More arrests after record cocaine seizure in Gambia

9th June 2010, Comments 0 comments

Gambian authorities and British organised crime officials have seized more than two tonnes of cocaine, a record for West Africa which has become a favoured transit point for South American drug cartels.

Fifteen people were arrested in a case with all the colour of an international drug operation: South Americans, Europeans and Africans working under cover of a fishing company and running operations off a tiny nearby island.

A senior police source speaking anonomously told AFP that "12 suspects were first arrested on May 12 after a tip-off by residents in the village of Bonto, about 45 kilometres away from the capital, Banjul."

They were four Nigerians, three Ghanians, two Venezuelans, and three Dutch nationals.

"The suspects included the Dutch owner and Venezuelan employees of a Gambia-based fishing company," Britain's Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) said on its website.

They "had a number of premises including exclusive use of a small island where they made use of a dilapidated hotel and set up communications and transportation systems."

After these arrests Gambia, a sliver of a country bordered on three sides by Senegal and the fourth by the Atlantic Ocean, sought the help of SOCA in examining suspected drugs warehouses.

This led to the June 4 discovery of 2.1 tonnes of cocaine in an underground bunker concealed behind a false wall in a warehouse used by the fishing company.

Authorities also found 250,000 dollars in cash and a number of loaded firearms.

The cocaine was in "bricks" in 85 sacks, while another 60 empty sacks indicated "the bunker had been used as a distribution centre."

SOCA said the seizure was a "record for West Africa", which has become a key transit point for Latin American cartels seeking to take advantage of weak governance and corruption which plague many of the region's states.

"It has long been feared that cocaine traffickers might seek to exploit the Gambia and other countries in the region as warehousing locations for drugs en route from South America to Europe," said SOCA deputy director Neil Giles.

"It is highly likely a large proportion of these drugs would have found their way on to the streets of Europe and the UK. Taking this cocaine, and the profits it would have generated, out of the hands of criminals is a major blow to their operations."

The cocaine is worth more than 150 million dollars (125 million euros) but "the street value would be many times higher depending on how much the criminals diluted the cocaine with cutting agents," said the SOCA statement.

A British official speaking to AFP in London said Tuesday that the street value was as much as one billion dollars.

Another three people, two Gambians and a Nigerian, were arrested late Tuesday and a senior police source told AFP more arrests were expected as investigations continue.

In March, Gambian President Yayha Jammeh said there would be "zero tolerance" for drug-trafficking after 11 senior officials were arrested as part of a probe linked to drugs.

A former police chief and drug chief are alongside senior military and drug enforcement officials on trial for drug trafficking and corruption.

Russell Benson, United States Drug Enforcement Agency regional director for Europe and Africa, warned last week that West Africa faced a "very complicated threat" from drug cartels and urged countries to boost legislation and law enforcement and judicial capabilites.

© 2010 AFP

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