British girls 'attempted to smuggle cocaine out of Ghana'

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The Independent Online

The arrest of two British teenagers accused of trying to smuggle £300,000 pounds worth of cocaine out of Ghana has shone the international spotlight on West Africa's new status as a centre of drug trafficking.

The 16-year-old girls, who were charged yesterday with attempting to export drugs after being arrested on 2 July at the airport in the capital Accra, could face 10-year jail sentences in Ghana if a juvenile court finds them guilty. Ghanaian officials identified the two teenagers as Yasemin Vatansever and Yatunde Diya, who are both from London.

With its porous borders, lax policing and a cheap blackmarket labour force, West Africa is increasingly attractive to South American drugs cartels, keen to throw police off their scent as they pump cocaine into Europe.

"In the last two years, the flow of drugs has swung towards West Africa. The region is flooded by cocaine; no country in the region can be considered safe from the attack of narco-traffickers," said Antonio Mazzitelli, the head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in West Africa.

A recent study by his team found Africa had witnessed a six-fold rise in cocaine seizures between 2000 and 2005 - one of the largest increases in the world - although the continent still only accounted for less than half a percent of global hauls. And there have been many big seizures since that survey.

Just last week, 2,500kg of cocaine was uncovered in a deserted boat that drifted into a holiday resort on the southern coast of Senegal. Its European street value was estimated at more than £100 million. While coastal countries like Ghana, Senegal, Mauritania and the island chain Cape Verde are the most attractive targets, experts say the problem is spreading to landlocked countries.

This year, police intercepted 49kg of cocaine in Burkina Faso, transported by five women who had concealed the stash under their clothes and were pretending to be pregnant.

Vatansever and Diya were allegedly carrying 3kg of cocaine each hidden in empty laptop bags. Customs officials became suspicious that the bags weighed more than a normal computer.

According to a spokesman for the Ghana Narcotics Control Board, the girls were met at the Accra airport by two men, who later promised them £3,000 each in return for transporting the drug-stuffed luggage. But the teenagers were intercepted by officers from Operation Westbridge -- a project set up by Britain and Ghana specifically focusing on the airport in Accra.

"The use of such girls as couriers vividly illustrates the ruthlessness of the criminal drug gangs involved in this traffic," said Tony Walker, the British official heading up the operation.

Although drug seizures and arrests may be on the increase in the West Africa, experts say they are just the tip of the iceberg. Interpol reckons that more than a third of the cocaine arriving in Europe is trafficked through the so-called 'new front'. Weak police forces in the African countries mean that drugs barons often escape detection.

The best illustration of how complicated the war on drugs is in West Africa is perhaps Guinea-Bissau. This former Portuguese colony, struggling to emerge from a civil conflict hasn't been able to pay its public workers or law enforcers for months. It is perhaps no surprise then that combating the global drug trade is not top priority. But that meant that when packets of mysterious white powder were found floating in the sea just west of the capital this year, it was not police who collected them, but locals who tried sprinkling it on their food as seasoning. Partly in response to Guinea-Bissau's growing reputation as Africa's first narco-state, the United States reopened a diplomatic office there this month, and the EU is mulling a security mission to Bissau to try to shut it down as a springboard for South American traffickers.

The other problem anti-trafficking tsars face is graft.

"Drugs generate an enormous amount of money... We're talking about corruption," said Mr Mazzitelli of the UN.

As an exampleof how high up chain, the lure of drugs money reaches, he offers up Eric Amoateng. While serving in Ghana's parliament, Mr Amoateng sent 70kg of heroin, hidden in boxes of pottery to the United States and was arrested at the end of 2005 when he arrived at New York's JFK airport to collect it.

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