East Africa’s heroin coast

The con­ti­nent’s por­ous east­ern seaboard, from So­ma­lia all the way down to South Africa, is emerg­ing as the route of choice for drug traf­fick­ers to get their il­licit cargo to the West

Mail & Guardian - - Africa - Simon Al­li­son

Afghanistan is the home of high-qual­ity heroin and is pro­duc­ing more of it than ever be­fore. Last year, an es­ti­mated 328 000 hectares of arable land were de­voted to grow­ing the pop­pies from which the drug is de­rived, a 65% in­crease on the year be­fore.

This presents drug traf­fick­ers with a unique chal­lenge: With so much heroin be­ing pro­duced, how can they get their prod­uct to the lu­cra­tive mar­kets of Europe and North Amer­ica? Es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing that the usual smug­gling routes, via the Balkans or Cen­tral Asia, are in­creas­ingly un­sta­ble, thanks to con­flict and bet­ter law en­force­ment.

The answer to this il­licit busi­ness dilemma is in­creas­ingly be­ing found along Africa’s east­ern seaboard, where a com­bi­na­tion of long coast­lines and poor gov­er­nance makes for near-ideal con­di­tions for drug traf­fick­ing, new re­search shows.

Drugs can be smug­gled into So­ma­lia, Kenya, Tan­za­nia and Mozam­bique with rel­a­tive ease, and South Africa’s cor­rupt ports and in­ter­na­tional trade links make it an ideal base for ex­port to the West.

These coun­tries are not just heroin tran­sit hubs, how­ever, and have been affected deeply by the in­crease in the drug trade. Not only is heroin use ris­ing dramatically in the re­gion but pol­i­tics and politi­cians are also be­com­ing in­creas­ingly in­ter­twined with or­gan­ised crime net­works.

“In re­cent years, the vol­ume of heroin shipped from Afghanistan along a net­work of mar­itime routes in East and South­ern Africa ap­pears to have in­creased con­sid­er­ably. Most of this heroin is des­tined for Western mar­kets, but there is a spinoff trade for lo­cal con­sump­tion,” con­cluded a new re­port re­leased by En­act, an ini­tia­tive to en­hance Africa’s re­sponse to transna­tional or­gan­ised crime.

Es­ti­mates sug­gest that be­tween 22 and 40 tonnes of heroin are smug­gled along this “south­ern route” ev­ery year. In Mozam­bique, the prob­lem is so pro­nounced that heroin is thought to be the coun­try’s se­cond-largest ex­port, ac­cord­ing to re­searcher Joseph Han­lon.

From pop­pies to fruit crates

The re­port, based on more than 240 in­ter­views in seven coun­tries with peo­ple con­nected with the drug trade, ex­plains in de­tail how the route works.

It be­gins, of course, in Afghanistan, where pop­pies are pro­cessed into opium paste. This paste is moved to Pak­istan, where it is refined into heroin. From there, wooden seago­ing dhows trans­port it to some­where along the East African coast, in batches of be­tween 100kg and 1 000kg.

The dhows don’t usu­ally make land­fall. An­chored in in­ter­na­tional wa­ters, they are met by flotil­las of small boats, which ferry smaller quan­ti­ties of the drug to nearby beaches, is­lands or coves, or some­times even di­rectly to com­mer­cial ports.

This route is used all year round, ex­cept for dur­ing the three-month­long mon­soon sea­son, which makes the wa­ters too choppy.

Once it hits the shore, most but not all the heroin is trucked to ports in South Africa, in­clud­ing Jo­han­nes­burg’s no­to­ri­ously cor­rupt City Deep con­tainer ter­mi­nal.

It is repack­aged again and put on flights or con­tainer ships to Europe or North Amer­ica, some­times dis­guised in ship­ments of fruit or wine, which are not usu­ally treated as sus­pi­cious by cus­toms author­i­ties.

Links with state cap­ture

Not all the heroin makes it out of the re­gion. Some of it is skimmed off big­ger ship­ments and sold lo­cally, fuelling a dra­matic in­crease in heroin ad­dic­tion rates and as­so­ci­ated health is­sues such as hep­ati­tis C. Larger cities such as Cape Town and Jo­han­nes­burg have their own rel­a­tively ro­bust heroin mar­kets.

Ac­cord­ing to the 2017 World Drug Re­port, the African con­ti­nent is cur­rently ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a sharp in­crease in heroin use.

In South Africa, the heroin cri­sis is a reg­u­lar fea­ture in news head­lines — although it is not al­ways recog­nised as such.

“In South Africa, peo­ple have been ob­serv­ing it with­out re­al­is­ing what they are look­ing at for a very long time,” said Simone Haysom, a coau­thor of the re­port.

“The re­port­ing on lo­cal con­sump­tion of heroin is very ob­scured by the fact that peo­ple are us­ing dif­fer­ent words to de­scribe it. One city thinks it has a nyaope cri­sis; one thinks it has an unga cri­sis; an­other thinks it has a woonga cri­sis, and peo­ple don’t re­alise that they are

ob­serv­ing the same phe­nom­e­non,” said Haysom.

Nyaope, unga and woonga are all forms of low-grade heroin mixed with bulk­ing agents. The heroin trade is also a ma­jor fac­tor fuelling the gang wars in Cape Town and Jo­han­nes­burg, the re­port notes.

But an even big­ger im­pact of the new pop­u­lar­ity of the “south­ern route” for drug traf­fick­ing may be on the pol­i­tics of the coun­tries in­volved.

“What was most strik­ing was the de­gree to which this il­licit econ­omy had be­come a cru­cial part of the func­tion­ing of pol­i­tics,” said Haysom.

Kenya is prob­a­bly the clear­est ex­am­ple of this. Sev­eral high-pro­file politi­cians, in­clud­ing Mom­basa gov­er­nor Has­san Joho and Nairobi gov­er­nor Mike Sonko, have been im­pli­cated in the drug trade in a re­port made to Kenya’s Par­lia­ment. They deny these al­le­ga­tions.

In Mozam­bique, the re­la­tion­ship be­tween drug traf­fick­ers and senior of­fi­cials within the rul­ing party dates back decades, and has been a ma­jor source of in­come for the party. In South Africa, this re­la­tion­ship is more nu­anced, but no less trou­bling.

“The re­search did not turn up any di­rect links be­tween the heroin trade and the po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment, but there are long-stand­ing al­le­ga­tions of po­lit­i­cal pro­tec­tion of the South African drug trade more broadly, and in par­tic­u­lar of cor­rupt re­la­tion­ships be­tween gang fig­ures and for­eign mafiosos, and in­di­vid­ual min­is­ters, senior po­lice­men and even the ex-pres­i­dent [Ja­cob Zuma] him­self,” the re­port said.

“As in the other coun­tries dis­cussed in this re­port, the links be­tween the drug trade and state of­fi­cials are only part of a broader pic­ture of crim­i­nal pen­e­tra­tion and cap­ture of state in­sti­tu­tions.”

“There are long­stand­ing al­le­ga­tions of po­lit­i­cal pro­tec­tion of the South African drug trade and of cor­rupt re­la­tion­ships”

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