LAGOS, Nigeria, Nov. 23 (UPI) -- Nigerian authorities' seizure of heroin worth nearly $10 million, concealed in auto parts shipped from Iran, underlines how Africa has become a major hub for narcotics smuggling to Europe and the United States.
Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation, isn't considered a major narcotics consumer but like several other states along the coast of West Africa it is a key transit point for drugs shipped from Asia and Latin America destined for the West.
This is largely because of lax customs controls and endemic corruption. Still, more than 300 tons of narcotics were seized in Nigeria in 2009.
In early May, Nigerian narcotics agents arrested politician Eme Zuru Ayortor at Murtala Mohammed International Airport in Lagos after body scanners detected 100 packets of cocaine in his stomach.
He claimed he needed money because his 2007 election campaign had bankrupted him. Authorities claim Ayortor was part of a wider drugs network and had probably smuggled cocaine into the country before.
West African nations lying along the Atlantic seaboard have become one of the main conduits for Latin American narcotics, mainly cocaine, destined for the European markets after U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration operations blocked the Caribbean and Mexican routes.
In July, Nigerian agents, operating on a tip from an undercover operative, intercepted nearly half a ton of cocaine from Chile in a shipping container at Lagos' port. The counter-narcotics agency said it was the second largest seizure since one in 2006 that netted 14.2 tons of cocaine.
Drugs smuggling is the main economic activity in Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony that is the world's fifth poorest country and now known as Africa's first narco-state.
The ramshackle country of 1.5 million people, is the nearest landfall in Africa for cartel shipments carried by aircraft and fast boats from Venezuela, the South American hub for trans-Atlantic smuggling.
Since 2003, this clandestine trade has mushroomed. Counter-narcotics agencies recently estimated one-quarter of the cocaine used in Western Europe passed through West Africa.
Antonio Mario Cost of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime draws a parallel between the cocaine trade and the slave trade that drew the European powers to the region two centuries ago.
"In the 19th century, Europe's hunger for slaves devastated West Africa," he said. "Two hundred years later, its growing appetite for cocaine could so the same."
On the eastern edge of the continent, British navy ships operating in the Gulf of Aden seized a dhow loaded with about 10 tons of hashish bound for Africa July 7, 2009. The drugs, worth $70 million, were destroyed.
Three months later, on Oct. 15, the U.S. Navy guided missile cruiser USS Anzio intercepted a boat carrying 4 tons of hashish worth around $28 million in the same waters while on anti-piracy patrol.
U.S. forces have dubbed that stretch of ocean the "Hash Highway" and say much of the smuggling is done by al-Qaida to fill its war chest.
Costa estimated 30-35 tons of Afghan heroin is smuggled into East Africa every year.
The vast ungoverned spaces of the Sahara Desert and the semi-arid Sahel region in northern Africa has also become a key narcotics smuggling route used by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
The drugs, largely originating in Latin America, are smuggled north from West African states such as Nigeria, Guinea-Bissau and Senegal for shipping to Spain, Portugal, France and Italy.
These activities represent one of AQIM's main sources of funds in Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania and other states across the poorly policed desert wastes.
Costa says his agents have "acquired evidence" of new trafficking routes opening across Chad, Niger and Mali, where AQIM and the criminal gangs associated with it also operate.
He said trafficking was taking on "a whole new dimension" with traditional camel caravans being replaced with aircraft flying the narcotics north.
On Nov. 2, 2009, agents found a crashed Boeing cargo aircraft in the Gao sector of Mali, a region afflicted by terrorism and insurgency, and found traces of cocaine in the wreckage.
"It's scary that this new example of the links between drugs, crime and terrorism was discovered by chance following the plane crash," Costa said.