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Organized crime plundering West Africa: UN

Fewer drugs have been flowing into Europe from West Africa in recent months but organized crime is plundering the sub-region through illicit trafficking in arms, women, cigarettes and toxic waste, according to a UN report released Tuesday.

"Less drugs are flowing through West Africa. We must ensure that this downward trend continues," said Antonio Maria Costa (photo), executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).Since 2004, Colombian drug traffickers have increasingly made use of West African countries (Ghana, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Guinea Bissau, Togo, …) as a transit area for their cocaine shipments to Europe, according to UNODC.

But while the amount of cocaine passing through West Africa has dropped from a high in 2006 of 40 tons, one-quarter of all cocaine entering Europe, other illicit items such as cigarettes, arms, toxic waste, counterfeit medicines as well as oil and other natural resources like hardwood and diamonds are being trafficked through the region, according to the UNODC Threat Assessment.

In Nigeria, 55 million barrels of oil a year -- one 10th of national output -- are lost through theft and smuggling known as "bunkering," the report said.

Oil bunkering, particularly in the Niger Delta, is a source of pollution, corruption, and revenue for insurgents and criminal groups.

As much as 80 percent of the cigarette market in some west and north African countries is illicit, meaning that most of the smoking going on in these countries is profiting criminals.

And some 50-60 percent of all medications used in West Africa may be sub-standard or counterfeit, the study noted.

This increases health risks in a region where there is high demand for anti-infective and anti-malarial drugs, and promotes development of drug resistant strains which are a hazard to the entire world, it added.

West Africa has also become a major destination for electronic waste, or e-waste, from discarded devices such as old computers and mobile phones that contain heavy metals and other toxins.

The European Union alone produces 8.7 million tons of e-waste a year.

"Organized crime is plundering West Africa, destroying governments, the environment, human rights and health," said the UNODC chief.

"This makes West Africa more prone to political instability and less able to achieve poverty-reduction Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)."

In some cases, the value of trafficked goods exceeds the gross domestic product (GDP) of West African nations, which are among the world's poorest, the UNODC report said.

"A powerful minority, all the way to the top, is profiting from crime in West Africa, at the expense of many," Costa said, warning that if the phenomenon was left unchecked, "democracy and development will falter, while crime and corruption flourish."

Revenue from 45 million counterfeit anti-malarial pills, worth nearly 450 million dollars, is higher than Guinea-Bissau's GDP, while profits from cigarette smuggling, valued at 775 million dollars, surpasses the Gambia's entire GDP, the report said.

It added that income from illegal oil sales or cocaine trafficking, worth one billion dollars annually each, rivals the GDPs of Cape Verde and Sierra Leone.

"West Africa has everything that criminals need: resources, a strategic location, weak governance and an endless source of foot soldiers who see few viable alternatives to a life of crime," Costa lamented.

Meanwhile UN chief Ban Ki-moon's latest report on the activities of the UN Office for West Africa noted that drug trafficking and cross-border organized crime were still undermining security in the region.

But it also noted that growing international involvement along with bold national and sub-regional initiatives were beginning to yield results.

While portraying drug trafficking as one of the more pervasive and dangerous forms of cross-border organized crime in West Africa, Ban said other illegal activities were also cause for concern.

He said these included human smuggling, piracy and the proliferation of small arms and light weapons, as well as the activities of criminal and other armed groups.

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