Cartel Continent

How Narcotics are Flooding Africa

A heroin addict smokes heroin in Lamu November 21, 2014.  Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

In April 2014, an Australian warship intercepted a sailboat roughly 30 nautical miles off the Kenyan coast. Aboard the ship was more than a ton of heroin, worth an estimated $260 million. The haul was approximately equal to the entire amount of heroin intercepted in East Africa’s waters between 1990 and 2009. Later that same year, Kenyan naval forces boarded a vessel from Pakistan carrying nearly 1,800 pounds of heroin. These incidents served as further confirmation of sub-Saharan Africa’s emergent role as a major narcotics hub.

Since the the early 2000s, crime syndicates have increasingly exploited the sub-Saharan region’s weak state institutions, relative poverty, and porous borders to funnel large quantities of cocaine and heroin into Europe and, to a lesser degree, North America. Narcotics trafficking has distorted the economies and politics of a number of African states while enriching violent nonstate actors, including groups linked to terrorism in the region. In addition to posing a security risk, the African drug trade has fostered greater substance abuse within the states along its trade routes, priming many nations for public health epidemics.

Although international and local law enforcement agencies have sought to counter narcotics trafficking in Africa, their efforts do not appear to have appreciably reduced the overall flow of drugs through the continent. The prominent role of indigenous gangs in the trade and widespread tolerance for smuggling enterprises among local communities make it difficult to track and seize illegal narcotics transported overland. Consequently, any serious attempt to curb drug trafficking should initially focus on interdicting narcotics shipments en route to Africa. Lessons from the war on drugs from abroad can make their way to Africa, and when paired with the right training and equipment, local law enforcement officials can stem the tide of drugs coursing through the continent.


Drug trafficking in Africa is nothing new. Parts of the continent have long served as conduits for narcotics destined to reach Western streets. According to the late historian Stephen Ellis, Lebanese smugglers moved heroin to the

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