For centuries, routes through the Sahara Desert have been used to transport goods. In recent years, 4x4 convoys of cocaine and hashish have joined caravans bearing salt, cigarettes and fuel. VOA reporter Phuong Tran travels with a 24-year-old Algerian Tuareg smuggler through the Saharan desert, and brings VOA this third report in a week-long series.
The Sahara desert has long been an attractive tax-free zone for entrepreneurs. But getting products through the mostly inhospitable and hostile terrain is hard. There are no auto repair stores for spare parts. Little water. No signs. Everything looks the same.
Mohamed Ekisi, a former customs director in Niger, says nothing can get through the desert without ethnic Tuareg nomads.
Ekisi says the desert Tuareg nomads have few job prospects, so tourism and smuggling are two ways they survive. Ekisi says the Tuareg have transported everything from migrants to fuel, pasta to powdered milk, fake famous-brand cigarettes to, increasingly, cocaine.
This Algerian Tuareg oil smuggler spins circles in the sand with his 4x4 vehicle. He says it helps throw off any law enforcement officers who try to track his oil smuggling route from Algeria to neighboring Niger.
Abdas Salam says he makes more than $2,000 per fuel delivery, but that half this money goes to his oil boss in Algeria, who pays for the stocks of fuel. He sells each 200-liter barrel for about $280. The 24-year-old says the biggest risks are running into bandits who try to steal the oil, or the occasional desert military or police patrol.
Salam says he pays about $50 per trip in bribes, and has an assistant driver, while his only investment is his $6,000 truck, purchased in Algeria.
He says every month he makes more than $1,000, a large sum of money in the Sahara.
But customs officer Ekisi says this is nothing compared to what cocaine is earning a small group of risk-taking Tuareg transporters.
Drivers say they can make about $10,000 on one drug convoy that starts in Algeria and ends in Sudan. Drug transporters interviewed for this report say they often travel in groups. Half of the 4x4 vehicles are armed escorts. The others carry the drugs. The drivers wait at Algeria's border with Mali or Mauritania for weeks or even months for the drug shipments. They remove their satellite phone batteries so law enforcement cannot track their locations via satellite.
They drive their trucks on desert routes extending from Morocco to Egypt. The drivers must buy new Landcruiser vehicles after only two trips because they cannot afford the risk of breaking down mid-desert.
Mohamed Ekisi says it is impossible to stop trafficking in the Sahara.
He says it is not possible to increase the money for the fight against drug trafficking because the cocaine smuggling operations have more money to fight back; bribing customs officers, militaries, police, and increasingly, rebels fighting their governments for more power over the desert.
The Tuareg have periodically taken up arms against the governments in Mali and Niger to demand more resources and rights. In Chad and Sudan, ethnic minority rebel groups have also been fighting the governments for years.
Ex-customs officer Ekisi says rebellions are a not a good thing for traffickers. He says it is preferable for the drivers to know who is in power. But he says the drug mafia has enough money to bribe both rebels and their governments.
U.N. drug crimes investigators say 25 percent of the cocaine consumed in Europe now transits West Africa, passing through desert countries. Last year, they estimate 40 tons of cocaine moved through West Africa, undetected. That cargo has a wholesale value of more than $1 billion, and is worth about 10 times that amount on the streets of Europe.
Ekisi resigned from Nigerien customs last year when he says he grew tired of seeing his colleagues advance professionally and financially with drug bribes, which he refused to accept.
He has decided to go into business for himself, selling American Legend brand cigarettes-made in Dubai.