Cape Verde and Drug Trafficking: A Major Challenge to the Rule of Law

drug-trafficking-west-africaWest Africa has been affected by a range of illicit maritime activities, such as human trafficking, the smuggling of small arms and narcotics, illegal fishing and piracy. In an increasingly interconnected world the rise in these activities in the region does not solely represent a challenge to security and stability. In fact, it has profound implications for the international community, namely the EU and the US. Those activities, drug trafficking in particular, are a major source of income not only for drug cartels in Latin America, but also for jihadi groups in West Africa, the Sahel and the Maghreb, thus threatening international security and stability.
Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde are two drug trafficking hubs in West Africa. While this is hardly a surprise in the case of Guinea-Bissau—some regard it as world’s first narco-state, Cape Verde has been away from the spotlight. The difference can partly be explained by the fact that Guinea-Bissau has become a main transit point of drug shipments to land-routes towards the Maghreb and Europe, therefore representing an apparent more immediate threat to the international community, while Cape Verde is a transit point between Latin America and the African continent.
Cape Verde, despite being considered a case of success in the continent in terms of socioeconomic development and democratic resilience, has faced recurrent difficulties regarding financing and capacity-building of its security forces, which, added to the fact that the archipelago is located in the route between Latin America and West Africa, makes the country extremely appealing for drug traffickers.
Cape Verde’s increasing relevance in the expansion of drug trafficking led to the inauguration in 2010 of the Maritime Security Operations Center (COSMAR) in the country’s capital, Praia. Financed by the US, COSMAR enables a more efficient collaboration between national agencies responsible for monitoring and controlling illicit activities along the territory. It facilitates the planning of joint operations with other nations. Among other benefits, COSMAR provides access to radar and satellite images. This is the second such center in Africa, the other being based in Morocco and focused on the Mediterranean region. Cape Verde’s choice to be the host for COSMAR indicates the country’s increasing centrality in international drug trafficking routes.
Drug trafficking clearly undermines the rule of law. In a recent interview, Cape Verde’s ambassador to the UN, Fernando Wahnon, alluded to the threat represented by the spread of drug consumption in the country, and also the greater risk of corruption among the authorities. In his words: “These [criminal] organizations’ power of corruption is immense. In a vulnerable state such as Cape Verde [criminal organizations] threaten the rule of law and the institutions themselves”.
Therefore, it is clear that Cape Verde’s democratic institutions must be robustly supported. Under this line of thought, in 2005 Cape Verde became the third country to join the Millenium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a US-backed programme aimed at promoting economic growth in countries that abide by certain criteria of good governance. Cape Verde also managed to become the first African country to complete the programme, and in 2012 signed a second governance pact.
Often regarded as a democratic example in the continent, Cape Verde has been a relevant vector in Washington’s strategy for the region’s security and stability. Of equal importance, it is considered an important piece in the US campaign against international terrorism. The small African archipelago is not only a center of stability in a volatile region, but also enjoys a strategic location in the South Atlantic. To lose Cape Verde to drug trafficking would be a strategic nightmare for the US and Europe.
Coincidence or not, the new US ambassador to Cape Verde, Donald L. Heflin, previously served as the first official and general-consul at the Mexican city of Nuevo Laredo. Located in the border with the US, Nuevo Laredo is known for the drug trafficking and bloody clashes between rival drug cartels. Heflin also held high positions in Africa. However, it is his experience in Nuevo Laredo that makes his nomination to Cape Verde an interesting development. In his testimony to the Senate, Heflin could not have been clearer: “The United States and Cabo Verde are partners on a number of important matters. Among them, maritime security and transnational crime are key. The Government of Cabo Verde strongly supports counter-narcotics maneuvers and is a gracious host to U.S. ship visits. Cabo Verde is a model in the region for strategic partnership”.
As Fernando Wahnon affirmed, “Cape Verde’s inability to monitor its economic zone lures organized crime”. Without means and resources “it would be impossible to do it alone.” He concluded that in order to “try to overcome the difficulties [it is necessary] to initiate joint operations with other countries”. In the absence of support programmes for maritime monitoring (COSMAR) and socioeconomic development (MCC), Cape Verde would possibly place its democratic regime and rule of law at risk. That does not necessarily mean that the island nation will follow in the footsteps of neighboring Guinea-Bissau. Nonetheless, it is important not to let everything that was achieved in recent years go to waste due to drug trafficking.
Like the US, Portugal should strengthen cooperation with Cape-Verdean authorities in the fight against drug trafficking. The new Indicative Cooperation Programme (ICP) 2015/2017, which will soon be signed by both countries, will surely reflect this.

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