For a couple of years now, former DEA Chief of Operations Michael Braun has been warning of Mexican cartel presence in West Africa. He's not the only one; top US military commanders have also said the same.
The main reason: Europeans are snorting more cocaine than ever before, and West Africa is a great spot through which to move the drugs. In addition, in Europe itself, West Africans are taking over dealing positions formerly held by Moroccans, Algerians and other North Africans. (The logic behind this: the North Africans are more established in Europe, having been there a while, so have risen up; they can now either run trafficking cells or gain legitimate employment.)
About 500 tons of cocaine from Mexico and the rest of Latin America was shipped to Europe in 2009, much of it through West Africa.
The Mexican role, however, is still unclear. There are only four DEA offices in the whole of Africa, so monitoring specific activity is difficult. Mexicans have been arrested with cocaine, but have almost always been accompanied by Colombians and/or other Latin Americans. So saying the Mexicans themselves have a major presence may be taking it a step too far.
But West Africa is indeed ideal: experts and DEA folks point to its weak states, weak security forces and weak business regluations as its primary draws. As one expert who worked in drug control on the ground in Senegal and other parts of West Africa told me: anyone with a good government contact and bit of money can get a fake passport, set up a fake business and travel throughout Africa carrying tons of cocaine.
Fake fisheries (money laundering fronts) involving Mexicans have been discovered in Senegal, while the influx of foreign cash into Gambia has caught the authorities' attention. One Mexican expert believes there is evidence that Mexican cartel operatives have done business in at least 47 African countries.
Hard to track, really, given that African authorities aren't really up to the task, and the DEA is barely on the continent. I take dire warnings with a grain of salt, but there is no doubt that if European consumption of Latin American cocaine continues, we'll see more Mexicans throughout Africa. (As one newspaper here put it, expect more "narco-safaris.")
TOMORROW: Mexican cartels and links to terrorist groups.