Meth Labs Found in West Africa as Transit Hub Turns to Producing

Criminals in West Africa, a region used for the transit of illicit narcotics such as cocaine and heroine, have begun producing drugs including methamphetamines for export to Asia and South Africa, the United Nations said.

“The region is shifting from a transit and consumer place to a producing place,” Pierre Lapaque, regional representative for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, said an interview in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, on March 12. “Nigerian criminal groups have quickly identified methamphetamine production as a criminal niche.”

West Africa became a hub for moving drugs mainly from South America to Europe and Asia, with an estimated 47 tons of cocaine transited in 2007. As law enforcement improved and trafficking dropped, methamphetamines production has risen, according to the UN. That will probably put pressure on health-care and justice systems as more drugs in the region may lead to higher addiction rates, the UNODC said.

Methamphetamines, commonly known as crystal meth or simply meth, are produced by cooking precursor chemicals including common cold decongestants. Three “big-scale, serious laboratories” have been found near Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital and Africa’s second-biggest city, Lapaque said. One was discovered in January, he said.

Nigerians in the country use connections with nationals living around the world, Lapaque said. “Nigeria has a fantastic diaspora that they use and mis-use,” he said. “They are connected worldwide.”

Asia Exports

The risk of being caught with the drug in West Africa is minimal because many customs officials haven’t seen methamphetamines before, Lapaque said. The chemicals used to make the drug are poorly controlled by states in the region, making them easily available, he said.

The UNODC estimates that as much as 3,000 kilograms (6,613 pounds) of the drug could have been exported to Asia in 2010, the latest data available. A kilogram of crystal meth in Tokyo costs $200,000, according to a report released last month by the Vienna-based organization. The cost to produce a kilogram in West Africa is a 10th of that, Lapaque said.

The African producers may face competition from Asian methamphetamines makers, which would mean more drugs dumped on local markets and higher addiction rates, he said.

West Africa’s rise as a producer has come as the number of labs found in Cape Town dropped since 2008. The South African city has the world’s highest prevalence of methamphetamines, with 2 percent of adults using the drug, according to the UNODC. Drug producers are unlikely to shift out of the region, Lapaque said.

“As long as you have weak governance and weak rule of law, as long as you can pay your way out of jail and find people to assist you for a couple of dollars, there is no good reason to leave West Africa,” he said.

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