BISSAU, Guinea-Bissau, April 2 (UPI) -- Seizures of Latin American cocaine in West Africa, now a major oil-producing zone, has heightened fears that an alliance is emerging between the cartels and al-Qaida militants in North Africa, the main smuggling route to Europe, and other groups.
Guinea-Bissau, which the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London calls the region's "first narco-state," is one of the main conduits for cocaine shipped across the Atlantic in ships and aircraft.
The cocaine cartels control the narcotics trade in West Africa, through links with corrupt regimes and criminal gangs.
"Porous borders and a lack of communication between different countries' police and customs services makes the entire region attractive to drug traffickers but conditions in several individual countries have proved particularly inviting," the IISS said in a recent study.
Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony and the world's fifth poorest states, is "particularly appealing to drugs smugglers because of the unpatrolled archipelago of islands off its coast that makes detection of shipping difficult."
The 82 islands, some with airstrips, are monitored by one rusty coast guard ship.
Official figures suggest that 98 percent of Guinea-Bissau's gross domestic product comes from the export of cashew nuts. But, U.N. investigators say up to 2,200 pounds of cocaine is flown in every night, along with an unknown amount by sea.
An estimated 50 Colombia drug traffickers in Bissau control the narcotics trade and the military and most politicians are believed to be in their pocket.
The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime warned as far back as 2008 that 'the former Gold Coast is turning into the Coke Coast."
"The 2009 assassination of President Joao Bernardo Vieira may or may not have been drug-related but he was thought to be deeply involved in the cocaine trade and drug-enforcement agencies had complained about his failure to crack down on narco-trafficking," the IISS observed.
The U.N. agency estimated in mid-2011 that at least 50 tons of cocaine passes through West Africa every year.
The agency estimates that one-quarter of the cocaine consumed in Western Europe, with a street value of up to $18 billion, reaches there through West Africa.
Once in West Africa, the cocaine from Colombia and Venezuela is split into smaller consignments for shipment to Europe.
From Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Ghana, Benin and Nigeria, one of Africa's top oil producers, the narcotics are moved northward into the semi-arid Sahel region below the Sahara Desert that spans the continent from Atlantic to the Red Sea.
There the smugglers work with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and Tuareg tribesmen, which are seen to be operating together in moving the drugs to the Mediterranean coast in Morocco and Algeria for shipment into southern Europe.
AQIM uses the funds it acquires in the operations to buy weapons and finance attacks across the region, where it is developing alliances with other groups amid the political turmoil of the so-called Arab Spring pro-democracy uprisings.
U.S. authorities say Hezbollah, the militant Shiite Muslim movement in Lebanon backed by Iran and Syria, is heavily involved in the drug trade to fund its war against Israel and its political and social programs.
The IISS says that "Lebanese involvement in the … drugs trade and a strong Lebanese presence in the capital, Bissau, have led to the presumption that the trade is a source of funds for Hezbollah."
Hezbollah denies such allegations but U.S. authorities have in recent months identified several Lebanese nationals as being linked to South American drug cartels and Hezbollah.
On Dec. 13, Ayman Jouma, a Lebanese, was indicted in U.S. district court in Virginia on charges of running a drug-trafficking and money-laundering ring through which he allegedly funneled funds to Hezbollah.
At about the same time, the U.S. Treasury charged that the Lebanese Canadian Bank of Beirut was involved in money laundering and financing a "terrorist organization," Hezbollah, by handling money from Arab businessmen based in West Africa where there is a large Lebanese, mainly Shiite, community.
It said these men, mainly Shiite and often known Hezbollah supporters, used LCB for businesses in the region that appeared to be fronts to move funds to Hezbollah. The bank has denied the charges.