In 2004 the United Nations (UN) sounded alarm bells when it discovered that about 50 tons of cocaine a year from the Andes region in South America were transiting West Africa on their way to the lucrative markets of Europe.
West African governments and the international community had been caught napping. This was indeed alarming: trafficking routes were in place, the criminal networks involved were firmly entrenched, government officials had been corrupted, and a trafficking momentum existed that West African governments could no longer check or reverse on their own.
By 2007 the region had acquired notoriety as an important transhipment hub for cocaine transported from South America to Europe. This was having a significant impact on the security and governance of fragile states in West Africa.
In response, hundreds of millions of dollars were pumped into the region by international agencies and governments in a scramble to counter the evolving threats.
The UN and other international agencies, supported by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the European Commission and more than fifteen donor countries, funded projects in West Africa to counter transnational organised crime and drug trafficking. What is there to show for it?
According to the 2013 World Drug Report, West Africa has 'witnessed increased cocaine trafficking during the past few years'. The millions spent on projects to counter organised crime and drug trafficking do not appear to have produced the expected results.
New strategies and approaches to counter transnational organised crime and drug trafficking are required if their unprecedented impact on peace, security and development is to be combated successfully.
This is easier said than done, taking into account the lack of reliable data and the fact that the entire justice and security budget of some West African countries is less than the wholesale value of a single ton of cocaine in Europe.
However, a least one serious attempt to adopt a new approach is being pursued by the European Union (EU), with its multi-year Cocaine Route Programme. Instead of focusing only on West African countries to stem the drug trafficking to Europe, the EU has developed a novel holistic approach, which focuses on the entire cocaine route from the Andes, through West Africa, to Europe.
Doesn't it make sense to have an integrated response when major crime syndicates are involved at all stages, from where coca is cultivated in the Andes to where the cocaine powder is sold in nightclubs and on street corners in London, Berlin and Barcelona?
This cocaine route traverses at least 36 countries.
The EU took the bold step of launching its €30 million Cocaine Route Programme in 2009 with the aim of enhancing capacity for international cooperation among the law enforcement and judicial services of the countries and regional organisations involved. The unique feature of the Cocaine Route Programme is therefore its approach of following the cocaine flow from source to destination.
In May 2013 a major international EU conference, co-organised by the ISS, took place in Rome to evaluate progress, identify lessons learnt, and debate future priorities for the Cocaine Route Programme.
The first general lesson for governments and donor agencies that design programmes to counter cross-border criminal networks is that new approaches are required, because current ones are not working.
The Cocaine Route Programme serves as an example of new thinking on the issue, even though the jury is still out on exactly how effective it is. Mistakes will be made and learning curves will have to be mastered, but that is almost a prerequisite for eventual success.
A second lesson for governments and civil society relates to the importance of the political will and determination to effectively counter corruption, a key destructive and undermining factor.
It became clear at the conference that the effectiveness of responses to organised crime was being undermined by corruption. In many countries corruption now extends to the highest levels of government and the private sector, and permeates down through all levels of state institutions and societal fabric. The result is impunity, particularly for the elites.
One speaker, who focused mainly on the vulnerabilities of the Caribbean states, noted that corruption caused by the drug trade 'placed a whole new dimension on the extent of the problem, and if current trends continue, the future of effective law enforcement, an unprejudiced public sector administration, and even the integrity of the judiciary will be threatened'.
This warning could equally apply to states elsewhere, including in Africa. Controlling corruption should be the first priority of international collaboration.
In Mexico, efforts to build the capacity of law enforcement were being subverted by corruption. 'If there is something worse than a corrupt and ill-equipped police, it is surely a corrupt and well-equipped police ... '
These sentiments should be taken seriously by South Africa. The current disintegration of South Africa's crime intelligence capacity, combined with a corruption-tainted police service, is like manna from heaven to international crime syndicates.
A third interesting realisation that emerged from the conference was that the nature of transnational organised crime and drug trafficking had changed, and therefore its impact differed from what it had been in the past.
This was most notable in the way that organised crime and drug trafficking were decimating communities and increasingly becoming a governance problem rather than a mere crime, security or health problem.
Herein lies a crucial lesson: in many countries, mainly those developing countries and fragile states where resources and political will are in short supply, powerful transnational criminal networks constitute a direct threat to the state itself. This happens not through open confrontation but by penetrating state institutions through bribery and corruption, subverting or undermining them from the inside.
The conference was reminded that without alternatives to the illicit economy and the establishment of state capacity to achieve basic service delivery, criminal activity would continue to have legitimacy among and an attraction for citizens.
The law enforcement response must be coupled with a development strategy if systemic change and community resilience to criminal behaviour is to be seen.
Unfortunately, hardly any discussion focused on the effectiveness or otherwise of the 'war on drugs' approach, which remains the core of current strategies to counter drug trafficking and its consequences.
The challenges are immense. The worst we can do is to go into avoidance or believe that 'no news about serious organised crime is good news'. South Africa is one of the better-equipped countries in Africa to counter serious organised crime.
But even here, the list of top people implicated in organised crime and corruption includes a former national police chief, a minister's wife, and top politicians and business leaders. We should not only feel uncomfortable about this; we should be stirred into action.
Peter Gastrow, Senior Research Consultant, ISS and Senior Advisor, The Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime