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US Senate Panel Warns of Increasing Drug Trafficking in West Africa

A subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee heard testimony from experts on Tuesday, detailing the exploding drug trafficking problem in West Africa. According to the panel, West Africa has become a crucial transit point for cocaine from South America headed to customers in Europe, posing a major threat to political stability and security in West Africa and elsewhere.

Several members of the Senate Subcommittee on African Affairs called the hearing on "Confronting Drug Trafficking in West Africa" an important "wake-up call".

Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson said the State Department, the Defense Department and the Drug Enforcement Administration agree on the seriousness of the threat.

"We are united in our understanding about the threat drug trafficking poses to Africa and to U.S. interests, and why we must collectively boost our coordination and efforts now to prevent a tidal wave of addictions, drug-related enterprises, corruption, instability and conflict from overwhelming Africa's shores," said Carson.

Thomas Harrigan, the Drug Enforcement Administration's Chief of Operations, also warned of the growing problem.

"Africa is experiencing an unprecedented rise in drug trafficking. And the growth of organized crime in Africa is an increasing national security threat as evidenced by the assimilation of South American drug trafficking networks with African and European buyers and distributors," he said.

All of the experts testifying at the panel warned of a dangerous convergence in West Africa of South American drug kingpins looking to sell their cocaine, terrorist groups with bases in Africa and European buyers. The experts said cocaine is shipped from South America - often with Venezuela serving as a launching pad - broken down into smaller parcels when it arrives in Africa and transported by African "mules," or individual traffickers by land and air to thriving markets in Europe.

Analyst Douglas Farah at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, a Washington-based research group, noted that Hezbollah has long maintained an operational presence in West Africa and that these groups are very likely to find each other.

"I think it is inevitable that these groups operating in the same permissive environments will eventually come to know each other and come to work together because each has what the other one needs," he noted. "The Lebanese and Hezbollah groups control the pipelines and movement to Europe, and the cocaine traffickers provide a high-value commodity to put into that - cocaine," said Farah.

Former Drug Enforcement Administration officer Michael Braun, who is now with the Washington-based Spectre Group International agreed. He said members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia are likely working with members of terrorist and criminal groups in West Africa, forging new alliances.

"Those folks are meeting as we speak, in the same seedy bars, the same seamy brothels and the same dingy hotels almost every evening. What are they doing? They are talking business," he said.

The experts cited Guinea Bissau, which is often called Africa's first narco-trafficking state, as an extreme example of a country favored by drug traffickers - a place with weak law enforcement and a weak judicial system, where authorities are sometimes complicit in the trafficking. The experts agreed that the United States and its European and African allies need to do more in the face of an increasing threat.