Narco-terrorists have established routes through West Africa to emerging markets in the region and Asia.
The death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman from suspected heroin overdose may have thrown the spotlight on drugs, but narco-terrorism is the larger concern for security agencies around the world, including the UAE and other GCC countries.
A leading security expert has revealed that Latin American cartels entrenched in Africa are eyeing the GCC for supplying and trafficking in narcotics. They also seek to launder their dirty money from the drug trade in the region as the zero tax regime aids their operations.
Narco-terrorism refers to the nexus between drug cartels, transnational criminal organisations and terrorist groups.
“In the last 10 years, drug cartels from South America have increased their presence and operations in West Africa to secure the movement of drugs (mostly cocaine) to markets in Europe, and the emerging markets in Asia and the Middle East,” said Johan Obdola, President of the International Organisation for Security and Intelligence, which advises governments on how to tackle the scourge.
Latin American drug cartels and terrorist groups, including Colombia’s Farc rebels, Mexican drug organisations like ‘Zetas’ and El Chapo Guzman are actively involved in Africa, mainly in West Africa. He said these cartels were hoping to establish themselves in the Middle East and Asia.
“We are identifying the new routes that narco-terrorist groups are developing and operating between South America — specifically Brazil and Argentina — to the GCC region, mainly Qatar, with ramifications in the UAE,” said Obdola, a former Venezuelan police commissioner, who now lives in Canada.
He said these organised groups were already in “their second stage of their operations”. They are keen to use the UAE as a hub for drug trafficking and money laundering. The bigger concern was that they were working on all fronts to establish a demand for their products in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, he said.
“Colombia, Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. Currently, Mexico, El Salvador, Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago are nations where well-organised narco-terrorist groups are developing their routes to the GCC region and Asia,” he said.
Last week, Colonel Saeed Al Suwaidi, Director-General of the UAE’s Federal Anti-Narcotics Agency in the Ministry of Interior, said 11 tonnes of narcotics were seized in 2013. The Ministry of Interior also said assets and money of those involved in the sale of drugs and associated with money laundering would be confiscated.
There is no evidence that the banned Muslim Brotherhood is benefiting from the drugs trade, but Obdola added that Al Qaeda was spreading its tentacles in Latin America. “There are confirmed operatives in Brazil, Colombia and other nations, including some countries in Central America (Honduras and Mexico). Al Qaeda members are also doing business with Colombian drug cartels and the Farc rebels.”
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Hezbollah and other groups are increasingly active in Latin America and Mexico, and cocaine trade is a very important financial support.
Obdola said the GCC and UAE have two main fronts in the fight against narco-terror emerging from Latin America via Africa, and from Afghanistan.
“The narcotics industry, with the involvement of organised criminals, drug cartels and terrorist groups are establishing a strategically sound alliance for financial and even political gain,” he said.
Latin American drug networks are structured for money laundering and local consumption of drugs based on demand. These cartels also have the discreet ability and financial heft to spark off corruption and infiltrate private corporates, and transport, logistics, and security units.
Investments are made in real state, front businesses, transportation and other sectors as well.
The UAE police and security agencies have done good work in the areas of enforcement and intelligence to counter the illegal drug trade. They are engaging with communities to gather local intelligence and are also working with agencies globally to provide the best response against the phenomenon.
The Latin American connection
Security officials in the UAE have confirmed the South American link to narcotics smuggling and established crime in the region. Lieutenant-General Dhahi Khalfan Tamim, Deputy Chairman of Police and Security in Dubai, speaking to Khaleej Times, said there has been an increase in drug-related activity from Latin America where traffickers exploit Africans and Asians, including women.
According to Dubai Police statistics, there has been an increase in smuggling of cocaine and heroin from Latin America to Africa, GCC and other countries via the Dubai International Airport. The drugs haul represents 75 per cent of all drug seizures at Dubai Airports.
“Drug traffickers not only break anti-drug laws but also laws governing financial institutions. It’s an established network where they rope in local criminals and anti-social elements — bribery and blackmailing are common in their modus operandi,” he said.
Investigations have shown that drug traffickers are actively targeting countries facing political unrest to channel their illegal substances. He said youth unemployment has become a concern and many young people are taking to drugs to escape from their misery.
“People are exploited because of their circumstances by these large cartels who use closer geographical locations, porous borders and lack of effective legislation to promote drugs.”
“There is a relationship between international drug smuggling and the growth of money laundering which is then channelled into other nefarious activities,” Lt-Gen Khalfan said. He called it a vicious cycle where high demand for substances led to increased production which, in turn, creates more markets.