U.S. Drug War Expands to Africa, a Newer Hub for Cartels
By Charlie Savage and Thom Shanker, NY Times, July 21, 2012
WASHINGTON—In a significant expansion of the war on drugs, the United States has begun training an elite unit of counternarcotics police in Ghana and planning similar units in Nigeria and Kenya as part of an effort to combat the Latin American cartels that are increasingly using Africa to smuggle cocaine into Europe.
The growing American involvement in Africa follows an earlier escalation of antidrug efforts in Central America, according to documents, Congressional testimony and interviews with a range of officials at the State Department, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Pentagon.
In both regions, American officials are responding to fears that crackdowns in more direct staging points for smuggling—like Mexico and Spain—have prompted traffickers to move into smaller and weakly governed states, further corrupting and destabilizing them.
The aggressive response by the United States is also a sign of how greater attention and resources have turned to efforts to fight drugs as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have wound down.
“We see Africa as the new frontier in terms of counterterrorism and counternarcotics issues,” said Jeffrey P. Breeden, the chief of the D.E.A.’s Europe, Asia and Africa section. “It’s a place that we need to get ahead of—we’re already behind the curve in some ways, and we need to catch up.”
The initiatives come amid a surge in successful interdictions in Honduras since May—but also as American officials have been forced to defend their new tactics after a commando-style team of D.E.A. agents participated in at least three lethal interdiction operations alongside a squad of Honduran police officers. In one of those operations, in May, the Honduran police killed four people near the village of Ahuas, and in two others in the past month American agents have shot and killed smuggling suspects.
Bruce Bagley, a professor at the University of Miami who focuses on Latin America and counternarcotics, said that what had happened in West Africa over the past few years was the latest example of the “Whac-A-Mole” problem, in which making trafficking more difficult in one place simply shifts it to another.
“As they put on the pressure, they are going to detour routes, but they are not going to stop the flow, because the institutions are incredibly weak—I don’t care how much vetting they do,” Professor Bagley said. “And there is always blowback to this. You start killing people in foreign countries—whether criminals or not—and there is going to be fallout.”