Trafficking from Latin America through West Africa has morphed into a multinational criminal business that trades in narcotics, people, wildlife and arms, the United States said in announcing a meeting on Friday with 15 West African governments to discuss the growing security challenge.
West Africa has become a major transit point for drugs heading for Europe, notably cocaine from South America since U.S. assistance to combat drug trafficking in Colombia and Central America has borne fruit.
Now these criminal networks are expanding in scope, spreading political corruption and drug addiction in their wake and destabilising societies, William Brownfield, assistant secretary of state at the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, said on Tuesday.
"Some networks are moving cocaine from South American to West Africa and increasingly we are seeing heroine from Asia using the same routes," he said at news briefing at the U.S.-Africa Summit.
"Organisations and their networks that move drugs are also able to move any product. They move bulk cash, they move arms, they move retail products, and it may be people. They can just as easily move a truckload in which are jammed 35 human beings whether they are being taken against their will or smuggled."
The drug trade alone through West Africa is estimated at $1.5 billion to $2 billion a year, and trade is growing steadily as more products use the same routes, he said. Moreover, the transnational criminal organisations are highly sophisticated, coordinating their operations across continents, using the latest technologies and computers to evade capture, he said.
The most dangerous groups are centered in Russia, southwest Asia, West Africa and Mexico. They bribe law enforcement, politicians and border guards paying them and their staff frequently in drugs, rather than cash, which spreads drug addiction into local communities, he said.
Since 2012, the U.S. has allocated $100 million to help the 15 West African nations in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to train and equip their security forces, strengthen their judiciaries, and provide technical assistance to write laws and regulations to prosecute criminals involved in trafficking.
One focus of Friday's meeting will be to share information on how to track the proceeds of organised crime, using anti-money laundering, banking regulations and asset recovery methods, Brownfield said.
"We want to separate transnational organised crime from their money. When we cut them off from their financial networks, that causes considerable pain," he said.
Additionally the government officials, who have formed a regional alliance with the U.S., five Western European nations, Interpol and the United Nations to address regional security, will discuss ways to combat wildlife trafficking. It has grown into an estimated $7 billion annual business, second only in size to narcotics, Brownfield said.
Editing by Alisa Tang: firstname.lastname@example.org