West African drug officials see 'alarming' rise in meth trade

Local and international drug enforcement officials say West African criminal groups are now producing and exporting hundreds of millions of dollars in methamphetamines a year, and shipping it to eager dealers in Asia.

Pierre Lapaque, head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in West and Central Africa told Reuters production of the drug is at around 1500 pounds per year in that part of the continent. While that’s small by world standards – just a little more than one percent of the 235,000 pounds seized around the globe in 2012—it’s up from zero in the region just five years ago.

"It is pretty alarming," Lapaque said.

Customs officers in the Senegalese town of Koumpentoum discovered 179 pounds of meth pills hidden in a bus from Mali in late February. The stash was worth at least $12 million, based on the street price for the drug in Tokyo, where much of it is headed.  That was only one of three seizures in Senegal this year.

Some drugs – like cocaine, heroin or hashish—are climate-dependent and can only be produced in certain conditions. But synthetic meth-- derived from ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, two medicines used to treat ailments from nasal decongestion to asthma— can be produced anywhere, using basic equipment and a simple chemistry background.

The potential profits are huge: One kilogram (about 2 pounds) of meth costs around $1,500 to produce in West Africa, but sells for around $150,000 in Asian countries like Japan.

Meth is a powerful stimulant that is smoked, swallowed, snorted or injected by hundreds of thousands of users the U.S. and countries across the globe. The UNODC says meth has grown in popularity in East and Southeast Asia because it's become easier to get and the highly addictive drug causes an intense rush, heightens attention, and curbs the appetite.

Home to Africa's biggest population and some of the region's most established criminal gangs,  Nigeria dominates meth production in West Africa.  Law enforcement officials say Nigerian gangs use extensive networks of human mules to move the drugs. Several officials in West Africa said Nigerians have begun to employ Europeans with clean passports, who are likely to raise less suspicion when traveling to Asia.

In December 2013, an Austrian woman and a German man were arrested in Jakarta after flying from Dakar with meth hidden in their luggage, local media reported.

Police in Paris and London last year arrested eight Europeans who had left West Africa and were headed to Asia, each carrying 4 to 13 pounds of meth, one foreign law enforcement official told Reuters.

Authorities have discovered 10 labs in Nigeria since 2010. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo now heads the West African Commission on Drugs and said the production of meth in the region was threatening political stability in some countries.

"It is now affecting our politics because money earned from drugs is going into politics," he said. "You have drug barons who are now sponsoring politicians, or who (are) in fact going into politics themselves."

One sign of the growing significance of West African meth trade was the arrival of Latin American producers, including Mexicans, Rusty Payne, a spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration told Reuters. Mexican drug gangs play a central role in the meth industry in North America. Payne said Mexicans have helped set up secret labs in Nigeria.

"They are not just mom and pop labs, they are big labs," Payne said. "Mexicans aren't going to come over and train (people) unless they are dealing in large amounts."

One reason West Africa is a good production zone, is the region's lax controls on imports of meth ingredients, law enforcement officials say. Imported legally for use in products such as cold medicine, they can easily be diverted and made into meth by boiling, filtering and then combining them with other chemicals.

A 2010 U.S. investigation into drug smuggling in Liberia uncovered plans to produce meth in the country for shipment to the U.S. and Japan. A 2011 report by Nigerian law enforcement officials, seen by Reuters, details a step-by-step guide for meth production and distribution which was taken from a Nigerian deported from China. The guide included contacts in Iran, Ghana, Thailand and China who would help find runners and buyers for meth.   

West African meth production is still far off the levels in Mexico, but local groups are beginning to make inroads into more lucrative markets in Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia.