for arms, the U.N.'s drug czar said Monday — an exchange of contraband that is especially dangerous in a region now home to cells of an al-Qaida-linked terror group.
Antonio Maria Costa, the executive director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, says "there is more than just spotty evidence" indicating a link between drug traffickers and terror groups.
"And before this becomes a very serious problem, it has to be dealt with and nipped in the bud," Costa said in an interview with The Associated Press, on the sidelines of a seven-nation drug summit in the Senegalese capital of Dakar.
Cocaine from South America has been moving through the West African coast for several years, and experts believe drugs are then parceled out to smugglers who move the cocaine north by boats and by road. One suspected smuggling route crosses portions of the Sahara desert controlled by insurgents.
The cocaine-for-arms trade is especially worrying given the recent expansion of an al-Quaida-linked terror group, which was once based exclusively in Algeria but now has tentacles in Mauritania, Mali and Niger.
"There is plenty of evidence of a double flow. (Of) drugs moving, arriving into West Africa from across the Atlantic ... and the trading — exchange — of cocaine for arms," Costa said.
For at least five years, traffickers in Latin America have been using the poor and politically unstable countries of West Africa as transit points for Europe-bound cocaine. Until recently, officials believed the drugs came by private plane and were divided out to smugglers paid in cash to move it north.
Costa did not say how extensive the cocaine-for-drugs exchange was thought to be, or which countries were involved.
Several relatively stable West African countries have a foot in the Sahara — including Mali and Niger, whose porous border has long a smuggling route for ethnic Tuareg rebels fighting a rebellion there for years.
There has been growing concern that the rebels are believed to be collaborating with Al-Qaida in the Islamic Magreb, an Algeria-based terror group that joined Osama bin Laden's terrorist network in 2006. Last year, four European tourists were kidnapped at the border of Mali and Niger. They are believed to have been kidnapped by Tuareg gunmen but then handed over to the terror group, which later murdered one of the British citizens after one of their demands was not met.
And as recently as December, three men in their 30s from Mali were arrested and accused of being al-Qaida plotting to ferry drugs through the Sahara desert to raise money for terror attacks. Prosecutors called it evidence of a growing alliance between terror chiefs and drug lords.
Costa said there is also new evidence of drug production in West Africa. In 2009, U.N. officials discovered a warehouse in Guinea's capital containing the precursor ingredients for manufacturing synthetic drugs, such as ecstasy.