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By Tristan McConnell | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor
from the November 23, 2007 edition

Accra, Ghana - Two British high-school girls now face three years in a juvenile detention center in the West African country of Ghana after being convicted Wednesday of trying to smuggle more than $600,000 of cocaine to England.

The conviction highlights what observers say is a troubling trend for West Africa, as the region becomes a key staging post for illegal drugs heading to Europe from South America.

While cocaine use has leveled off in the United States in recent years, Europe is in the throes of a boom comparable to the one that hit America in the 1980s: According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) there are 4 million users in Europe, triple the number a decade ago. A crackdown on the transatlantic cocaine trafficking route from South America via the Caribbean has led the drug cartels to West Africa, where they take advantage of weak law enforcement and rampant corruption.

"Africa is under attack ... [and facing] a crisis of epic proportions, by and large fueled by Europe's cocaine users," said UNODC chief Antonio Maria Costa at a conference in Madrid last week. "A sniff here and a sniff there in Europe is causing another disaster in Africa, to add to its poverty, its mass unemployment, and its pandemics."

The global police body Interpol estimates that as much as two-thirds of all cocaine headed for Europe is now shipped there via West Africa.


The cartels are interested in West Africa because the weak governance and oversight make it far less risky to traffic illegal drugs, says Mr. Mazitelli. "West Africa has important advantages in terms of risk reduction [for drug traders], both the economic risk of seizure and the criminal risk of prosecution," he says. "There is permeability of judicial systems and corruptability of institutions in West Africa."

Ghana has become a key drug-trade hub within West Africa because cartels find it more livable and stable than many of the other countries in the region.