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UN: Insurgents Drive Sahel Drug Trade

FILE: A Timbutku policeman patrols a central market where Al Qaeda was smuggling cocaine to Europe. The Africa Union’s Mission to Mali and the Sahel is consulting on increased cooperation among security forces of adjacent countries to curb the transit of drugs through the Sahel.

NIAMEY — Annual cocaine seizures in the Sahel surged from 13 kilograms in 2020 to 863 kilos just two years later as armed groups sought to profit from the illicit trade, the United Nations' drug agency said in its 2023 report.

The largest seizures of the drug in the region last year were in Burkina Faso (488 kilos), Niger (213 kilos), and Mali (160 kilos), the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said on Monday.

The tally is "probably only the tip of the iceberg of far larger undetected trafficking flows across the region," it warned.

Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, among the poorest countries in the world, have been struggling for years to contain armed insurgency groups, including jihadists linked to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS).

Working alongside traditional trafficking networks, the groups charge "taxes" in exchange for safe passage through the areas they control, the UNODC said.

In Mali, some armed groups are getting involved in transporting cocaine and cannabis resin to finance their activities, it said.

Cannabis herb is the "most seized drug" in the Sahel region, with a record 36 tons seized in 2021, with the largest quantities in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, the report said.

West and Central Africa have long been key transit hubs in the global cocaine trade, with local drug consumption increasing in recent years, the UNODC said.

Between 2019 and 2022, at least 57 tons of cocaine were seized in or en route to West Africa.