Telephonic Press Briefing on Drug Trafficking in Africa

Português Português, Français Français

U.S. Department of State
For Immediate Release 
Special Briefing via Telephone
Heather Merritt, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs
July 21, 2020


Moderator:  Good afternoon to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Africa Regional Media Hub.  I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from across the continent and thank all of you for joining this discussion.

Today we are very pleased to be joined by Heather Merritt, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.  Deputy Assistant Secretary Merritt will discuss U.S. efforts to combat drug trafficking in Africa.  We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from Deputy Assistant Secretary, or DAS, Merritt.  Then we will turn to your questions.  We will try to get to as many of them as we can during the briefing.

As a reminder, today’s call is on the record.  And with that, I will turn it over to DAS Merritt, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Heather Merritt. 

DAS Merritt:  Well, good morning, everyone, and I’m speaking to you from my home here outside of Washington, D.C.  It’s a pleasure to be with you.  I understand we’ve got not only my media hub colleagues based in South Africa but we’ve got journalists on the line from across the continent.  It looks like South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, Rwanda, Ghana, Liberia, maybe Zimbabwe on the line.  I’m really excited to be with you this morning.  I know that you’re calling in from around the world, and for some of you it’s late in the day, so I really appreciate your interest and your participation. 

Just to set the scene for those of you who may not be familiar, I work at the Department of State in the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, which we refer to by the acronym INL.  And INL works around the world to counter international crime, illegal drugs, and instability.  And we do this by helping countries improve their civilian security and justice sector institutions.  We want to help strengthen the capacity of police, courts systems, prosecutors.  And we do this through diplomatic engagement and through on-the-ground foreign assistance programs.  We’re trying to encourage reform, promote more effective governance, improve the rule of law, and develop more effective institutions.  So that is where I’m coming from today.

Of relevance to you all, one really important aspect of our work is relationships with African partners.  And through our U.S. embassies on the continent, INL works with countries across Africa, partnering with governments to develop the capacity of their criminal justice sector entities, and we want to really work on civilian security and rule of law in order to prevent and address non-state, criminal, and terrorist threats.

We work primarily at the institutional level, trying to promote both top-down reforms to prevent and address criminal threats, but also at the community level, a lot about ensuring programming meets the needs of citizens facing these threats every day.

And the threat we want to concentrate on primarily today is the threat of drugs and drug trafficking.  I happened to look last night through – the UNODC has a really useful report, the World Drug Report, which you all can find online.  And their latest one came out in June, and I was looking at the numbers, and unfortunately the numbers of sort of abuse of drugs and use of drugs around the world continue to rise.  And I want to note at the top, it’s not just around the world; it is a rising problem in Africa.  It’s a threat in many ways, not only to public health but also to security, so we’re going to just talk about that as we go through.

So look, in Africa, illicit drug production, trafficking, and consumption are linked to organized crime, illegal financial flows, corruption, and, increasingly, terrorist financing.  Porous borders, poorly patrolled coastlines, weak institutions and enforcement regimes make Africa an attractive location for traffickers, and it’s something that we all need to work together to fight this transnational crime because it endangers us all.

So Africa’s coastline on the east, from southern Somalia to South Africa, has become a primary transshipment location for Afghan-produced heroin – also sometimes Pakistan or Iranian heroin – en route to markets in Africa, Europe, and the United States.  Heroin is trafficked along what’s referred to as the “southern” or the “maritime” route from the southern coasts of Pakistan and Iran by boat through the Indian Ocean.  The product can be offloaded, primarily along the coast of Kenya, Tanzania, and Mozambique, sometimes in the island states, and repackaged then for onward shipment to markets, often via South Africa or countries in West Africa.

West Africa has also been a historical hub for cocaine trafficking and reports suggest that that route is experiencing a resurgence.  Increased cocaine production in South America destined for markets in Africa, Europe, and the United States has increased trafficking – and seizures – in the region.  More cocaine was actually seized in the first three months of 2019 in just two countries – in Guinea-Bissau and Cabo Verde – than the whole amount seized by the entire African continent between 2013 and 2016.  Those were an astonishing three months in 2019. 

And even in the Sahel, there is increasing concern that the porous borders there and the movement of groups, including illegal armed groups and transnational criminals, is enabling narcotics trafficking that may be indirectly funding some of the terrorist networks and activities, as traffickers pay for safe passage via under-governed spaces and through routes that have been exploited as well by terrorist entities.

I think it’s important at the top as well to note that while transit is our primary concern, sadly, Africa also is becoming a source of illicit drugs.  We know, for example, that some Nigerian criminal organizations have learned simplified but effective production methods to convert uncontrolled precursor chemicals – so I would call them pre-precursor chemicals – into methamphetamine, and so it’s becoming Nigeria and a few other locations a growing methamphetamine producer and supplier.  And other countries in the region are sadly at risk of following this trend. 

This relatively free flow of drugs threatens African countries and the United States and strengthens Transnational Criminal Organizations, or TCOs.  There are several well-established TCOs operating in Africa and they facilitate not only illicit drugs, but I would note that we believe strongly that the TCOs in Africa are largely commodity-agnostic.  The same people who can move drugs can also move weapons, can also move people, can also move wildlife goods, and so it’s something we all need to be concerned about.

The State Department is investing significant resources to counter drug trafficking in Africa, and we work with our interagency partners in the U.S. Government, and we want to protect the sovereignty of our African partners and we want to protect African security and U.S. national security jointly.  We increase the capacity of law enforcement entities to prevent the free flow of illicit drugs, to interdict those flows, to analyze financial transactions, and investigate and prosecute the traffickers and their networks, as well as to develop accountable institutions.

One issue that we also work on is cross-border or regional coordination, not just between individual African states but amongst our African partners.  In the Sahel, for example, we’ve helped to convene leaders from counternarcotics agencies across North and West Africa to help them address the growing threat of narcotics trafficking in the Sahel.  Participants focused on opportunities for improved communication, coordination, and collaboration, and ultimately decided to create an informal network to enhance their cross-border communication and promote intelligence sharing. 

Within days of this conference’s conclusion in March 2019, we had some information-sharing successes, including one related to a major tramadol seizure in Benin that was connected to a company from Niger. 

Through INL’s maritime security programming in the Gulf of Guinea, which has been implemented primarily with our UN partners and INTERPOL, countries have become more capable and sophisticated at interdicting vessels loaded with drugs and other illicit goods which may be headed for the U.S. or Europe and conducting maritime investigations that can lead to effective prosecutions.  The Gulf of Guinea countries participating in these programs are coordinating across jurisdictions and with their counterparts to share information with one another and to conduct joint operations.

I also want to note that our programming focuses on increasing the capacity of partner states’ justice sectors.  We care about the training and advisory opportunities for prosecutors and judges, to include collaboration with their law enforcement entities, and we also work to address and to lower pre-trial detention rates.  All of these efforts should improve the ability of the criminal justice sector to effectively identify, arrest, prosecute, and detain drug traffickers and other serious criminals. 

One tool that we use in these efforts is our network of international law enforcement academies, or ILEAs, that we sponsor in several locations around the world.  Some of you may be familiar with our International Law Enforcement Academy, or ILEA, in Gaborone, Botswana.  We also have some of our African partners who train in our Regional Training Center in Accra, Ghana, and we also have an International Center in Roswell, New Mexico, in the United States.  And at these academies, we bring together multiple partner nations and we cover topics such as training in narcotics trafficking, combating wildlife trafficking or trafficking in persons, addressing corruption, and improving community policing. 

As I wrap up, I want to note that we also take a balanced approach in the United States Government.  We care not just about stopping the supply of drugs, but also the demand, and we recognize that evidence-based demand reduction programs and treating substance use disorders is incredibly important. 

Cooperation between Africa and the United States in drug prevention, treatment, and recovery has been ongoing and it’s a way that we can help address the very serious problem of global drug use.  One of our key efforts has been to increase the number of trained practitioners in evidence-based drug treatment, prevention, and recovery programs.

A number of our African partners have worked with a group that we have sponsored, the Colombo Plan, to substantially improve their capacity for drug treatment using something called the Universal Treatment Curricula and the Universal Prevention Curricula.  And to date, 21 African countries have received trainings and we’ve helped to form over 2,500 national trainers.  These – let’s see.  These trained and credentialed drug treatment and prevention professionals are a really needed asset on the continent, and they’re able to spearhead evidence-based and cost-effective drug demand reduction initiatives, advise their leaders on policies and practices, and help to inform future professionals to positively transform communities.  

INL has also helped to support the creation of the International Society of Substance Use Professionals, or ISSUP, and through that network much information is shared, trainings are provided for those involved in drug prevention and treatment.  There are currently five national ISSUP chapters in Africa and they’re helping their countries to address those issues.  Both ISSUP and the African Union are going to host a web event this fall on African drug issues, and I would encourage everyone to check that out on the ISSUP website and to participate.

Finally, I do, on a related note, want to close by saying that wildlife trafficking and poaching also represents an escalating international security and conservation crisis.  We know that poaching operations have expanded beyond small-scale, opportunistic actions to coordinated slaughter that is often commissioned by armed and organized criminal syndicates.  And those syndicates, as I noted earlier, are often the same people who engage in multiple crime areas, and those networks may traffic in wildlife, drugs, people. 

INL absolutely takes a criminal justice approach to countering this.  We know that other parts of the U.S. Government are more focused on the community development and environmental side, but we are supporting training and technical assistance for African law enforcement, including training on investigations to follow the money and to conduct cross-border investigations.  And we provide training to prosecutors on laws and strategies that will lead to successful prosecutions.  We also offer some technical assistance to help governments strengthen their laws and increase penalties.

So with all of that, talking about addressing the supply and the demand for drugs, talking about the cross-overs to other forms of transnational organized crime, and talking about the fact that with transnational crime we really are all linked together in an increasingly small world and we have to partner together for success against these organizations, the criminal organizations that are increasingly global – with all of that, I want to close and thank you for being on the call today, and I really look forward to taking your questions.  Thank you.

This translation is provided as a courtesy and only the original English source should be considered authoritative.
Email Updates
To sign up for updates or to access your subscriber preferences, please enter your contact information below.