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2011/3 (No 142)

  • Pages : 256
  • ISBN : 9782707169679
  • DOI : 10.3917/her.142.0125
  • Publisher : La Découverte

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Pierre Bourdieu was fond of saying that, when researchers are confronted by a social, economic, or political fact, they must avoid two opposing pitfalls and take up a position in between. [2]  This paper is based on interviews conducted in Nouakchott,...[2] These two pitfalls are what he called the illusion of the “never experienced” and the illusion of “’twas ever thus.” The illusion of the “never experienced” is created by the inevitable magnifier effect inherent in any study. When analyzing trafficking in an area where new products (such as cocaine) are emerging, it is tempting to fall into the “never experienced,” or the belief that we are seeing something new and discovering rapidly growing phenomena likely to reshape the social and political reality of the area and have a long-term effect on the population.


Extrapolating numbers over the short term can in fact lead to a form of catastrophism, with predictions of an inevitably more dangerous or mediocre future, transposing the current Mexican drug war to the countries of West Africa and the Sahel. In a previous paper, we attempted to reposition the problem of trafficking into a slightly longer timescale in order to avoid the “never experienced,” thus viewing the question of trafficking in the area not as something new but as something that should be put back into a national political context (Antil 2009). We must therefore now ask whether, as was the case with former Mauritanian President Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya (1984–2005) (Antil 2009), central governments can have an effect on the question of trafficking, arbitrate the management of income from it and rivalries between the various actors involved, or even turn trafficking into a diplomatic tool in relations with close neighbors. In fact, we must guard against taking such shortcuts. A country such as Morocco has a strong State despite the fact that it is one of the main drug producers in the world and that its space is crisscrossed by illegal migrants and trafficking routes for a variety of products from which its own security services derive income.


If we extend the timescale, we notice that trans-Saharan trade was not fundamentally different from present-day trafficking in this area and that medieval Sahelian states were born over control of these routes. However, we then fall into Bourdieu’s second pitfall, the illusion of “’twas ever thus,” since over the long term, there is a tendency to relativize new phenomena and to view them as contemporary avatars of events punctuating and structuring the history of the region.


This paper will use one guiding principle. As Bayart (1997) noted and Botte (2004, 149–150) reminded us in Politique Africaine, in Africa as elsewhere, trafficking should not be seen as occurring on the margins of society but as a way of merging into the global economy and contributing to the destructuring and restructuring of politics.


We will first describe the appearance of cannabis and cocaine in the Sahelian region and then highlight changes in geo-economics. Second, we will attempt to classify the actors involved in cocaine trafficking in West Africa and the Sahel in order, lastly, to understand its political impact on the countries of the Sahel.

The Sahel Cannabis Route


Depending on the assessment method, the annual global production of cannabis resin varies between 2,200 and 9,900 tons (UNODC 2011, 183). Although its production has greatly declined in recent years, Morocco remains the top global producer, with about 21 percent of total production (UNODC 2011, 186). The spectacular reduction in its reported production between 2003 and 2005 partly explains the drop in global production. Concentrated in the northern provinces of Chefchaouen, Al Hoceima, and Taounate, production fell (from 3,060 tons in 2003 to 1,066 tons in 2005 and to slightly less than 1,000 tons in 2008) as a result of the government’s fight against the crop, which reduced the area cultivated. As shown in a 2004 study, the struggle against this production is a huge social problem since slightly more than 800,000 Moroccans depend directly or indirectly on incomes from this production.


Beyond directly transporting the drug to Spain, Moroccan cannabis barons work with Algerians to export their merchandise to Europe and the Middle East (in addition to Algerian consumption). In her 2006 El Watan article, Salima Tlemçani detailed the Algerian trafficking organization as it was discovered at the time of the Ahmed Zendjabil [3]  Name of the person called the “Algerian Pablo Esco...[3] affair in 2006. The Algerian network, the leader of which was based in Oran, enjoyed protection from very high up in Morocco (the wilaya chief of security, the public prosecutor’s office, customs officers, politicians, etc.). It used three routes: Oran-Algiers-Marseille/Alicante, Oran-Ketama-Sebdou-Mechia-Naâma-Adrar-Libya, and Oran-Sidi Bel Abbès-Mascara-Tiaret-Sétif-Tébessa-Tunisia. Around 2003, because it was so powerful, this network is said to have exported up to 900 tons of cannabis resin out of Algeria.

Map 1 - Principal African Routes for Moroccan Cannabis

In addition to these routes, a Sahara-Sahel route [4]  Interview with a member of the security services in...[4] has grown in importance since the early 2000s. The merchandise leaves northern Morocco for northern Mauritania (traveling south along eastern Morocco east of the Berm wall). In northern Mauritania, in the Tiris Zemmour region, the route branches off quite sharply toward northern Mali, going across that country before continuing on to northern Niger. Approximately level with Agadez, one route goes north toward Libya and the Balkans before spreading into the whole of Europe, though there is also a Libya-Egypt-Middle East route. The second route goes east across Chad, Sudan, and the Red Sea toward the Gulf and Middle East markets. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC 2007, 12) notes that more than five tons were seized between April 2006 and April 2007 in Niger, with a value of more than US$7 million. However, we do not have reliable estimates for the amounts that might be shipped along this Sahelian route, although Peduzzi (2010, 8) claims that, based on estimates from Mauritanian intelligence, at the end of the 2000s, at least a third of Moroccan production was traveling along the Sahelian route, or a little over 300 tons. A kilo of cannabis sells for €800 in Morocco and is worth €4,000 after crossing the Red Sea.


This route is divided into segments, with specific individuals in charge of each segment. These are usually tribal people (Tekna, Berrabich, various Tuareg groups, Kunta), who hire out the services of some of their young men to transport the merchandise. Two of the most common operational methods were described to us. [5]  Interview with a Mauritanian businessman (Nouakchott,...[5] In the first, the merchandise is transported by convoys of four pickup trucks. Three of these each carry 400 kg of cannabis and the fourth deals with the logistics of the operation. In the second, a car loaded with merchandise is given to a young man, who must drive it to a specific GPS location. Once he arrives, he must leave the vehicle for half an hour. When he returns, the vehicle is empty, and he then goes back the way he came. After a few such journeys, he can keep the pickup. What these two operational methods have in common is the great speed of the convoys or vehicles, with time averages worthy of rally driving as well as logistical sophistication (GPS, satellite phones, gas supplies concealed at GPS locations known only to the network, etc.). However, the merchandise belongs to the original network, with members of the various tribes acting only as couriers in 2008–2009. Moreover, links between tribes are consolidated through matrimonial alliances. Over recent years, Moorish businessmen have married Tuareg women from Mali and Niger. [6]  2008 interview with a female researcher specializing...[6] The Kunta group in Mauritania and Mali thus have friendship and bond networks from northern Mauritania to eastern Niger.


To complete the description of this main Saharan route, we should note that it has two branches. One crosses southern Algerian territory, where it seems that the AQMI Salafist-Jihadi brigade and Algerian army officers are implicated. The other crosses Morocco along the coast and enters Mauritania through Nouadhibou then Nouakchott and then heads toward eastern Mauritania along the paved trans-Mauritanian Road of Hope before heading toward the network of paved roads in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. The difference between this and the other routes is that it uses the paved networks of the various countries involved, which allows the use of trucks and therefore the transport of larger quantities. In fact, several extremely large seizures have been made by Mauritanian authorities since 2007 (Afrik.com 2008; Nouakchott Info 2008). However, this more southern route necessarily involves more “protection” since there are numerous checks on these main roads.


In the last decade, another narcotic drug—namely cocaine—has appeared in the area. To understand how it came to West Africa and to the Sahel in particular, we need to reposition the drug into its more global geo-economics (Champin 2010).

The Appearance of Cocaine in West Africa and the Sahel


Before 2005, seizures of cocaine on the African continent were negligible, amounting to about one ton per year, whereas between 2005 and 2008, 46 tons were intercepted in the countries of West Africa or on ships sailing to the region (Sun Wyler and Cook 2009, 8). Seizures made over this period drew a precise map of the drug’s circulation and highlighted two areas: one centered on Guinea-Bissau and Guinea and extending out to Senegal and Mauritania, the other, less significant, in the Gulf of Guinea and more particularly in Ghana and Benin.


However, cocaine did not come to West Africa to feed local consumption but to be conveyed to the European market. It is estimated [7]  Security source, Dakar; interview conducted in August...[7] that 15 percent of global cocaine production now goes through West Africa. Although global production varies from one year to the next (1,008 tons in 2004, 980 tons in 2005, 910 tons in 2006, 994 tons in 2007, 865 tons in 2008), [8]  The figures for 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007 come from...[8] we can estimate that between 80 and 100 tons of cocaine now travel through West Africa each year. [9]  Although making such an estimate is tricky, the figure...[9]


The growth of cocaine in West Africa is evidence of the change in its global geo-economics. Three Andean countries produce this narcotic, with in 2006 Colombia representing about 70% of global production, Peru 20%, and Bolivia 10% (UNODC 2010, 70). Although the consumption markets are more numerous, they remain strongly polarized in three areas of the world, with North America and especially the United States accounting for 41% of global consumption in 2008, Europe 26%, and the Southern Cone of Latin America 20%. [10]  The WDR 2010 reports consumption areas as follows:...[10] Considering the slightly higher selling price in Europe, the European and North American markets were roughly identical in 2008 (US$34 billion in Europe compared to US$38 billion in North America). [11]  The third most valuable market is Oceania, with US$6...[11] Moreover, in the North American market, the retail price of cocaine (with comparable purity) is now lower than in Europe. Criminal organizations in producing countries—especially the Colombian cartelitos, [12]  Literally “small cartels,” in reference to the Colombian...[12] now forced to collaborate with the Mexican cartels, which are gradually imposing themselves and increasingly controlling the wholesale market in the United States—are turning increasingly to the European market, where consumption has grown consistently since the end of the 1990s. In addition, the presence in Latin America of members of the Italian mafias such as the ‘Ndrangheta and Cosa Nostra also facilitates redirection toward Europe.


However, an expanding European market cannot alone explain the appearance of cocaine in West Africa. In fact, the Latin America–West Africa–Europe route is not the first or the only route for cocaine going to the old continent. The oldest route is a northern route, going through the Caribbean, the Azores, and then the Iberian Peninsula or northern Europe. The central route goes through Cape Verde or Madeira then the Canaries before reaching Europe. These two routes are increasingly dangerous for traffickers because the number of ships and the capacity for detection and interception by the European and American authorities are much greater than is possible further south. This is why a more southern route has developed over recent years, more or less following the 10th parallel north—hence its moniker “Highway 10”—going from Venezuela or Brazil to West Africa.


Along this route, at least during the years 2005–2008 according to various UNODC studies, shipments of cocaine heading for Europe used several routes and modes of transportation. On land, cocaine seemed to go back to the traditional trans-Saharan routes (Mauritania-Western Moroccan Sahara-Morocco, Guinea-Mali-Algeria, Gulf of Guinea-Niger-Algeria or Libya). However, it also used more roundabout itineraries (including west-east routes toward the Red Sea and the Middle Eastern market and Atlantic coast-Mali-Niger-Libya or Egypt-Balkans) as well as more diffuse capillary routes between West African capitals for limited regional consumption. The merchandise leaves West African ports for Europe directly or switches ships [13]  Fishing boats are used especially.[13] in a North African port or is transferred to a speedboat heading for the Iberian Peninsula. Finally, commercial airlines are also used, preferably for indirect journeys, i.e., with airport changes in North Africa, in Casablanca and Tripoli in particular.


In 2009, seizures began to fall, suggesting that West African transit toward Europe was slowing down. However, the Boeing incident (Daniel 2009) of November 2009 revealed that the routes had adapted to the security measures implemented. This aircraft, which had taken off from Venezuela, a country that has become one of the main exit gateways for cocaine heading for West Africa, had been specially chartered for this mission. It left Maracaibo with its flight plan naming Praia, Cape Verde, as its final destination. Over the Atlantic, it shut off its transmitter and continued its flight toward Mali. It landed at Tarkint, an area north of the city of Gao in the northeast of Mali loaded with five to ten tons of cocaine before it was destroyed. This incident revealed that northern Mali and Mauritania had no radar cover. Alexandre Schmidt of the Dakar UNODC bureau stated at the time that they were facing a new way of operating (Parayre 2009; Boisbouvier 2009). In fact, at least two other flights were spotted on February 28 and March 3, 2010, with the Algerian newspaper Liberté reporting that a plane loaded with cocaine had landed near Timbuktu on January 25, 2010; however, exactly where the plane landed was not very clear. Rodier (2010, 8) also mentions a plane that may have landed in the Kayes area in eastern Mali. In fact, the existence of planes loaded with cocaine before and after the Boeing incident was confirmed in Bamako in November 2010. [14]  Interview with a journalist, Bamako.[14] However, the planes that landed in northern Mali were not all large aircraft crossing the Atlantic directly as small aircraft would have left from Guinea-Bissau. Thus, the drop in seizures reported in 2009 was not necessarily a sign that transit through Africa was falling but rather that it was changing its modus operandi and therefore its routes. Finally, we should underscore that several reports note that West Africa is not only a transit zone but is also used for storing, repackaging, and dispatching merchandise. Thus in early 2011, cocaine that had been stored in northern Mali was in circulation in several African countries, proof that since the arrival of various planeloads of cocaine in 2009, the region has become a storage area and no longer just a stage on the traffickers’ route.


Large business deals linked to cocaine took place a little earlier in Mauritania than in Mali. Because of its coastal location, Mauritania is better suited to receiving merchandise and act as an overland transit area for North Africa. The first incident occurred in Nouadhibou in 2006 (“Nouadhibou” 2008). Young Mauritanians who were taking part in a cocaine trafficking operation in collusion with Colombian traffickers and individuals based in the Canaries hijacked some drugs (apparently more than one ton) and sold it on their own account with additional help from local security services. In May 2007, a Cessna plane landed at Nouadhibou airport, unloaded its merchandise (more than 600 kg), was surprised by security forces, took off again, and was forced to land a few dozen kilometers further away because it was out of fuel. This operation was organized on the Mauritanian side by the son of a former President of the Republic of Mauritania, Sidi Mohamed Ould Haïdallah, who was arrested a few weeks later in Morocco. The police investigation revealed the complicity of a local Interpol officer, who was a relative of another former president. An inquiry by Mauritania’s Inspectorate General of the State (IGE 2007) underscored the many inconsistencies in the stories of the various people responsible for the city’s security services. At the national level, seizures grew more numerous in 2007 and again in 2008, reaching many hundreds of kilos, before falling sharply.


In fact, in 2010, the Mauritanian authorities made almost 276 arrests of drug traffickers, 202 of whom were foreign nationals (AFP 2010). However, the 103 police operations carried out only led to the seizure of 20 kilos of cocaine and 1.2 tons of Indian hemp. This reduction may lead to a belief that the security services have become more effective. However, interviews conducted in Nouakchott led us to a more pessimistic and more political view of the situation, a view informed by a joint interview [15]  Conducted in Nouakchott, September 2010.[15] with an expert on the political and economic scene and a senior official.


Question: Has trafficking been reduced and who are the actors?

Answer: The actors? Extremely powerful people, who can destabilize any government, with a great many political connections. They have the means to have people in parliament cause trouble, and they cannot be overlooked. In any case, they have connections with the parliamentary majority as much as with the opposition. They are businessmen or forwarding agents, who have incomes that are not commensurate with their official activities. It would be dangerous for the government to confront them directly in a frontal assault. It is not even certain that the current government has the means to draw red lines for them. It has to negotiate, ask them to stop in return for leaving them alone, and even pay them compensation.

Question: Still, people have been arrested.

Answer: Current arrests almost exclusively involve foreigners or, when they are Mauritanians, underlings. In any case, in the past, when this involved people with protection, these prosecutions fizzled out, they got lost in the justice system, then simply disappeared, like the Nouadhibou business in 2006.


Cocaine arrives in Nouakchott or Nouadhibou and is transported first to Morocco then to Europe through the main Moroccan ports. The comparative advantages of West Africa are many because of the countries’ structural and institutional weaknesses (porous borders, weakness of the legal and policing system, etc.). However, this should not give the impression that West Africa and its people are passive actors. In fact, Africans are not necessarily secondary actors in this traffic, as we shall see.

Who Are the Actors in the Cocaine Traffic?

International Criminal Organizations


Criminal organizations from Latin America (cartels and cartelitos) and Europe (Cosa Nostra, ’Ndrangheta, etc.) are very powerful actors. If we examine the arrests of those who are not native to the area, we find Colombians, Venezuelans, Mexicans, and Brazilians (de Andrès, 211) as well as individuals from Spain (Galicia), Italy (Sicily and Calabria), and France. According to several interviews conducted in Dakar, Nouakchott, and Bamako over the last two years, various incidents have occurred involving people from Eastern Europe (especially from Ukraine) as well as the Maghreb (mainly Moroccans). Over the last four or five years, the Colombians have established links with several countries in the region (Ghana, Nigeria, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Senegal, and Togo) [16]  Source: Michael A. Braun, Head of Operations of the...[16] (Aning 2010, 6), with cover activities such as luxury hotels and import-export companies.


A network that was dismantled in Bamako and Salé (Morocco) illustrates this type of actor. In Bamako, a Venezuelan, a Spaniard, and a Portuguese were arrested in August 2010 following the murder of a Ukrainian associate (Baba Niang 2010; Le Journal Hebdomadaire 2010). These individuals were linked to a group of Europeans and Moroccans [17]  These Moroccans were usually linked to cannabis resin...[17] based in northern Morocco, who were arrested a few weeks later. The drugs crossed from Bamako to northern Morocco using a land route through Algeria (entering Moroccan territory through Figuig) or northern Mauritania. They were then carried by small plane or boat to Spain. This group seems to have run eight operations between March and August 2010 and hired AQMI know-how on a section of the journey through the Sahara.

African Mafia Groups


As regards cocaine, the Nigerian mafias (Ellis 2009) are regularly mentioned in transactions in Europe and West Africa (Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, etc.). These groups specialize in sending “mules” (people who carry drugs by ingesting them) in large numbers on various airlines flying to Europe. They link up with Latin Americans in West Africa but are able to obtain cocaine directly in Latin America especially by relying on the Nigerian diaspora in Brazil. The Nigerians usually have several passports given the ease with which one can obtain “genuine” false papers in some West African countries. [18]  Interviews carried out in Dakar, Bamako, Nouakchott,...[18] These criminal organizations are found mainly among the Igbo [19]  One of the country’s main ethnic groups, found especially...[19] and in particular in Edo State (Ellis 2009, 189). They are both very flexible and very efficient. One of their strengths is that they are organized around subgroups within the Igbo world. This makes it extremely difficult to infiltrate them since their members usually speak a micro-local language. Clearly, the Nigerian mafias (Cybernewsfeed 2010) are not the only West African actors in cocaine trafficking. Rather, we should note the increasingly important role of criminal groups from Ghana (Akyeampong 2005; Aning 2010).

Other Actors: Members of the Lebanese Diaspora and Saharan Tribes and Individuals from African Diasporas in Europe


The list of actors in the cocaine traffic would not be complete without mention of the Syrian-Lebanese diaspora. This diaspora settled in Africa during French colonization and lives predominantly in the French-speaking countries of West Africa. Ellis (2009, 172) notes that as early as 1952, Lebanese traffickers were using West Africa as a transit area for heroin going to the United States.


We should also highlight the presence of a series of local actors. In the Sahel and in particular northern Mali, we find groups of traffickers who can be readily traced back to certain elements in Moorish, Arab, and Tuareg tribes. As we shall see later, they take care of the transportation of cocaine. [20]  Interview with a former Minister of Defense in Bamako,...[20] However, they are also involved in smuggling cigarettes or transporting cannabis. [21]  Commissioner Jean-Luc Peduzzi, the Nouakchott representative...[21] In March 2011, progress in the investigation on the Boeing incident in northern Mali (AFP 2011) highlighted the roles of a Sahrawi and a Mali Arab, who both identified themselves as traders and who had a network of contacts from the Western Sahara to Gao. Certain Saharan tribes have several individuals with highly sophisticated interpersonal and dispersed networks in the area. They consist of freight forwarders, traders, business people, or guides and are attractive representatives for those who wish to have illegal products cross the desert. However, cocaine is much more profitable as a pickup truck full of cocaine is worth 30 times one full of cannabis, with the same level of risk.


There are also other, newly emerging actors, including members of groups controlling the retail market in certain neighborhoods of European cities, who come to West Africa to buy cocaine to maximize profits. These actors are mainly second generation immigrants from the West African diasporas and can therefore use local connections. Thus, a young French woman was arrested in January 2008 with 15 kilos of cocaine at Bamako-Sénou airport (AFP 2008). She had been paid by a group of young Malians from a Paris suburb to carry cocaine from Bamako but was arrested by the Mali security services. A member of the security services of Cape Verde made a similar observation, [22]  Interview conducted in Paris, February 2010.[22] underscoring the case of a second-generation Cape Verde citizen who had become a drug kingpin on the archipelago between 2005 and 2008.

State Mafias


State mafias are other important actors in cocaine trafficking in West Africa. They are a hybrid and diverse group and distinct from ordinary mafias and criminal groups. Generally speaking, the first sign that they exist is when members of the security forces are arrested. As the rank and skills of the defendants get more senior, it is then no longer merely a simple case of corruption or individual dishonesty (caused by the presence of cartels and mafias able to buy protection) but of the existence of entities reaching systemic proportions. Yet it would be senseless to talk of State mafias as an established fact in all governments in every country in the region. Rather, the term is being used to describe one of the possible outcomes for some of the countries in the region. In fact, we are witnessing a trend toward a form of organization that is increasingly significant and integrated into drug economics.


Most reports generally approach the question of the participation of the security services in a passive way. They show that drug carrying in West Africa is allowed to take place especially because of the ease with which the security services can be corrupted. We must therefore take this perspective into proper consideration when examining a number of national examples, such as Guinea-Bissau and Guinea, where politicians and high-ranking military officers are the organizers of cocaine transit. Thus the question is no longer whether they were originally solicited by members of cartels or by Lebanese traffickers but to understand how they have become a key part of trafficking. A security source in Dakar [23]  Interview, September 2010.[23] told us that Americo Bubo Na Tchuto’s [24]  Chief of Staff of the Navy in Guinea-Bissau.[24] departure in 2008 was believed to have caused disruption in the traffic, and this may well be the cause of the new strategy, which consists in transporting large quantities of drugs directly by air to the desert margins of countries of the Sahel. In Gambia, investigations carried out in 2010 led to the arrest of high-ranking police officers, the Minister for Fisheries, the Head of the Navy, and the person in charge of the fight against drugs (Dualé 2010, 31–2).


We need to acknowledge that it is no longer mafias or criminal groups that are infiltrating the security services and the State but that State mafias are being created. These then become entrenched actors in trafficking within the territory or in a given part of it. These State mafias are not embedded in security areas but are made up of segments from the world of business, high administrations, relatives or close personal friends of the president, and individuals from the world of politics. These segments then take root in the population through affiliation networks that may or may not share ethno-regional and sectarian sympathies.

What Are the Consequences of Drugs Transiting through the Sahel?


In this concluding section, we will describe the changes caused by the arrival of these products in the Sahel region. Rather than elaborate on the consequences usually put forward in reports (rise in crime, corruption, health effects, etc.), we find it interesting to analyze the territorial and security-related political changes.


With narcotics comes increased gun circulation, [25]  Evidence of Antonio Maria Costa, Director of UNODC...[25] which can feed armed fringe groups (such as AQMI) and speed up imbalances that cause rebellions, as well as a generalized increase in gun use among the population. The trafficking of narcotics, particularly cocaine, generates profits disproportionate to other products. Their introduction in the area and the incidence of sudden wealth related to it create role models for young males, who are also facing economic depression. There are at least two consequences. First, drug traffickers have no difficulty in finding volunteers, who can earn in one operation what they could hope to earn in several years of hard work. Second, this situation exacerbates interpersonal competition, leading many young people to take part in this economy.


This rise in competition can also be seen at the community level. In an article written after spending a long period in the field in northern Mali, Scheele (2009) described the evolution of smuggling and trafficking in the border region of Al Khalil (near the Bordj Badji Mokhtar post on the Algerian side). In the 1970s and 1980s, fraud involving various food products made the fortunes of a few traders, who then went into the trafficking of cigarettes and guns. The arrival of cocaine in the area led to a rise in sudden wealth and contributed to ranking disputes and the redefinition of status in the area. Thus, certain Arab groups in the Tilemsi Valley used the wealth they accumulated from trafficking to challenge the preeminence of the Kunta, on whom they were originally dependents (Scheele 2009, 86). There is therefore increasingly strong competition, sometimes settled violently, for access to resources linked to the trafficking of narcotics. For example, Sidi El Mokhtar al-Kunti, an octogenarian leader of the Kunta community and mayor of the Anefif municipality, was abducted during the night of January 21–22, 2010. Very rapidly, this abduction was interpreted as revenge on the part of the Tilemsi Arabs after an attack a few days earlier by Sidi El Mokhtar al-Kunti’s son on a cocaine convoy, during which he seized the merchandise because a right of transit payment had not been made (Le Quotidien de Nouakchott 2010). Settling this incident required mediation by community leaders commissioned by Mali’s President of the Republic [26]  WikiLeaks: “US Embassy Cables: Cocaine Trafficking...[26] in order to avoid a conflagration.


A former Mali minister [27]  Interview conducted in Bamako, November 2010.[27] told us that there were three levels of participation in narcotics trafficking in the north of the country: the levying of a tithe when a convoy crosses a group’s territory, association with protection for a convoy on a segment of the route thanks to knowledge of the terrain, and being part of the convoy’s organization.


According to this source, this creates two phenomena. First, a splitting of tribal territories because each clan and subgroup can levy the tithe on its territory. Second, there is competition surrounding the storage locations for the product. Furthermore, in certain parts of the countries of the Sahel, if one group or another is unable to access the resources linked to trafficking, this can become an obstacle and a source of discrimination against access to elected positions (and therefore to political representation) since elections involve disbursements for pre-electoral gatherings and the purchase of votes.


At State level, we can make three observations. First, once trafficking is integrated into State mafias and therefore into the political and business world, the presence of drug money creates competition between some local businessmen, who move away from other economic sectors. When narcotics suddenly make an appearance in the country, this strengthens the profit-based economy. State elites, completely focused on competing for their share of the profit, then forget to work for ambitious economic policies.


Second, political power can regulate competition linked to this trafficking, as was the case during part of the time when Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya was in power in Mauritania (Antil 2009), or even turn it into a tool for internal regulation, as seems to be the case today in Mali. Thus in the Kidal Region, the majority of groups controlling cocaine distribution in 2009–2010 (the Lamhars and the Imghads) [28]  Cleverly making use of the dependents/nobles rift between...[28] were opposed to the Ifogha Tuaregs and their allies the Kunta Arabs. By allowing these two groups to control the trafficking of drugs, elements from the political and security worlds allowed them to acquire political and military power so that they could counterbalance the Ifogha group in particular, which was the cause of Tuareg rebellions in Mali.


Third and finally, far from being resisted by leaders, the arrival of these products is on the contrary tolerated because the input of cash linked to them releases the macroeconomic constraints imposed on the country by international financial institutions. The director of a Mauritanian newspaper told us [29]  Interview conducted in Nouakchott, September 2010.[29] that in a speech he made in the early 2000s, Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya [30]  President of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania between...[30] encouraged Mauritanians to bring money back into Mauritania. [31]  Although this speech was mentioned by another interviewee,...[31] In coded terms, he implied that the government would show little interest in the sources of these funds because the country needed cash at any cost. Thus the arrival of these products contributes to what Mbembe calls “diffraction” (2004, 154).


In fact, between the 1980s and 2000s, atomized capitalism, with no resulting agglomerations or huge growth centers, developed on the ruins of a profit-based economy that used to be dominated by State companies controlled by government clients as well as by monopolies, most of which went back to the colonial era and operated in captive markets. The urban/rural or formal/informal economy dichotomies, which were characteristic of the immediate postcolonial era, shattered. Instead, a patchwork of worlds has become substituted, consisting of a diffracted economy, that is, of several entangled kernels that have changing and highly volatile relationships with the surrounding environment and international networks. Out of this extreme fragmentation, there emerges often within the same country a multiplicity of economic territorialities that are sometimes interlocked and often disjointed. This leads to engagement in global flows (in this case international trafficking), which participate in redefining the nature of national territory.



Even though trafficking has the potential to disrupt societies and states, it can also contribute to creating politics by reshaping the structure of society and the territory. The arrival of new flows into the Sahelian and Saharan space only strengthens the way in which the countries of the Sahel integrate into globalization. It is therefore a transit space more than a production space. The cocaine and cannabis economy, which relies on transnational, even globalized, networks, creates political opportunities on this increasingly better-connected margin of the world.


  • AFP (Agence France Presse). 2008. “Mali: Une Française condamnée à cinq ans de prison pour trafic de drogue.” January 25.
  • AFP (Agence France Presse). 2010. “Mauritanie: 276 arrestations pour trafic de drogue en 2010. November 2.
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[1] French researcher and expert on the Sahel.

[2] This paper is based on interviews conducted in Nouakchott, Nouadhibou, Bamako, Paris, and Dakar in the context of preparing reports for various French organizations. This usually short fieldwork was mostly carried out in capital cities with representatives of organizations, analysts, researchers, journalists, and members of security services. In most cases, anonymity was a precondition of the interview, which we have respected in this paper.

[3] Name of the person called the “Algerian Pablo Escobar.”

[4] Interview with a member of the security services in Nouakchott and with researchers working in Mauritania, Mali, and Niger.

[5] Interview with a Mauritanian businessman (Nouakchott, February 2008) and with researchers studying Mali.

[6] 2008 interview with a female researcher specializing in Mauritania and its business environment.

[7] Security source, Dakar; interview conducted in August 2010.

[8] The figures for 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007 come from the World Drug Report (WDR), UNODC Vienna, 2008, 70; the figure for 2008 comes from the 2010 WDR, UNODC Vienna, 66. It should be stressed here that production estimates are extremely variable. Thus, the 2008 and 2010 WDRs present different figures for the same years.

[9] Although making such an estimate is tricky, the figure of 40 tons is found fairly consistently across several publications.

[10] The WDR 2010 reports consumption areas as follows: Africa 5%, Asia 3%, Eastern and Southeastern Europe 3%, Oceania 2%; see Table 8, page 69, entitled “Tentative distribution of global cocaine consumption (purity-adjusted), 2008.”

[11] The third most valuable market is Oceania, with US$6 billion, according to the 2010 WDR, 70.

[12] Literally “small cartels,” in reference to the Colombian cartels, which have been dismantled or greatly weakened. The most important today are the Cartel del Norte del Valle and the Cartel de la Costa.

[13] Fishing boats are used especially.

[14] Interview with a journalist, Bamako.

[15] Conducted in Nouakchott, September 2010.

[16] Source: Michael A. Braun, Head of Operations of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), 2009, before the House Committee on the Judiciary’s Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security and the House Committee on International Relations Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere.

[17] These Moroccans were usually linked to cannabis resin trafficking.

[18] Interviews carried out in Dakar, Bamako, Nouakchott, and Lagos over recent years.

[19] One of the country’s main ethnic groups, found especially in southeastern Nigeria.

[20] Interview with a former Minister of Defense in Bamako, November 2010.

[21] Commissioner Jean-Luc Peduzzi, the Nouakchott representative of the International Technical Police Cooperation Department (Service de Coopération Technique Internationale et de Police – SCTIP) underscored in his oral presentation to IFRI (Institut Français des Relations Internationales) in December 2008 during a conference on security issues in the Sahel that the product most involved in the Sahel at that time was Moroccan hashish.

[22] Interview conducted in Paris, February 2010.

[23] Interview, September 2010.

[24] Chief of Staff of the Navy in Guinea-Bissau.

[25] Evidence of Antonio Maria Costa, Director of UNODC in Dakar (AP 2010).

[26] WikiLeaks: “US Embassy Cables: Cocaine Trafficking Across Northern Mali Risks Armed Conflict.”

[27] Interview conducted in Bamako, November 2010.

[28] Cleverly making use of the dependents/nobles rift between the Lamhar-Kunta and the Imghad-Ifoghas.

[29] Interview conducted in Nouakchott, September 2010.

[30] President of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania between 1984 and 2005.

[31] Although this speech was mentioned by another interviewee, we were unable to get more precise information regarding the date.



Trafficking routes for narcotics, including cocaine and cannabis, have been crisscrossing the countries of the Sahel for several years. This new situation is evidence of changes in the global geo-economics of these two products and also highlights the strengthening status of Sahelian countries as transit areas, which is one way in which they join the global economy. Cocaine, for example, came to West Africa and the Sahel in the mid-2000s because of the emergence of Europe as the primary consumer market and of the increased danger (for traffickers) of the more direct routes between Latin American production areas and Europe. To classify the actors involved in this traffic in these countries, we need to discard the model of a global mafia that can buy local intermediaries. In fact, the presence of African actors, especially those that can be described as State mafias, seems inescapable. The profits generated by this traffic are now part of national economies and have already begun to finance politics and therefore to create policy.


  1. The Sahel Cannabis Route
    1. The Appearance of Cocaine in West Africa and the Sahel
    2. Who Are the Actors in the Cocaine Traffic?
      1. International Criminal Organizations
      2. African Mafia Groups
      3. Other Actors: Members of the Lebanese Diaspora and Saharan Tribes and Individuals from African Diasporas in Europe
      4. State Mafias
  2. What Are the Consequences of Drugs Transiting through the Sahel?
  3. Conclusion

Translated from the French by JPD Systems

To cite this article

Simon Julien, “ Le Sahel comme espace de transit des stupéfiants. Acteurs et conséquences politiques ”, Hérodote 3/2011 (n° 142) , p. 125-142
URL : www.cairn.info/revue-herodote-2011-3-page-125.htm.
DOI : 10.3917/her.142.0125.

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