THERE is a truly international makeup to the nationalities involved in trafficking cocaine into Ireland.
African, eastern European, Dutch and Irish feature highly, with a scattering of British, American and Germans.
But it’s the dominance of Africans, particularly west Africans, that is most stark.
For the last three years (for which there are figures available), Africans accounted for more than half of all people arrested for cocaine trafficking in 2005 and 2007 and 30% in 2006.
Of these, the single most prominent nationality is Nigerian. In 2005, they single-handedly accounted for half of those arrested. In the other two years it was closer to a third.
The trend highlights two things: the first, and most obvious, is the use of Nigerian and African nationals to smuggle drugs, often inside their body at great personal risk.
The other thing is the relatively sudden emergence of west African, namely Nigerian, gangs in the cocaine trafficking trade — a trend highlighted in a number of United Nations reports in recent years.
Michael Colgan is head of Customs Drugs Law Enforcement. Customs supplied the raw data from which the UN produced its data. (Garda figures are not included in the data for cocaine trafficking arrests).
Commenting on the high number of Nigerians, he said: “They are the people we are detecting. We’re not saying they are the people at the heart of trafficking. They are people tasked with running the load, acting as couriers or mules.”
He said the figures “would indicate there are gangs of that nationality involved” and that these gangs have an availability of fellow nationals to bear the risk of smuggling.
“They are often not [high] up the socio-economic ladder and may not have got a lot of money for undertaking what they’ve attempted to do.”
He said research on those arrested for trafficking, and the flights they’ve taken, allow Customs to target resources to those flights, and those people, who carry a higher risk.
“It helps us to narrow down from the many thousands of people arriving every day and narrow down those particular flights or those passengers who come from areas historically and have a proven high risk.”
The influence of Nigerian gangs does not end with their own, or neighbouring, people. UN reports have pointed out that west African gangs are using eastern Europe to supply cocaine into the main markets in western Europe.
A significant number of eastern Europeans have been arrested by Customs. In 2005, 7% of those arrested were Polish. In 2006, 10% were Polish and 17% were Estonian. In 2007, 9% of those arrested were Polish.
“Some eastern Europeans appear to be recruited by west African groups on account they have EU passports and are entitled to freedom of movement within the EU and would encounter less controls in terms of their movements,” said Mr Colgan.
The UN said trafficking has changed considerably since 2005. Before then, South American cartels were sending cocaine via the traditional routes, direct to Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands.
Because of greater law enforcement efforts there, they have diverted a large chunk of the massive shipments of cocaine to the west African coast, where security is low and governance is weak and corrupt. Now almost 30% of cocaine going into Europe comes from west Africa.
“There appears to be two parallel flows,” said the UN report, Drug Trafficking as a Security Threat in West Africa. “One, mainly involving large maritime and private air shipments, is owned and managed by South Americans.
“In exchange for logistic assistance with these shipments, west Africans are paid in cocaine.
“This has created a second flow, as west Africans also traffic these drugs to Europe, usually via commercial air flights.”
It said Nigerians accounted for most of those arrested off these flights. It said they were prominent in arrests figures for France, Austria, Italy, Ireland and Spain.
Lead author of the report, Ted Leggett, told the Irish Examiner that the use of couriers on commercial air flights was a favourite of west African drug trafficking networks worldwide.
“It basically gets handed back to Nigerians when it gets to Europe. Obviously there is a relationship with local organised crime groups. It would be very difficult for them to operate without the knowledge of local groups.”
He said Nigerian gangs worked across the world, in Brazil, South Africa, Russian, the US, Thailand and even places like Kyrgyzstan.
“They are very adaptable. They are very good at doing what they do. The way they succeed is by filling niches local people haven’t filled.”
Mr Leggett said Nigerian gangs were “not structured” and were essentially a “a bunch of entrepreneurs”, often engaged in both legal and illegal trades.
“They know somebody who knows somebody and know where they can get stuff. If someone gets arrested there’s plenty of people who can fill that person’s role. It’s networks, they have got people in places all around the world,” he added.
The looseness of the structure makes it more difficult for law enforcement, he said. They generally “keep a low profile” and don’t carry guns and were not particularly violent compared with other ethnic gangs.
He said new traffickers may start out couriering themselves until they earn enough money to sub-contract. “Better resourced networks can afford to field large numbers of couriers on the same flight, a technique known as the “shotgun approach”. The traffickers know that most airports have the capacity to detain only a limited number of suspects on any given flight. Losses are anticipated, and even planned, but the bottom-line remains viable.”
In Ireland, air is by far the most common means of trafficking.
In terms of volume seized, the bulk has been by sea.
As Ireland doesn’t have direct links with South America or west Africa, the couriers caught here are typically coming off flights from the European hub airports.
Mr Colgan said smuggling is done either by concealing cocaine, typically between 1kg and 3kg in size, on the person or in luggage, or by ingesting the drug, in sizes up to 1.2kg.
He said they have already noticed a trend this year in the number of couriers ingesting cocaine.
There have been six cases at Dublin Airport already, compared with eight last year.
“Even with the downturn in the economy we are seeing no diminution in the amount of cocaine being trafficked. The most marked trend in the first two months is the increase in the number of internal concealments.”
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