Cabo Verde: Another Narco-state in West Africa?
April 3, 2021
April 3, 2021
KJ-1. As long as Venezuela is ruled by a failed government that allows the drug cartels’ de facto control of the country’s politics, Cabo Verde is highly likely to remain an important narcotic connection point between Latin America and Europe.
KJ-2. The lack of funds for countering drug smuggling in Cabo Verde is expected to stall any effort to contain the drug market that has taken over the country.
KJ-3. Cabo Verde risks becoming West Africa’s second narco-state, after Guinea Bissau.
Cabo Verde is an island-state off the West African coast. It is home to around 500,000 residents who use tourism and transportation as their primary means of living. The former Portuguese colony gained its independence 40 years ago and since then it has enjoyed stability and prosperity. The small archipelago also hosts many European tourists who choose Cabo Verde for its white sandy beaches and its cheap alcohol. Yet behind the beautiful facade, the country is struggling to contain a fast-paced evolving industry of drug smuggling. Despite intensified efforts by its government, Cabo Verde risks becoming West Africa’s second narco-state, after Guinea Bissau.
The islands are situated along the Tenth Parallel – a line of latitude nicknamed “Highway 10”. This parallel provides the shortest trafficking route between Latin America and Africa. For cartels using Highway 10, Cape Verde is the ideal stop for refuelling the ships, warehousing their products, and shipping them for their final destination – Europe. Due to its strategic location, Cabo Verde accounts for most of the cocaine shipments destined to reach the European shores. In 2016, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) placed Cabo Verde at the top of the list of countries in West Africa where the highest quantity of cocaine was seized between 2009 and 2014. This is followed by The Gambia, Nigeria, Ghana and more recently Guinea Bissau.
West Africa’s role in the trans-Atlantic cocaine trade goes back nearly 20 years, when Colombia’s cartels, having almost saturated demand in the US, sought new markets in Europe. With maritime traffic in the north Atlantic more closely watched after 9/11, they developed West Africa as an alternative supply route, bribing corrupt local rulers to offer safe passage. At one point a decade ago, countries like Guinea and Guinea Bissau were almost narco-states. Cartels got military escorts for their drugs and could even courier them on to Europe in diplomatic bags.
Cabo Verde’s involvement in the narco-industry is not new, yet the country managed until recently to maintain a low flux of drug shipments, without putting at peril the local population. Allegations indicate that the government specifically ignored the drug problem as it used gained profits to develop the tourism industry. Cabo Verde’s economy is highly affected by scarce natural resources, hence the government’s need to reorient for other financial means.
For exploiting the archipelago’s attractive landscapes, money was needed for infrastructure and modernization projects. In 2011, a local police-led investigation revealed that certain members of the country’s political leadership were passively involved in the drug-trafficking industry, meaning that they were allowing foreign and local cartels to use Cabo Verde as a warehouse for shipments ordered from Europe. In early 2019, Cabo Verde broke its own record with 9.5 tons of cocaine confiscated by the police from a Panama-flagged vessel.
On the 1stof February 2019, the biggest drug seizure was made in the country. The vessel hiding the shipment was bound for Tangiers, Morocco. It made an emergency stopover in Praia, following the death of a crew member on board. The cocaine was concealed in 260 packages, while all 11 crew members were Russian.
In 2016, 280 kg of cocaine were seized from a Brazil-flagged ship. The drug shipment was intercepted while it was being transferred to a United States-flagged yacht. During the operation, four Brazilians, one Cabo Verdean and a Russian were arrested. The Russian mafia is known for operating in the area. The European Commission has also warned about the increased local consumption of drugs. Data regarding the extent to which locals are affected by drug smuggling in their country is not yet available. However, the government is now cooperating with UNODC and the EU for implementing preemptive measures.
Criminal networks are reported to threaten officials, as they are interested in securing political support for their business. Those directly involved in the fight against drugs avoid speaking publicly out of fear of reprisals. In 2014, the mother of the top anti-drug investigator was killed, and the prime minister’s son was injured in a shooting several months later. Both attacks were linked to a government clampdown on drugs.
Cabo Verde is considered one of the few African states representing a model for democracy. It enjoys a stable institution, reduced violence and a free press. However, the latest developments in the local drug industry threaten Cabo Verde’s reputation. Local insecurity and gang violence are likely to reduce the income gained from the tourist industry. This is highly important for the country as its revenues come mainly from the tourism sector. Improvement is slightly increasing as the local authorities’ constant efforts to counter the illicit drug trade and organised crime has earned the country technical and financial support from foreign allies, such as France, the US and Portugal.
Drug money circulates all over the archipelago. From poor neighbourhoods to central districts, the Cabo Verdean society is infested with illegal revenues that threaten local lives. Rival gangs are increasingly violent, struggling to dominate the underground mafia collaborating with South American cartels. Criminals are using businesses, notaries, non-governmental organisations and real estate companies to launder money. Drug money is being inserted into the economy, while many transactions still go uncovered.
Cabo Verde disposes of around 160 police officers and a few boats and planes used in countering drug smuggling operations. Cape Verde lacks the capability to properly patrol its own territorial waters, an area bigger than France. The police forces rely heavily on support granted by the UN and the EU, as well as training visits from the British Royal Navy. It is crucial for the Cabo Verdean forces to capture the shipments as soon as they reach the archipelago’s shores. Once the drug transports are delivered to Europe, chasing the network and its products becomes almost impossible.
In 2018, the government implemented a five-year national program against drug-related crimes. The program comes as a response to recommendations made by the European Union-funded action plan of the Economic Community of West African States on drug trafficking across West Africa. The plan necessitates €6.3 billion. The lack of funds makes the plan only partially- operational. Cape Verde has also benefited from technical support from the UNODC, which has provided training to the police forces.
As the full eradication of drug trafficking represents a long-term priority, the local government is in need of substantial funds. The EU plan is deemed to reach full implementation by 2023. This will prevent the country from being labelled a narco-state – a mark that threatens political and economic stability and damages the tourism industry. However, poor means of sustaining the plan will stall any effort to diminish the drug industry in the country.
The success of Cabo Verde-based gangs to collaborate with Latin American cartels is chiefly due to the economic recession of Venezuela, through which roughly half of all Europe-bound cocaine now passes. With security forces going unpaid, much of the Venezuelan coastline is now lawless, making it far easier for cocaine shipments to head out onto Highway 10.
Much of the smuggling through Venezuela is controlled by the Cartel of the Suns. The group benefits from a group of regime security chiefs who allegedly sponsor President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist regime. In recent years, Washington has sanctioned numerous cartel members on suspicion of cocaine-trafficking, including the heads of the National Guard and Maduro’s former vice-president. Yet the flow of drugs along Highway 10 has skyrocketed.
Europe Increases its Drug Consumption
Venezuela is now launching aggressive drug sales to Europe. The rising amounts of cocaine transported to the continent alarms European police forces who fear that the transnational crime groups will become even more powerful. One example is Britain which is currently consuming more cocaine than any other country in Europe. Four per cent of people aged between 15 and 34 admit using it, double the EU average. Its growing popularity among the middle classes has alarmed the police chiefs, who believe it fuels gang stabbings in London and “county lines” violence.
Due to encrypted messaging services like WhatsApp, nowadays’ customers use nearby delivery, with cut-price first-time offers, customer loyalty bonuses, and purity levels nearer 50 per cent than five. In Cabo Verde, the penalty for drug use is three months in prison, while the smuggling and production of narcotics are punished with two to ten years in prison. This legislation against the narcotics industry is among the most relaxed ones in West Africa. This is due to the country’s liberal reforms which protect human rights. However, these laws do little to impede traffickers from smuggling narcotics on Cabo Verde’s shores.
Image: United Nations (link)
Ana Maria Baloi is analyst at Grey Dynamics and a MA candidate at Brunel University London, where she studies Intelligence and Security. Her research is focused on China’s policy and strategy towards Africa.
In the last years, Ana has participated at numerous NATO Youth summits and Model United Nations conferences, while working as an intern for the Romanian Senate.