Organised crime

Transnational Organised Crime in East Africa: Growing Drug Trade Gateway into Europe

March 25, 2020

Eren Ersozoglu



Transnational and even Transcontinental organised crime groups are hijacking the benefits of globalisation in East Africa. Traditional routes are being abandoned because of tightened border security. The new ‘southern route’ is a hub for heroin from Asia and cocaine from Latin America, destined for Europe, North America, and even South Africa.



United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) 2017 World Drug Report found that Tanzania and Kenya two of the most frequently mentioned transit countries of Afghan opiates. Interpol Overview of Serious Organised Crime in East Africa Report 2018 found that foreign-based organised crime groups were operating in the region. They noted a significant rise in the trafficking of Cannabis, Cocaine, Heroin, Methamphetamine, synthetic and counterfeit/diverted pharmaceuticals.





  • East Africa’s shoreline is being targeted as it is long and poorly monitored, providing ideal smuggling conditions. Globalisation is increasing the region’s accessibility to other continents, providing easier routes for smugglers.


  • Corruption in nations provides drug barons a degree of legitimacy and immunity, facilitating the expansion of the narcotics empire in the region. States lack the necessary measures to counter the drug trade growth.


  • The drug trade is creating a health crisis in East Africa, the number of users significantly increasing. This is causing a rise in HIV / AIDS. A loosely regulated healthcare and monitoring system are facilitating the spread of pharmaceutical drug addiction and increasing the success of smuggling these drugs illegally to other continents.


The measures taken to limit the expansion of the drug trade are so far ineffective. The penetration of government institutions is creating the framework for syndicates to operate with near impunity for the right price.





The Southern Route


The ‘southern route’ originated in the 1980s but has significantly been utilised from 2009 onwards. The Balkan route had been popular with drug smugglers for heroin into Europe. The 2011 Syrian Civil War has seen a massive influx of migrants, resulting in increased border security. On the other side of the Atlantic, increased security between Latin America and North America has raised intentions for safer, more discreet routes. Kenya and Tanzania have been significantly affected. The ENACT Organised Crime Index in 2019 ranked Tanzania 17th and Kenya 11th.





Source: ENACT TOC Incident Monitoring Phase 2 data on Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. The graph only reflects articles and incidents that explicitly mention heroin.




After harvesting poppies in Afghanistan and refinement in Pakistan or cocaine from South America, once it has reached West Africa, it heads for East Africa’s less monitored transit routes. Worth mentioning is the worrying development that there has been an increase in number 4 (white sugar) heroin, which indicates a growth in East Africa processing of refined heroin. Mombasa, which has the largest port in East Africa, provides a key drug route for traffickers. This route is also affecting countries mainly on the shoreline.





A Blind Eye


Corruption is facilitating the accessibility of the Southern Route for Transnational Organised Crime for drugs into Europe and North America. The International Peace Institute in Kenya reported that groups had penetrated government institutions and that some political leaders endorse and even control the flow of drugs. In 2009-2010 US reports revealed two top businessmen/drug barons were protected by former President Guebuza. Low seizure figures are highly inaccurate due to corruption. Kenya National Police Report 2015 labeled the seized amount ‘negligible’ to actual flow. The ENACT Organised Crime index 2019 also supported reports that diverse organised crime groups are exploiting Kenyan state institutions.



New international airline expansion coinciding globalisation and a growing economy have been exploited successfully. The Akasha brother’s investigation that led their conviction shed light on routes from Brazil transiting to Lo Jaba, South Sudan, Kampala, Uganda, Tanzania, Nairobi, and Mombasa.



Corruption in one country creates a base to spread into other surrounding states and institutions as these groups prey on the protection for sale in low-income and developing countries. Africa dominates the global market expansion of pharma-opioids, responsible for 87% of 2016 seizures. This, correlating with the drug flow and a loosely regulated healthcare system, is bringing about another problem.





A Domestic Health Crisis


The flow of drugs through East Africa is not only affecting Europe but has created a health crisis at home. Cheap hard drugs for less than 2 Euros a dose has spread a growing problem. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime in 2016 said ‘flow of drugs was one of the most alarming threats to Africa’. 2.5 tonnes of heroin is consumed annually in Africa, and mainly in Tanzania. ENACT Forecast for 2050 an additional 14 million Africans will be using. Creating a total of 23 million in Sub-Sahara. East Africa has had and is forecasted for the sharpest growing increase in new users. This is also increasing the spread of HIV/AIDS, as many users are using unsanitary methods because of the criminalisation of drug addiction.





The new drug gateway into Europe not only continues the flow of transnational drug trafficking but is now afflicting a region already facing significant problems. Corruption is endorsing the illicit funds pumping through East Africa and is inadvertently funding terrorism in the region as well as in other continents where the drugs originate. Without a major change in the status quo, the gateway will remain open and poison lives on a transcontinental scale.











Image: UNMIL / Christoper Herwig (link)



Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grey Dynamics LTD.

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