Corruption hinders efforts to stem trafficking through Ghana

A British operation to stem the flow of cocaine through Ghana has been beset by corruption, with local drug police sabotaging expensive scanning equipment and tipping off smugglers to avoid detection, leaked United States (US) embassy cables reveal.

Ghana’s President John Atta Mills even worried that his own entourage may be smuggling drugs through his presidential lounge at Accra’s Kotoka airport and asked a senior British customs official in November 2009 for help to screen them “in the privacy of his suite to avoid any surprises if they are caught carrying drugs”, according to the US embassy in Accra.

The request reveals a deep crisis in the bilateral operation against wholesale drug trafficking into the United Kingdom (UK) through an airport that has become one of the main transit hubs for South American drug cartels after the authorities successfully blocked routes from the Caribbean.

The United Nations has estimated that up to 60 tonnes of cocaine are smuggled through West Africa, mostly into Europe, each year. According to the cables, the Ghanaian narcotics control board officers working with British officials:

  • Actively helped traffickers, even calling the criminals on their cellphones to tell them when to travel to avoid detection

  • Sabotaged sensitive drug scanners provided to the Ghanaian government; and
  • Channelled passengers, including pastors and bank managers and their wives, into the security-exempt VVIP lounge, despite suspicions they were trafficking drugs.

Smuggling has become so blatant that on one flight last year two traffickers vomited drugs they had swallowed and subsequently died, while parcels of cocaine were found taped under the seats of a KLM plane even before boarding.

President Mills had publicly pledged to crack down on wholesale drug trafficking into the UK via the airport and won the presidency on an anti-drugs platform. But in June 2009 he told the US ambassador to Ghana, Donald Teitelbaum, “elements of his government are already compromised and that officials at the airport tipped off drug traffickers about operations there”.

Embassy contacts in the police service and the president’s office “have said they know the identities of the major barons,” but “the government of Ghana does not have the political will to go after [them]”, a December 2007 cable said.

The cable concluded: “The government of Ghana does not provide the resources necessary to address the problem and, at times, does not appear to have the political will to go after the major drug barons.”—.

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