Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

The Brazil–Africa Narco Nexus

Reading Time: 9 minutesThe emerging narco nexus between West Africa and Brazil.
Reading Time: 9 minutes

A cache of drugs and weapons seized by Rio de Janeiro police during a pacification operation in the Manguiera favela on June 19, 2011. Photo: Mauro Pimentel/Latincontent/Getty.

Reading Time: 9 minutes

The vicious drug cartels in Colombia and Mexico regularly make headlines, but there has been remarkably less public attention to the growing role of Brazil—and Brazilian organized crime —as a major player in the global trade in illicit narcotics.

Expanding links between Brazilian criminal groups and their counterparts in West Africa, easy access to European ports and rampant corruption have created an ideal jumping-off place for Latin American contraband destined for Europe and Asia and fuel Brazil’s role as a bridge for drug trafficking.

Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea, Guinea- Bissau, Nigeria, and South Africa are now top transshipment points for Latin American drugs bound for Europe and beyond. This development seems to have overtaken the close connection with Russia, which in the 1990s was the main link for Colombian cocaine.1 Much of the traffic has gone by sea, but law enforcement authorities note an increasing use of air shipments. Between 30 and 100 tons of Latin American cocaine annually are smuggled north to Europe along African air routes.2

The drug seizure statistics are staggering. According to figures provided by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the number of seizure cases involving Brazil as a transit country increased tenfold in the past four years, from 25 tons in 2005 to 260 tons in 2009.3 Only 15 percent of South America’s cocaine destined for the U.S. and Europe travels through Brazil, but the link with West Africa suggests the volume of drugs entering Brazil is likely to grow.

Both geography and commerce help explain Brazil’s growing profile in the narcotics trade.

While the South American giant does not produce cocaine, its vast coastline and 10,500 miles (17,000 kilometers) of weakly patrolled borders (more than half of which is jungle) have presented an attractive opportunity for traffickers. Ten countries in the region share borders with Brazil, including the three largest cocaine-producing countries (Bolivia, Colombia and Peru) and one of the largest marijuana producers (Paraguay).

Moreover, the growing legitimate trade relationship between Brazil and Africa has opened a new corridor for illicit traffic. Trade with the continent reached $17.2 billion in 2009. It is no coincidence that in the same year Brazil also became the main point of origin for cocaine shipped to Africa.

Angola, which calls Brazil its largest trading partner and ranks among the top destinations for Brazilian exports, is a case in point.4 Between 2005 and 2009, trade between Brazil and Angola increased from $520 million to $1.5 billion, an increase of 183 percent. By 2009, more than 90 percent of the drugs that reached Angola by air were brought from Brazil, mostly transported by African “mules.”5

Nigeria, where organized crime groups have been involved in the drug smuggling business since the 1970s, is another hotspot in the Brazil–Africa connection. The country has long been a jumping-off spot for “mules” carrying drugs from South Asia to the United States.6 But it is now also a major source of smuggled goods—an estimated $800 million worth—for the entire region.7

The Terrorist Threat

Other consequences of the trans-Atlantic drug trade are less noticeable. Brazilian authorities claim that the huge revenues from illicit drug trafficking are triggering an underground arms smuggling trade. In addition, increasing illicit commerce with Africa may increase Brazil’s vulnerability to terrorist networks.

After years of conjecture, there is now strong evidence linking drug traffickers and terrorist organizations.8 Since the majority of drugs leaving South America for Europe exit Brazil and travel through terrorist strongholds in West Africa, these established ties may increase.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has identified West Africa as a developing hub of narcoterrorism, and there is evidence that Latin American traffickers are collaborating with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Hezbollah to smuggle cocaine to Europe.9 In December 2009, the UNODC informed the UN Security Council that drugs were being traded by “terrorists and anti-government forces” to fund their operations.10 That same month, authorities arrested three individuals in Ghana for cocaine trafficking who reported that they were supporting al-Qaeda.

Drug trafficking is not new to either Brazil or West Africa, but the level of sophistication of today’s global drug traffickers has raised international concern. Several security agencies have reported that drug dealers have their own goods containers and their own jet aircraft network that links the cocaine-producing regions of South America and West Africa for eventual transport to Europe. It is estimated that the fleet includes twin-engine turboprops, executive jets and even a Boeing 727 (which can carry up to 10 tons of cargo). In 2009, drug traffickers landed a Boeing 727 on a makeshift runway in Mali and unloaded as much as 10 tons of cocaine before setting the plane ablaze when it failed to take off again. The transportation fleet gives terrorist groups like the FARC, al-Qaeda and AQIM the ability to move vast amounts of illicit materials back and forth between Brazil and West Africa.11

The link between terrorist networks in West Africa and Brazil’s drug traffickers represents an increasing security threat to Brazil, particularly as the bidirectional pipelines used to transport goods, arms, materials, and people expand and grow more seamless. Coupled with the fact that Brazil is a nuclear power, this may create the incentive and capability for acquiring and transporting illicit nuclear materials, which captured documents indicate has long been a goal of al-Qaeda and other militant Muslim groups.

Among South American states, Brazil already has the largest presence of nonterrorist criminal groups, many of which are involved in the illegal drug trade. Experts believe terrorists increasingly use them as a source of material support. However, while the tri-border area between Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay has been described as a “haven for fund-raising, recruiting and [plotting] terrorist attacks elsewhere,”12 there is no conclusive evidence that terrorist networks are involved in illicit trade in Brazil.Still, intelligence analysts have confirmed ties between Latin American drug traffickers and terrorist networks in West Africa.

In West Africa, the rise of the drug trade has increased fears that weak states could become criminalized “narco-states.”13 In Guinea-Bissau the assassination of the military chief of staff, General Batista Tagme Na Wai, and the murder of the country’s president, João Bernardo Vieira, in 2009 were linked to a trafficking dispute. The growing drug trade has also been blamed for increasing political instability and violence elsewhere in the region, including, in 2008, riots in Cote d’Ivoire, an attempted coup in Guinea-Bissau and an actual coup in Guinea. The number of West African organized crime groups involved in drug smuggling is growing; some even have their own armies and caches of weapons.14

Protect the Border

These threats of violence and terrorism have not been completely ignored by domestic authorities. Brazil and West African countries have taken both unilateral and regional action to improve border security and the capacity to detect and interdict illicit activities.

A recent arms trafficking report noting that Brazil’s border control is “far from satisfactory” has prodded the government to pursue new initiatives such as doubling troops along the entire Brazilian border.15 But whether those efforts will be enough to diminish the drug trade and threats of terrorist activity remains to be seen.

In June 2011, President Dilma Rousseff announced a new Strategic Border Plan, aimed at strengthening cooperation on border control with neighboring countries to fight organized crime. One provision gives the Brazilian Army the power to carry out police actions. Brazil also intends to send 7,000 soldiers and 30 warplanes to patrol areas along its border with Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.

Authorities identified 34 places along the Brazilian border in which organized criminal gangs operate. Justice Minister José Eduardo Cardozo said border control in these places will be reinforced in concert with the Federal Police, the Federal Highway Police and the Armed Forces.16

At the same time, Brazil is working on bilateral border security agreements with all 10 countries with which it shares borders. In July, Brazil and Paraguay signed bilateral agreements to improve information sharing and to coordinate anti-trafficking efforts. Less than a month later, Brazil and Colombia signed a border agreement to combat organized crime and protect natural resources along their shared Amazon border. The agreement created a Border Commission composed of security forces from both countries that will regularly monitor and evaluate border security progress.

The agreements are already producing results. At the time of this article’s publication, Brazil was planning
a joint “mega operation” with Paraguay to hunt down traffickers of drugs and contraband in their shared border area. The operation involved large investments in technology to aid the police and military operations, and was to include the use of spy planes and satellites.17

To cover sea and air routes, Brazil’s Federal Police will use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in late 2011. Eventually these high-tech reinforcements will be coordinated with Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru so the drones can monitor trade routes across the joint airspace of all four countries.18

Special attention is being paid to the West African link as well. Brazil has joined the Airport Communications Project (AIRCOP)—a new UNODC-sponsored project funded by Canada and the European Commission, in cooperation with Interpol and the World Customs Organization.19 AIRCOP seeks to strengthen communication and encourage intelligence-sharing at the airport and police level between Brazil and seven West African states (Cape Verde, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, and Togo).

Corruption and Limited Resources on the Receiving End

But such efforts are complicated by West Africa’s own governance problems. The lack of domestic security architecture, along with insufficient equipment, corruption and poor training for police are common problem across the region. For example, until last year, Guinea did not have a single scanner at its international airports. Nigeria only began using body scanners at its airports in 2010.

The attention to air smuggling is timely. When sea interdiction efforts increased, drug traffickers switched to air transport in Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, and Sierra Leone. It is well documented that the drug traffickers freely use abandoned airfields and landing strips in these countries where police have no presence. Authorities in Mali, where AQIM has now infiltrated, are so overburdened and under-resourced that they “lack the capacity to patrol the northern parts of their country.”20

Notwithstanding their budget constraints and institutional challenges, many African countries are taking a tougher stance against drug trafficking. The Nigerian National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) has increased interdiction efforts, particularly at the airports. Earlier this year, the leader of Gambia’s National Drug Enforcement Agency warned that it would carry out a “tougher and more aggressive” fight against drug traffickers and reiterated Gambia’s “double zero tolerance” on drugs.21

Like Brazil, West African nations are beginning to recognize the value of regional cooperation. Last fall, Gambia hosted a regional forum on illegal drug trafficking and organized crime. In 2010, delegates from 34 countries gathered at the Fourth Session of the African Union Ministerial Conference on Crime Prevention and Drug Control to discuss harmonization of legislation across countries and the creation of a coordination, collection and data processing organization to assess the drug and crime threat.22

Earlier this year, African Union lawyers from Angola and Mozambique reportedly agreed to assist Guinea-Bissau in drafting legislation to combat the drug trade.23 In July 2011, police chiefs from several West African countries met in Guinea to discuss countering national and transnational crime via simultaneous police operations and to review the status of efforts to harmonize national legislation on transnational crimes.24

African nations are also receiving help from international bodies. Both the European Union and Germany have offered technical support to Nigeria’s NDLEA, while the Portuguese Judiciary Police has collaborated with Angola to combat drug trafficking and violent crime. In 2009, the United Nations Office for West Africa, in partnership with UNODC, Interpol and the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, set up the West Africa Coast Initiative (WACI) to address growing problems of illicit drug trafficking and organized crime. A keystone of WACI is the establishment of a Transnational Crime Unit in each country that is charged with gathering information and developing operational intelligence.25

There’s still a lot to be done to improve the ability of the region to combat the growing transnational crime threat. As long as West Africa remains hamstrung by limited resources, international development agencies must target their funding to address the critical link between hard security and soft security (economic development and growth).

But across the Atlantic, the sheer size and economic power of Brazil makes it the crucial player—whether in tackling the spread of drug
trafficking in South America or in breaking the West Africa–Brazil drug connection.

With its more ample resources, Brazil should increase bilateral aid and technical assistance to its resource-scarce counterparts in West Africa. More technical assistance to its West African trade partners in areas ranging from intelligence-gathering and information-sharing to interdiction across agencies will reduce its own vulnerability.

In the fight against transnational crime, the landscape is always shifting. Crime groups are adept at staying one step ahead of authorities simply by shifting their base of operations. Several Brazilian groups, for example, have relocated to Paraguay, while continuing to control operations at home.26 Drug traffickers’ success (and wealth) make them a nimble and resourceful enemy, and it will take a similarly flexible and well-funded strategy on the part of governments across the globe to defeat them.


1. See <http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3340035/ns/news-special_coverage/t/russian-mob-trading-arms-cocaine-colombia-rebels/#.TndoS9SNd9M> (Last accessed November, 2011)
2. See <http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3340035/ns/news-special_coverage/t/russian-mob-trading-arms-cocaine-colombia-rebels/#.TndoS9SNd9M>  (Last accessed November, 2011)
3. United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), World Drug Report, 2011, <http://www.unodc.org/documents/southerncone//Topics_drugs/WDR/2011/Brazil_References_WDR_2011_ENG_FINAL.pdf> (Last accessed November, 2011)
4. See <http://brazilglobal.net/2010/12/01/targeting-africa-brazil-launches-business-centre-in-angola/> (Last accessed November, 2011)
5. See <http://www.tradeafricablog.com/2011/08/brazil-arrests-point-to-southern-africa.html> (Last accessed November, 2011)
6. Vanda Felbab-Brown, “The West African Drug Trade in the Context of the Region’s Illicit Economies and Poor Governance,” Brookings Institution, 2010.
7. David Lewis, “West Africa drugs trade going the way of Mexico –UN,” Reuters, June 20, 2011, <http://af.reuters.com/article/maliNews/idAFLDE75J1YC20110620> (Last accessed November, 2011)
8. Joelle Burbank,  “Trans-Saharan Trafficking: A Growing Source of Terrorist Financing,” Center for the Study of Threat Convergence, 2010, <http://www.fundforpeace.org/tc/images/Publications/burbank_trans-saharan_trafficking_september_2010.pdf>   (Last accessed November, 2011). See also Robin Yapp, “South American drug gangs funding al-Qaeda terrorists” December 29, 2010, UK Telegraph <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/southamerica/colombia/8230134/South-American-drug-gangs-funding-al-Qaeda-terrorists.html> (Last accessed November, 2011)
9. See <http://www.isn.ethz.ch/isn/Current-Affairs/Security-Watch-Archive/Detail/?lng=en&id=111599> (Last accessed November, 2011)
10. See <http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/frontpage/2009/December/security-council-debates-devastating-impact-of-drug-trafficking.html> (Last accessed November, 2011)
11. Tim Gaynor and Tiemoko Diallo, “Al Qaeda linked to rogue aviation network,” Reuters, January 13, 2010, <http://www.reuters.com/assets/print?aid=USTRE60C3E820100113> (Last accessed November, 2011)
12. Library of Congress, “Terrorist and Organized Crime Groups in the Tri-Border Area (TBA) of South America,” 2010.
13. Burbank, 2010.
14. Interfax. August 29, 2011. <http://www.interfax.com/newsinf.asp?pg=3&id=269023> (Last accessed November, 2011)
15. Hannah Stone, “Brazil Police Say Sea Is New Arms Trafficking Frontier,” Insight Crime, July 15, 2011. <http://insightcrime.org/insight-latest-news/item/1242-brazil-police-say-sea-is-new-arms-trafficking-frontier> (Last accessed November, 2011)
16. See <http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/world/2011-06/09/content_12663934.htm> (Last accessed November, 2011)
17. Jeanna Cullinan, “Brazil Plans ‘Mega Operation’ to Secure Paraguay Border,” Insight Crime, September 8, 2011, <http://insightcrime.org/insight-latest-news/item/1537-brazil-plans-mega-operation-to-secure-paraguay-border> (Last accessed November, 2011)
18. See <http://interamericansecuritywatch.com/brazil-unmanned-aircraft-hunt-drug-gangs/> (Last accessed November, 2011)
19. See <http://www.unodc.org/westandcentralafrica/en/wsaircop.html> (Last accessed November, 2011)
20. Burbank, 2010.
21. The Daily Observer, January 7, 2011, <http://observer.gm/africa/gambia/article/tough-fight-awaits-drug-peddlers> (Last accessed November, 2011)
22. See <http://allafrica.com/stories/201010010442.html> (Last accessed November, 2011)
23. Jornal Digital, January 7, 2011. <http://jornaldigital.com/noticias.php?noticia=24849> (Last accessed November, 2011)
24. See <http://allafrica.com/stories/201107150902.html> (Last accessed November, 2011)
25. See <http://unowa.unmissions.org/Default.aspx?tabid=841> (Last accessed November, 2011)
26. Jen Sokatch, “Brazil Drug Gangs Have Offices in Paraguay: Police,” Insight Crime, May 19, 2011, <http://insightcrime.org/insight-latest-news/item/951-brazil-drug-gangs-have-offices-in-paraguay-police> (Last accessed November, 2011)

Tags: Africa, Brazil, Narcotics
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