Merchant of Death
Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible

Blood from Stones

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The Growing Evidence of the Transcontinental Cocaine Pipeline
One of the disturbing and little noticed events of recent weeks was the crash (or destruction) of a Boeing 727 in the desert of Mali.

The crash is disturbing for many reasons, among them these three: 1) the aircraft was carrying between 2 to 3 tons of cocaine, far more than other, smaller aircraft and boats that have been detected in recent months, indicating an escalation of the trade through the Trans-Sahel region; 2) The region where the aircraft was found, most likely torched by its crew to destroy evidence, in a area of heavy operation of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM); and 3) the aircraft departed from Venezuela, now Latin America's primary transshipment hub from Latin America to West Africa, and source of all the major air shipments of cocaine that have been interdicted in West Africa.

Finally, as the Observer article notes, British, U.S. and French authorities in West Africa have discovered HCL labs, used to make finished cocaine for the European market, as well as capsules and other items for making Meth capsules there, also likely for export to Europe.

All this points to a disturbing set conclusions. One is that the Colombian and Mexican traffickers are feeling sufficiently confident in their ability to move product through West Africa and upping the size of their loads based on that confidence. In testing new routes they always start small, to minimize losses if the route isn't working. Once they are confident they flood the zone. It seems that this is the first indication that the West Africa zone is now being flooded.

Another is that there could be a growing role of at least some branches of al Qaeda or other Islamist terrorist groups now willing to help move or protect the drugs as they move north. The crash indicates the cocaine was not going to be moved to Europe via boats, as it was far inland. The Tuareg and other groups that control the smuggling routes north through the Sahel will be making much more money as they move into the cocaine protection and movement business, much as the FARC in Colombia found itself awash in cash when they did.

Of course this could morph into a much more direct relationship that would fund AQIM and others at a much higher level, although it would also represent a significant change in the way the terrorist organization has traditionally done business. Other religious/political groups have made the jump to fully integrated criminal organizations, so it has to be viewed as a real possibility.

Any significant involvement in the cocaine trade, in turn, will give new strength not only to AQIM and other separatist movements that also percolate in that region of the world, further destabilizing the weak central governments that, in some cases, are already functioning criminal enterprises. The value of smuggling or protecting cocaine far outpaces the traditional cigarette, gasoline or human smuggling enterprises that already flourish.

Another possible conclusion is that the FARC will find new strength in Colombia, given that the designated terrorist organization controls most of the cocaine that moves through Venezuela to West Africa. That, in turn, would mean the war in Colombia is far from over as the FARC will continue to receive the financial resources necessary to maintain itself in some fashion.

Finally, Venezuela under Chávez is a huge part of the problem, not part of any potential solution. The Chávez government seems intent on doing whatever necessary to stay in power in the face of massive corruption, administrative incompetence, growing and costly expansionist programs for the "Bolivarian Revolution," and falling oil production and prices. That means making money wherever and however possible, and the drug trade offers multiple benefits: High profits as a way to mitigate the financial crisis, and a direct bonus to his allies in the FARC.

West Africa is paying a terrible price for recent developments. Given the transcontinental nature of the trade, so are Colombia and Venezuela.
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