Two tonne record cocaine in West Africa: police
Gambian and British police seized more than two tonnes of cocaine worth about one billion dollars in a small fishing village -- a record haul for West Africa, officials said Wednesday.
The operation highlighted the growing popularity of West Africa for South American drug cartels.
Fifteen people -- South Americans, Europeans and Africans -- working under cover of a fishing company on a tiny island were arrested following raids at Bonto on the tiny island near the Gambian capital Banjul, police said.
The 2.1 tonnes of cocaine was found in an underground bunker concealed behind a false wall in a warehouse used by the fishing company.
A senior police official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP that four Nigerians, three Ghanaians, two Venezuelans, and three Dutch nationals were arrested on May 12 after residents of Bonto tipped off police.
The 12 suspects appeared in court on three charges of drug trafficking on Wednesday. They pleaded not guilty and were remanded in police custody, an AFP correspondent reported.
Two Gambians and a Nigerian were arrested late Tuesday and a senior police official told AFP more arrests were expected.
"The suspects included the Dutch owner and Venezuelan employees of a Gambia-based fishing company," Britain's Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) said.
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."
Gambia, a sliver of land bordered on three sides by Senegal and the fourth by the Atlantic Ocean, sought the help of British police to examine suspected drugs warehouses.
The underground bunker was found on Friday. 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".
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 SOCA.
A British official speaking to AFP in London said that the street value was as much as one billion dollars.
SOCA said the seizure was a "record for West Africa", which has become a key transit point for Latin American cartels seeking that 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."
In March, Gambian President Yayha Jammeh said there would be "zero tolerance" for drug-trafficking after 11 senior officials were arrested.
A former police chief and drug chief are alongside senior military and drug enforcement officials on trial for drug trafficking and corruption.
Russell Benson, US 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, law enforcement and judicial capabilites.
© 2010 AFP