The port town of Mbour has long been famous as Senegal's point of embarkation for thousands of young men ready to brave the high seas for a chance of reaching Europe, their fate too often death at sea. But lately Mbour's satellite-equipped pirogues - wooden canoes - have begun exporting an altogether more profitable commodity: cocaine.
Standing on Mbour's putrid beach, Abdoulaye Boubacar, a local guide, told me the cocaine trade was growing rapidly. "The trade in humans has moved down south but now we have people moving drugs instead. If you look at the problems we have here you can see why it can be attractive," he added, pointing to a group of boys busily trying to find nets worth fixing on the blackened sand.
3,210kg of cocaine have been seized off Senegal's palm-fringed shores this year
Some 3,210kg of cocaine have been seized off Senegal's palm-fringed shores this year according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Year on year, that's the biggest haul so far and government and independent analysts alike worry that Senegal, an oasis of political stability in one of the world's most turbulent regions, is succumbing to cocaine's lure.
Last year more than a tonne - 1,000kg - of cocaine was found by police in a single boat in Mbour, a town of only 70,000 people. Barely five years ago, annual cocaine seizures for sub-Saharan Africa totalled a tonne or less.
"Cartels active in South America have come to Dakar and set up here," one of Senegal's anti-narcotics policeman, Abdoulaye Niang, told reporters recently, pointing to the existence of networks of Senegalese, Colombians and Europeans running regional operations.
West Africa represented a unique market entry point to Colombian drug cartels
Traditionally, the route for shipping cocaine from Colombia to Europe has been via the Caribbean. Over the past decade that's changed. Disdained by traditional investors as a region plagued by poverty, coups and rampant official corruption, west Africa's precarious states represented a unique market entry point to Colombian drug cartels.
Previously confined to the 'narco-state' of Guinea-Bissau down south, traffickers have moved north to take advantage of Senegal's solid roads and good telecommunications infrastructure.
In their wake has come hundreds of millions of dollars in narco-cash - a significant fraction of Senegal's GDP - often laundered in respectable industries such as retail or real estate.
A businessman in Dakar, which is enjoying a spectacular building boom, with new office blocks rising like mirages on the city's arid outskirts, told me that entire construction sites were being funded with drugs money. "We're talking huge housing developments - US-style condos and such - being funded with drugs money," he said. "Senegal is doing well economically but when you see the pace of construction it doesn't add up. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being smuggled and laundered here."
Dakar's traditional reputation as an attractively 'innocent' regional hub - next to Nigeria's Lagos for example - is changing too. In the nightclubs beloved of Dakar's nouveau-riche, cocaine has displaced cannabis as the fashionable drug.
And, of course, the entrepreneurial but jobless young - typical of the young men who once tried to escape via pirogue to Spain - make willing drug 'mules'.
Whilst drug seizures on the high seas make the headlines, Antonio Mazzitelli, head of the regional UNODC office in Dakar, said Senegal's role in the cocaine trade should also be measured by the volume of cocaine caught on mules travelling through Europe's well-policed airports.
Senegal has become the single largest source country in west Africa, with 434kg caught in 105 separate mule seizures over the past two years. "That gives a much clearer indication of the scale of the problem we're facing," said Mazzitelli.
Some locals are phlegmatic about the problem. One Dakar-based journalist questioned why Africans should care what Europeans - and increasingly rich Arabs in the Gulf states - choose to put up their noses. And which is worse? Young men risking their lives at sea with a vague hope of a new life in Europe, their bodies washing up on the beaches of the Canary Islands, or making some sort of a living out of trafficking cocaine?
But others point to the potential for the kind of violence seen in the drug-addled favela slums of Brazil and Colombia being imported wholesale to Africa's fragile western seaboard. No one wants to see that. ·
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