NAIROBI (Reuters) - East African states worried by a surge in heroin smuggling via their Indian Ocean ports want to boost intelligence sharing and possibly try suspected traffickers in local courts, an official at the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (ODC) said on Monday.
East Africa has become a key export route for Afghan heroin destined for Europe but regional maritime forces, short of funds and anti-trafficking expertise, have struggled to stem the flow of narcotics through their territorial waters.
Saeeda Verrall, a U.N. ODC official based in Mauritius, said regional states have asked the U.N. to help them improve maritime intelligence sharing and to create a legal framework to try suspected traffickers arrested in international waters.
“There is a recognition that this is a huge problem and that it requires a rethinking of how information is shared and a willingness to co-ordinate around the region,” Verrall said.
So far the best defense against drugs trafficking for the likes of Kenya and Tanzania has been the Combined Maritime Force (CMF), a 30-nation naval force which has in east Africa mainly focused on protecting busy shipping lanes from Somali pirates.
As piracy has waned in the last two years, CMF has shifted attention in east Africa to combating smuggling of illicit drugs and weapons.
While most Europe-bound Afghan heroin goes through Iran and the Balkans, a spate of record-size hauls near Kenya and Tanzania has raised fears traffickers are turning to east Africa because of its porous borders and weak maritime surveillance.
In recent years there has been a surge in the volumes of heroin trafficked through east Africa, U.N. ODC officials say.
CMF, which counters illegal activities in an area covering the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, Arabian Gulf, Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Oman, told Reuters in the first six months of this year it seized 2.7 tonnes of heroin, a substantial increase on the 2 tonnes it seized in the whole of 2013.
The spike in heroin busts includes CMF’s record heroin haul of just over a metric ton (1.1023 ton), seized by an Australian warship in April from a dhow in Kenyan waters. That haul is roughly the same as all the heroin seized by 11 east African governments between 1990 to 2009, according to U.N. ODC figures.
Kenyan police last month also discovered 341.7 kg of heroin hidden in a ship in the ancient Indian Ocean port of Mombasa, which is now the gateway for trade to east Africa.
Drugs problems have long plagued the other side of the continent, with West Africa’s string of poor, weak nations becoming a major transit zone for Latin American cocaine headed to Europe.
Verrall said better maritime intelligence sharing between east African states can be done informally or by setting up official channels through one of the regional maritime centers which are used for counter-piracy information sharing.
In one such center in the Indian Ocean archipelago of Seychelles, regional officials work closely with international agencies, including the U.N., Interpol and Britain’s Scotland Yard.
“The infrastructure is in some ways already in place if countries want to use that,” she said. “The (Seychelles) center was focused on piracy but that’s now changing as it’s recognized that piracy is declining and other issues are cropping up.”
Verrall said the biggest challenge, however, will be setting up some sort of legal system to try suspected traffickers caught with drugs on international waters as at present there is no legal arrangements for prosecutions.
“Ideally, what we would want is to work towards a model similar to what we have done with the piracy prosecutions where states in the region would be willing to take on cases of suspects apprehended on the high seas,” she said.
At present, courts in Kenya, Mauritius and Seychelles try pirates even though they are not citizens of those states.
Reporting by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Toby Chopra