In a strange twist in the history of international drug interdiction, three West African drug traffickers have through their attorneys in New York Federal Court openly acknowledged that they are in the global business of distributing cocaine. According to a story, “Admitting Clients Are Drug Traffickers, but Denying Guilt,” in the New York Times April 14th the defendants—two from Ghana and one from Nigeria—are openly asserting their roles in moving drugs from Latin America to Europe, but denying that they have broken any US laws. They’ve asserted in effect that they found it prudent to avoid the US market. Through a sting operation the three were apprehended in West Africa and brought to the US for trial.
In an earlier post, I wrote about the recolonization of Africa by drugtraders and that is certainly part of this story. A key element of thesting was apparently a plan to bribe Liberian officials to facilitate cocaine trans-shipments. But this story also suggests another kind of recolonization—that by US drug enforcement agencies operating in West Africa and using the threat of sanctions to facilitate a sort of extraterritorial sway that I suspect most Americans would be reluctant to extend to the Nigerian police. Gernot Klantschnig has written in great detail about the US role in West African “drug wars” in his 2009 article, “The Politics of Law Enforcement in Nigeria: Lessons from the War on Drugs,” (Journal of Modern African Studies 47) and in his book, Crime, Drugs and the State in Africa: The Nigerian Connection, forthcoming from Brill. What is probably most intriguing about this story in the end, however, is the matter-of-factness of the admissions—if they should have that name. Many critics of US drug policy may well be surprised to learn that seasoned international traffickers find it advisable to steer clear of the U.S. Whether or not such claims are simply a legal ploy, as the case unfolds it promises to provide fascinating insights into the patterns of a commerce that is shaped by rational assessments of risk and seems to possess considerable legitimacy—in societies in which vibrant religious cultures systematically condemn the use of drugs.