Yesterday the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Africaheld what Chairman Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin) a wake up call on the growing threat of cocaine trafficking through West Africa.
I testified there on the ties of the emerging groups in West Africa to the FARC and my fellow CTB contributor Michael Braun testified as well.
I think it is a tremendously important development because, in the end, there are two major consequences for the United States: the money from that trade will strengthen the criminal pipelines in our hemisphere because most of the money comes back here and; the human cost of putting that much new money into the existing criminal pipelines in a region where there has already been horrendous violence surrounding far less valuable commodities.
The amount of money in play here is enormous, particularly given the weak state of governments, civil society, law enforcement, the judiciary etc. There is little that can be done to avert the wholesale implosion of the region.
One of the reasons for this is the dismal state of governance in West Africa is that since the early 1990s the region has suffered a series of conflicts centered on natural resources, particularly diamonds, timber, oil, and gold. Profits from these “honey pot” wars fueled the rise of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone with its child soldiers and unspeakable atrocities; fed the wars sustained by Liberia’s Charles Taylor; and contributed to the rampant corruption and weak or failed institutions in almost every country. These natural resources, while valuable, pale in comparison to the money the cocaine trade generates. For example, at the height of the “blood diamond” trade in Sierra Leone and Liberia, the total value of the diamonds being smuggled out was less than $200 million. The potential to fuel conflicts over the cocaine pipeline, the most lucrative commodity so far and one whose profits are several orders of magnitude larger than diamonds, is truly frightening.
Given Hezbollah’s long-established presence on the ground in the region and the closeness of its operatives to that community, it is also reasonable to assume that Hezbollah and the drug traffickers, operating in the same permissive environment, will cross paths. It is precisely this type of environment that allows for the otherwise unthinkable alliances to emerge. Most are short-lived, centering on specific opportunities and operations that can benefit both groups, but others are longer lasting and more dangerous.
More worrisome is the recent evidence of Chávez’s direct support for Hezbollah, including the June 18, 2008 OFAC designations of two Venezuelan citizens, including a senior diplomat, as terrorist supporters for working with the armed group. Several businesses also were sanctioned. Among the things the two are alleged to have been conducting on behalf of Hezbollah were coordinating possible terrorist attacks and building Hezbollah-sponsored community centers in Venezuela.
Given Iran’s ties to Hezbollah and Venezuela, Venezuela’s ties Iran and the FARC, the FARC’s history of building alliances with other armed groups, and the presence of Hezbollah and other armed Islamist groups in Latin America and on the ground in West Africa, it would be dangerous and imprudent to dismiss the possibility of an alliance of these actors. The history of these groups indicates that they will take advantage of the ungoverned spaces and corrupt and weak states of West Africa to get to know each other, work together, learn from each other and exploit areas of mutual interest. Unfortunately, the primary area of mutual interest is a hatred of the United States.