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Liberia Fights Growing Illegal Drug Trade

West African governments last month adopted a plan of action to fight drug trafficking amid evidence that some countries in the region are becoming major drug transshipment points. In Liberia, officials fear their country may be turning into a major point of origin for illegal drugs and have taken actions to prevent it. VOA's Scott Bobb reports from our West Africa Bureau in Dakar.

Liberian police officials began to suspect their country was developing a bad drug habit when they started seizing large quantities of drugs during routine road checkpoints.

The Deputy Operations Director of the Liberian Drug Enforcement Agency, Richllue Taye, says his group this year carried out six major operations in northern Nimba and Bong counties.

"Of late we have been targeting farms," said Richllue Taye. "But it is dangerous so most times we get back up from the army and military police when we go to those farms."

He says during the operations 440,000 cannabis plants were destroyed and one ton of dried marijuana was seized.

In Liberia, marijuana in particular is being grown in large quantities, most of which is consumed locally. But narcotics trafficking is increasing. A ship was seized this year off the Liberian coast carrying 1.7 tons of cocaine with an estimated street value of half a billion dollars.

Taye says Liberia's drug enforcement agency faces numerous obstacles.

"We do not have equipment to scan," he said. "We do not have sniffing dogs. They [traffickers] have become so bad because of our inability to fully monitor them and track them down because they are sophisticated and we have limitations."

Twelve hundred United Nations police officers are helping to re-build the Liberian police force which was disbanded following the civil war.

Commissioner Henrik Stiernblad fears that drugs are becoming part of Liberian culture.

"Unemployed young people, many of them being ex-combatants are using a lot of marijuana," said Henrik Stiernblad. "And we see this has a very destructive effect because they need an income to pay for their addiction and that means that many of them do commit crimes."

Twenty-year-old Monrovia resident John Weah is a drug user who takes cocaine and marijuana.

"I take drugs because I cannot do without it, you know," said John Weah. "I am an ex-combatant. During the war we used to take drugs and it is used to my system and any time I am out of it I feel very bad. I just cannot do without it."

Stiernblad says the drug trade places additional strain on the new police force.

"We are daily working on trying to build their capacity to function as an organization and to deal with local crime," he said. "But when they are facing surges in crime this is very challenging for a young police organization."

Some Liberian organizations have emerged that are trying to combat drug abuse and drug dealing among young people. Zuo Taylor is president of Youth Crime Watch-Liberia.

"We see that it is dangerous for us at this particular time considering the fact that we consider ourselves the future leaders of tomorrow," said Zuo Taylor. "And we must be able to engage our young people to stay away from this deadly act."

U.N. officials say Liberia's security priorities have shifted away from re-establishing peace and stability to a focus on law and order. But an effective police force is needed to address both challenges.

The head of the U.N. Mission to Liberia, Ellen Margrethe Loj, says the illegal drug trade also poses a challenge to stability in the region.

"Both the history in Liberia indicates that, but certainly also what is happening in the whole sub-region in relation to drugs, [indicates] we have to watch very carefully so it does not take root here," said Ellen Margrethe Loj.

Officials agree that the drug trade in Liberia has not evolved to the point of bringing drug-related violence and corruption as seen in some other countries. But they see this threat as one more reason to fight it.