Did an Irish cabinet minister take cocaine? And if so, who? Minister for Justice Brian Lenihan says the claim is baseless. And now, under Government duress, state broadcaster RTÉ is conducting an internal inquiry into ‘High Society’, the book-derived documentary that ran the allegations.
Even if the substance abuse story has no substance, two separate events last week tell us something more troubling about Ireland’s fascination with cocaine – gossipy titillation aside.
On November 21 two British teenagers were arrested in Ghana, attempting to board a flight to London with around US$600,000 worth of cocaine in laptop bags. If convicted, the two sixteen-year-old girls face three years in an Accra juvenile detention centre.
A day later, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction published its annual report, charting a continent-spanning rise in cocaine abuse and record seizures. According to the EU centre report, Ireland now ranks fifth in the Euro cocaine league.
Ireland’s growing fondness for cocaine feeds not only addiction at home, but the emergence of narco-states in the world’s poorest regions. Latin American drug cartels have been hampered by successful counter-narcotics operations along old transit routes in the Caribbean and Central America. For example, the UK has worked closely with the Ghanaian police on anti-drug operations, on the back of a successful campaign targeting former UK colonies in the Caribbean
The cocaine trade is demand-drive, so traffickers remain undeterred by growing interdiction, seeking new routes and means to access the growing European market. Overall, European cocaine intake now rivals or surpasses the US, where demand has leveled off. Traffickers now see a clear opportunity in West Africa’s poor law enforcement infrastructure and proclivity for corruption.
As well as Ghana – one of west Africa’s better-governed countries – Senegal, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Benin have all had notable cocaine seizures over the past 2-3 years, or have had maritime cocaine interdictions made by European navies traced to their shores. The land-based trade takes in Sahel countries north to Morocco, where a drug-laden version of the Paris-Dakar rally traverses borders and transits territory held by various insurgent and Islamist groups.
But one state stands out: Guinea-Bissau. No coca plants are grown in that country – the main official exports are shrimp and cashews – but now the cocaine trade may be as high as the country’s national income. To compare, Afghanistan’s opium crop comprises only 53% of its GDP.
Guinea-Bissau’s offshore islands, disused Portuguese airstrips and multitude of natural harbours makes for an attractive staging post. That senior government officials intervene to release the few traffickers detained is doubtless another compelling factor.
Much of the cocaine coming to Europe via west Africa transits Spain. The 60+ floating bales found scuttled off the Cork coast in May this year were traced to La Coruna soon after the discovery. Almost certainly these came from Latin America via west Africa, perhaps along ‘Highway 10′, the transatlantic route running along 10 degrees latitude north, where multiple seizures have been made by European navies on the high seas.
More than 4 tons of cocaine were seized in West Africa this year, a 35% jump from the 2006 haul. But interdiction efforts in west African countries are hampered by a myriad of factors: official corruption at elite and lower-levels; low salaries for law enforcement and customs officials, poor or non-existent facilities and equipment such as patrol boats, vehicles, detection equipment. Away from the African mainland, the Spanish and British navies seized 9 tons of cocaine off the coast of West Africa in the past year.
While campaigns to end the trade in conflict diamonds have had notable publicity and some political success in recent years, and the UK-led Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) is narrowing the scope for opaque oil-drilling deals in poorly-governed states, no such initiative has yet emerged to link Europe and Ireland’s growing cocaine market with governance and conflict issues elsewhere.
Revenue from the cocaine trade funds terrorism in Colombia, where millions remain displaced after decades of civil conflict. US ally President Uribe has had some success in bring security to Colombia’s urban areas, but large tracts of the country grow coca, and the ensuing cocaine trade funds the FARC and AUC militias.
However Colombia’ relative recent stability could be contributing to state failure in Africa. And Guinea-Bissau’s capture by narco-traffickers is matched by robust Chinese bilateral aid, motivated by potential offshore oil. As with Angola, Sudan and Zimbabwe, Beijing has adopted a ‘look the other way’ policy when dealing with Africa’s corrupt or repressive regimes.
As China builds a deep-water port and rehabilitates Guinea-Bissau’s two highways, one must wonder whether the infrastructure upgrade will merely benefit the Colombian drug cartels that have seemingly pocketed the rest of the countryShow