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U.S. Training Elite Police in West Africa to Combat Drug Cartels

To combat the growth of the Latin American drug trade into Africa, the United States has been training an elite unit of counternarcotics police in Ghana, and soon will be doing the same thing in Nigeria and Kenya, according to a report in yesterday’s New York Times.

The drug cartels have been using Africa as a new site for smuggling cocaine into Europe to evade the counternarcotics efforts that have evolved in the Western hemisphere. The cartels look for weaker, unstable governments that don’t have the resources, police forces and experience to combat the smuggling. Inevitably, the presence of the drug cartels makes these unstable governments even more unstable.

According to the Times, with the wars winding down in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. has more resources to devote to such efforts.

“We see Africa as the new frontier in terms of counterterrorism and counternarcotics issues,” Jeffrey P. Breeden, the chief of the D.E.A.’s Europe, Asia and Africa section, told the Times. “It’s a place that we need to get ahead of — we’re already behind the curve in some ways, and we need to catch up.”

The news comes amid a controversy that erupted after American DEA agents were involved in three lethal interdiction operations alongside Honduran police officers. The Americans shot and killed local suspects in two of the operations, leading to a sense of unease in many quarters about American agents killing locals.

Bruce Bagley, a professor at the University of Miami who focuses on Latin America and counternarcotics, pointed out to the Times the many problems inherent in what Americans are trying to do in Africa. He compared the effort to the “Whac-A-Mole” game, where enforcement efforts in one place make the problem pop up somewhere else.

“As they put on the pressure, they are going to detour routes, but they are not going to stop the flow, because the institutions are incredibly weak — I don’t care how much vetting they do,” Professor Bagley said. “And there is always blowback to this. You start killing people in foreign countries — whether criminals or not — and there is going to be fallout.”

William F. Wechsler, the Pentagon’s top counternarcotics officer, told the Times that when he watches what’s going on with the drug cartels in West Africa, he feels like he’s watching a rerun of the drug war in the Western hemisphere in past years.

“West Africa is now facing a situation analogous to the Caribbean in the 1980s, where small, developing, vulnerable countries along major drug-trafficking routes toward rich consumers are vastly under-resourced to deal with the wave of dirty money coming their way,” he said.

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