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Longer Prison Terms for Drug Dealers in Liberia


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Convicted drug dealers in Liberia now face longer prison terms. It is part of a campaign to battle both foreign drug traffickers and domestic producers, some of whom enjoy the support of local villagers in a country where official unemployment tops 80 percent.

In the fight against illegal drugs, Liberian lawmakers have toughened criminal penalties for illegal narcotics dealers. Those suspects are no longer eligible for bail during their trial, and law enforcement officials have new powers to seize their assets.

But the biggest change is the length of time they face in jail. Before last month's tougher sentencing guidelines, drug dealers usually received between five and 10 years in prison.

James Jelah, the executive director of Liberia's Drug Enforcement Agency, says the tougher sentences are an important tool in the fight against illegal drugs.

"If you are arrested and sent to court and convicted, you could be sentenced to jail for not less than 25 years and not more than 60 years," he said.

Jelah says Liberian DEA agents uprooted more than 300,000 cannabis plants on 15 farms in Bong County and more than 120,000 plants in Nimba County.

Enforcing the law is not always easy in a country where there are few jobs, and marijuana growers pay well.

"The DEA is trying to uproot the marijuana farms," he added. "And as a result, they were attacked by the townspeople. They put a blockade. They attacked them. Some shot single-barrel guns in the air. People came with machetes and sticks and they started beating up the DEA men. These guys had to jump in the bush."

Like efforts to fight illegal drug trafficking everywhere, reducing demand is part of the challenge.

A drug dealer, 26, has been arrested several times and says he was deported from the United States for dealing drugs. But he says drugs are part of his life, regardless of what the government in Monrovia might do.

"I sell it to foreigners, and I also sell it to Liberians," he said. " This is a money-making business. I do not care how much the government can do, this is our business. This is how we survive. So we cannot just do without drugs."

The trauma of a long civil war is also part of the fight against illegal drug use in Liberia. A former rebel, 29, has gone through the government's demobilization program, but has not lost the drug habit he acquired during the fight.

"I used to take in drugs while being a solider on the front line. It makes me very brave to shoot and kill my enemies," he said. "So I took in drugs for more than five years during the war in Liberia. So it is used to my system. I can not just live without it."

Unemployed former combatants are thought to be closely involved in Liberia's illegal drug trade - both the domestic production of marijuana and the importation of cocaine and heroin.

DEA Director Jelah says West African drug traffickers are bringing narcotics into Liberia every way they can - by air, by sea, and by land.

"These Nigerians are also coming by land, coming to Liberia bringing in heroin and cocaine," said Jelah. "They come through Sierra Leone and Guinea and then from there they take a vehicle to come to Liberia."

Jelah says Liberian efforts to fight the illegal drug trade are hampered by a shortage of vehicles, computers, radios, and forensic laboratory equipment.

The Economic Community of West African States is working to better equip national drug enforcement agencies and harmonize regional criminal penalties against narcotics at a time when Latin American drug gangs are using the region as a transit point for cocaine shipments to Europe.

Additional reporting from Monrovia by Prince Collins


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