, PARIS, Mar 11 – France’s surprise intervention in northern Mali against Islamist fighters involved in lucrative drug-running has disrupted cocaine supply to Europe but smugglers are already finding new routes, analysts said.
The former colonial power sent its jets and troops exactly two months ago to eliminate Al-Qaeda-linked groups that had been controlling northern Mali for nine months and were threatening to move south towards the capital.
The jihadist network in Mali’s north has funded itself by taking foreign hostages but also by levying a tax on smugglers running drugs from Latin America to feed Europe’s ever-growing market.
Poverty and the lack of government presence in the vast desert expanse has provided an ideal ground for smugglers.
Typically, the drugs are shipped to the Gulf of Guinea or flown in directly from Venezuela, for example, into Mauritania or Mali, where they are stored and eventually taken overland to the Mediterranean’s southern shores.
The route is known as “Highway 10”, in reference to the 10th parallel, a line of latitude which cuts through Colombia and Venezuela at one end, Guinea and Nigeria at the other and just misses Mali.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime said in a recent report that around 10 percent of the 172 tonnes of pure cocaine that entered Europe in 2010 transited through West Africa.
The military intervention in Mali has “totally disrupted the trafficking of drugs, weapons and migrants in the region, smashing up all the networks transiting through northern Mali,” French researcher Mathieu Guidere said.
Guidere, a specialist of Islam and of the year-old crisis in northern Mali, said smugglers have been paying a fee worth around 10 percent of their cargo’s value to groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
“Some groups would even, for an additional fee, offer protection for the convoys,” he said.
With its elite special forces and aerial firepower, France has blasted its way into some of the jihadist groups’ most remote bases and “this has sent everyone scurrying away but they are all trying to set up new routes,” Guidere said.
Alain Rodier, who heads up France’s CF2R intelligence research centre, said regional smuggling networks had already been disrupted by the Arab Spring revolutions in Tunisia and Libya.
“Traffickers however are continuing their business by using other routes, which demonstrates their ability to adapt,” he said.
Smugglers have always successfully adapted to new situations, said criminologist Xavier Raufer, pointing out that the supply of cocaine from Latin America to Europe has never broken once in 40 years.
“You can never draw accurate maps of cocaine trafficking because the routes have already changed by the time the ink dries up,” he said.
Raufer said the authorities combatting drugs would have to seize a larger proportion of narcotics and, importantly, of drug money.
He cited a figure from the US Congress’ audit arm, the Government Accountability Office, according to which for every 100 dollars of dirty money generated by the drug trade, only 25 cents are seized.
“As soon as the first war clouds started gathering above Mali, the people in charge of drug logistics who spend all their time studying new routes, modified set-ups transiting through the north of the country,” Raufer said.
He claimed that alternative smuggling routes were already being opened in Angola, the Republic of Congo, the Great Lakes region and post-war Libya.
“Profit margins in the cocaine trafficking business are so huge that longer smuggling routes and subsequently higher transport costs are not a problem,” Raufer said.
France says a large part of the work in Mali is already done and has vowed that it would start scaling back its deployment next month.
The soldiers who are expected to take over responsibility for the north and the smugglers’ former bastions are troops from the Malian government, which has in the past been accused of involvement in the drug trade.
Also expected to take part in a regional stabilisation force are soldiers from several countries already affected by the regional drug trade, such as Nigeria or Guinea.