Drug Trafficking in West African Criminal Networks

Poor countries are a source of production or transportation of illegal goods or as transit points for trafficking, while developed countries offer clear opportunities for the sale and acquisition. These countries have more interest for criminal groups as a base for their activities, namely:

a) In the European Union, Ireland – UK – Germany – Netherlands – Belgium – Italy – Spain

b) In Latin America and the Caribbean-Netherlands Antilles – Venezuela – Peru – Ecuador -Brazil

c) In Asia – Afghanistan – Pakistan – Thailand

d) In the Middle East, Lebanon – Dubai – Bahrain

West African criminal networks operate with great ease and flexibility. Often they change people with whom they work, sometimes because the nature of the crime, others to confuse the police.

In addition, in West African cultures there is a strong sense of family ties, as reflected in the fact that they are always willing to help their relatives, often without reserves. This feature can explain the corruption in Nigeria and other countries in the region. Moreover, these networks share information for their activities. The operational method used successfully by a group can be then used by a different group composed of other members. They collaborate with other criminal groups, including Colombian and Pakistan drug trafficking organizations discreetly in the background, escaping from the attention of the police and the general public.

The network leaders encourage people who are part of the influential circles of Nigeria to support the activities of criminal networks in West Africa, with the promise that they will hold financially and help them preserve their privileged status.

The activities of these networks we can distinguish four categories:

1) Traditional crimes;

2) Crimes that support to other crimes;

3) Enabling criminal activities;

4) Combining crimes.

Usually, the West African criminal networks prefer to be engaged in long term business relations by distributing products in bulk to minimize the risks of detection, even if that represents less profit. These networks have relationships with the Colombian and Pakistan cartels in the field of trafficking in cocaine and heroin, respectively.

Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa are countries where they store cocaine and heroin for distribution worldwide. The linkages between the activities of distribution of cocaine and heroin that carry out the West African criminal networks are significant in Europe.

The Austrian police have reported that heroin and cocaine markets in the country are controlled by West African networks operating internationally and whose members, from the highest-level dealers to those working in the street, are natives of this African region. Similarly, although traditionally these criminal networks are using the technique of “shotgun” (sending many mules with small amounts of drugs each) to transport drugs, they are now also using them for remittance of larger amounts of money.


Cocaine trafficking is a very popular activity among West African networks and that it is very lucrative. The cocaine-producing countries are Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, but the West African criminal organizations prefer to install their operating bases in neighboring countries or in countries close to them. This imply a strong presence in Venezuela, Ecuador and Brazil (where lives more than 50,000 Nigerian) and the Netherlands Antilles.

These networks may occasionally arrange transport of large shipments of cocaine by sea, usually prefer to minimize the risks by sending small remittances through postal systems or smugglers. Recent developments in Curacao show that the frequency of deliveries of small quantities has increased considerably in recent years.

Often the courier companies are the way chosen by Nigerian criminal organizations to transport cocaine from Ecuador and Venezuela. The Netherlands, France, Spain and Italy are the European Union countries used by these networks as transit points for drugs en route to Nigeria. Cocaine is shipped from Brazil in large volume shipments. These shipments pass through Nigeria and other West African countries. The final destinations are South Africa, the European Union and the United States.

In South Africa the crack trade is controlled by Nigerian and it is a business closely linked to the sex trade, because many women subjected to sexual exploitation in this country are addicted to crack and their customers are encouraged by them to consume it.

West African networks often use smugglers, particularly in Brazil and the Netherlands Antilles, for shipments to the European Union. The transport “mules” are recruited in Africa as well in the countries of origin or destination.

The recruitment of facilitators has grown into a specialized activity of certain members of the networks. The recruitment is to train the persons to take up their tickets and the money they need to travel, to receive the mules, escort and house them until the drug reaches its destination. Itineraries vary, but the most popular destination airports in the European Union are Amsterdam Schiphol, Madrid Barajas and Paris-Charles de Gaulle. Further distribution is responsible members of the network located mainly in Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Italy. The major destinations are Sweden, Denmark, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, the United Kingdom, Spain and Italy.

The drug transportation through “mules” is not an exclusive activity of organizations of West Africa, but it is certainly one of the areas of crime in which they excel. Therefore, the fact that a country suffers a serious drug problem may indicate that West African criminal networks are operating in it.


Heroin trafficking networks in West Africa as supplying countries choose Pakistan, India and in lesser extent, Thailand, where there is a major Nigerian colony. Afghanistan is another source of heroin. Nigeria, Ivory Coast and South Africa are being used as major transit country for further distribution of heroin to the United States and to a lesser extent, Canada and to the European Union via Turkey.

Recently it has been known another method of sending traffic to Africa in heroin packets across Germany. The UK has served as a transit point for heroin bound for the United States. Other places of transit are Dubai and Lebanon.

More and more heroin is consumed in South Africa, which could mean that West African networks have chosen this country and storage center for the drug.


In January 2009, South Africa apprehended 27,000 ecstasy tablets. The “mules” that made the transport were a Burundian and a Nigerian, arrived by air from Belgium. The tablets were found inside speakers.

Interpol General Secretariat has noted the involvement of Nigerian in the importation of large quantities of ecstasy tablets as further retail distribution in South Africa. According to the reports provided, the tablets come from the Netherlands.

Since the Netherlands and Belgium are the major producers of ecstasy in the world and the West African criminal networks are present in both countries, the trafficking of this drug could become a new source of illicit income for them.

The process of developing the drug and access to chemicals and equipment necessary for their manufacture is simple, and that its traffic has high profitability, it is foreseeable that West African groups living in South America gradually will become involved in this business producing their own.