Drug Trafficking and the Crisis in Mali

The dire situation in the north of Mali is further complicated by the growing presence of drug traffickers.

Abdelkader Abderrahmane, Senior Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Addis Ababa

Mali has until recently been regarded as one of the most politically stable countries in West Africa. However, since the fall of the former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi last year and the coup d’état on 22 March against former Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré, the situation in Mali, and especially in the north, has dramatically deteriorated. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) and the Unity Movement for Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) forces have strengthened their presence in the north and some intelligence reports even indicate a growing link between AQIM and the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram.

The situation in the north of Mali is further complicated by the growing presence of drug traffickers. Until 2008, and due to its landlocked nature, narco-traffickers had largely ignored the Malian route to Europe. However, the country has since then increasingly become a transit hub for the international trafficking of narcotics emanating from Latin American drug cartels. South America’s cartels have in the past years particularly directed their drug ‘exports’ to Europe – the world’s largest drug consumer market – through West Africa.

With these cartels taking advantage of a power vacuum due to a lack of judicial and institutional power, the Sahel in general and Mali in particular has undeniably become the hub for all kinds of illegal trafficking. Already vulnerable due to the porosity of its borders, a catastrophic humanitarian situation and tension between the north and the central government of Bamako, the stability of Mali is becoming increasingly worrisome. According to a recent United Nations mission in the Sahel region, northern Mali has now become a dangerous crossroads of drugs, crime, terrorism and rebellion. Indicatively, in 2008 Malian forces intercepted 750 kg of cocaine, equivalent to 36% of the Malian military budget that year.

In this regard, the 2009 Boeing scandal, dubbed ‘Air Cocaïne’, underlined the enormous shortcomings, if not complicity, of Malian local government officials. In November 2009, a Boeing 727 coming from South America landed in the northern desert of Mali. Once the cocaine was unloaded, the plane, bogged down in the sand, could not take off. Forensic personnel found significant traces of cocaine in the plane. Similarly, in January 2010, another plane arriving from Latin America landed in north-west Mali near the Mauritanian border.

It has also been established that the airport of Bamako has become a transit point for drug traffickers, especially Nigerians, transporting drugs to Europe. The traffickers and terrorists have chosen Mali largely due to the serious lack of surveillance, the porous borders of the country, and the high level of corruption in all strata of the army, police and customs.

Indeed all of this indicates that the trafficking could not occur without the complicity of the locals. There is, for example, ample evidence that local leaders and even mayors were present during the unloading of these illicit goods from the planes and that corruption has become common between traffickers and officials. More, according to some French diplomats, there are serious links between AQMI and some top Malian officials.

Such drug trafficking is moreover made worse by the participation of terrorist groups such as AQMI, Ansar Dine, MUJAO and Boko Haram, who have found roots in northern Mali. These groups are increasingly financing their criminal and terrorist activities through the trafficking of illicit goods and drugs.

To complicate the security situation in Mali, the fall of Libya’s Gaddafi and the territorial and geo-political instability that followed have enabled these terrorist groups and drug traffickers to reinforce their position in the country. Arms have proliferated and now circulate even more easily across Mali, which has fallen into the hands of these terrorist groups and drug traffickers.

Moreover, the current volatile situation in Mali has had a dramatic and negative impact on the national economy, with, for instance, the tourism industry plummeting. Last but not least, Mali this year also faces a renewed threat in the form of locusts. The early rain across the Sahel has led to the sprouting of vegetation that the insects can feed on, ruining the harvest of the country.

And despite encouraging macro-economic indicators, almost half of the Malian population live on less than a dollar a day, most of them in the northern rural areas, making them easy prey for recruitment by AQMI. Drought, the lack of food security, including famine, and the absence of economic opportunities, are all important factors that can enable and encourage fringes of the Malian population to succumb to the manipulation of drug traffickers and terrorist groups. The socio-political and economic situation in Mali thus remains worrying.

The ongoing conflict in Mali has affected more than 2 million people, causing the internal displacement of an estimated 200 000 people and leading to an estimated 320 000 Malians fleeing the country since the beginning of the year. Additionally, an estimated 1.6 million people are currently facing food insecurity in the north, which is controlled by the rebel groups. To make matters worse, humanitarian assistance to the population in the north is rendered extremely difficult due to the high insecurity there. As a result, malnutrition has increased especially in the regions of Timbuktu, Gao, Koulikoro and Kayes. 

The multifaceted crises Mali is currently facing alarmingly increase the vulnerability of both the Malian population and the state. In addition to the harsh conditions facing the local population, the growing trafficking of drugs is also linked to the terrorist groups present in the north. Such a situation can only worsen and put the country at an even greater risk. Furthermore, drug trafficking and corruption are seriously threatening the consolidation of democracy in Mali. The current political power vacuum in Bamako can only weaken the country and ruin the democratic progress made these past years. The interim Malian president, Dioncounda Traoré, who has just returned from Paris where he spent the past two months following an assault against him in his presidential palace, must urgently work hand-in-hand with all progressive forces in the country to prevent Mali from falling into a Somalia-like situation any time soon.


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