Cocaine Trade Grows in East and Southern Africa
As global cocaine markets continue to expand, a new investigation suggests countries across east and southern Africa are receiving much larger drug shipments from South America than was previously believed.
Drug market research in 16 countries has found both substantial local consumption and bulging transit flows to Europe and Australia, according to a Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC) report.
These primarily travel by maritime container from Brazil’s port of Santos, though a steady stream of human carriers also flies smaller quantities from Sao Paulo’s Guarulhos Airport. Most of the cargos land in coastal states like South Africa, Mozambique, Kenya, and Tanzania, before either being transhipped to other continents or heading inland.
The result is a blooming drug trade whose full scale is hidden by feeble interdiction capacities. West and north Africa are the continent’s more famous cocaine corridors, yet given their much higher enforcement profile -- with French naval carriers patrolling the Gulf of Guinea -- it is hard to compare based on seizure data alone.
Below, InSight Crime provides three key takeaways on cocaine’s push into east and southern Africa.
Cocaine retail prices across the region. Courtesy of Jason Eligh and the GI-TOC
Cocaine traffickers are despatching regular, large-scale consignments to various countries in the region. This occurs in three ways: in containerized shipments, in seagoing vessels, such as fishing boats, and in microtrafficking schemes from Latin America.
The investigation identifies several top reception ports, including Durban in South Africa, Pemba and Nacala in Mozambique, Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar in Tanzania, Mombasa in Kenya, and Walvis Bay in Namibia.
Meanwhile, ships land or drop off drugs “along the east and west coasts of South Africa, Mozambique’s northern coast between Angoche and Pemba, the coastal waters of Zanzibar and Madagascar, the Kenyan coast from Kilifi to Lamu, and the coastal waters of the Somalia-Kenya maritime area,” noted the report.
Microtrafficking schemes are the most diverse, both in smuggling method and destination. Generally involving cocaine loads of under 5 kilograms, these can travel by post, by human carriers on commercial flights, and in unaccompanied airline baggage collected by complicit airport staff.
Interception rates are very low, and human carriers travel easily across the region. Abundant flight connections mean Ethiopia’s Bole Airport in Addis Ababa and South Africa’s OR Tambo Airport in Johannesburg are the main transit hubs to Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.
Nigerian drug traffickers have long dominated maritime and aerial flows since establishing outposts in Brazil’s Sao Paulo in the late 2000s. By 2013, they organized up to 30% of the cocaine exports by ship or container from the local port of Santos, according to a report published that year by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
Brazil's port of Santos.
Most recently, in December, police arrested an alleged Nigerian cocaine smuggler in São Paulo. He was accused of shipping 5 tons of cocaine in October 2021 from the port of Rio de Janeiro to Europe via Mozambique. However, this case aside, it is thought Nigerian actors have lost ground, said Jason Eligh, the report’s author and a senior expert at the GI-TOC.
“They play a role, particularly in the capacity of cocaine distribution regionally in east and southern Africa. How big that role is today -- compared to a decade ago, for example -- is a question mark,” he told InSight Crime.
Arrival of Brazil’s PCC
The meteoric rise of another group may have displaced the Nigerians: Brazil’s most notorious prison gang, the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC). Since the mid-2010s, the São Paulo-based PCC has dominated drug trafficking from Brazil to Europe, turning the port of Santos into a world trade center for cocaine.
They have also begun directing increasing volumes of powder to Africa’s Atlantic coast in recent years to diversify transit to Europe and establish new markets in Africa and Asia. Linguistic, historical, and transport links have made Mozambique an important route, especially given its proximity to South Africa, the region’s primary cocaine hub.
“The country has become a regional transit node for the gang’s cocaine shipments from Santos port both to the regional market -- particularly South Africa -- and to Europe and beyond,” states the report.
The Mozambican coast.
“With its mix of pliable local officials, moderately developed infrastructure, multi-modal transport connections to European markets, a shared language, and a habit of looking the other way when it comes to the movement of illicit goods such as heroin, the gang obviously sees Mozambique as a viable transit point for its cocaine flows,” the document concludes.
In 2020, international fugitive and Brazilian drug trafficker Gilberto Aparecido Dos Santos, alias “Fuminho,” was famously arrested alongside two Nigerian associates in Mozambique’s capital of Maputo, where he was reported to be arranging drug deals for the PCC. Brazilian press claimed he had already conducted business in several neighboring countries.
Since then, there have been no further arrests of PCC members in the region. Looking forward, however, it seems likely it will increase its targeting of southern Africa. The only question is whether the group will dispatch “baptized” gang members like Fuminho to organize shipments -- as it is allegedly doing in Portugal -- or merely rely on external brokers.
Surprisingly High Consumption
A principal finding of the report was that east and southern Africa’s cocaine markets are much more developed than expected. Both powder and crack were widely available across the area, with consumption calculated to be surprisingly high in several countries.
For example, a rough estimate concludes that South Africa’s 60 million people could consume up to 19 tons of cocaine annually. Per capita, it is comparable to Australia, one of the world’s top cocaine users. Its 25 million people consumed an estimated 5.6 tons of cocaine from 2019 to 2020, according to the country’s latest Illicit Drug Data Report.
Furthermore, purity is relatively strong. The UNODC’s most recent available figure from 2017 placed the mean purity for a gram of cocaine powder in South Africa at 55%, compared to 60% in the United Kingdom that year, Europe’s biggest cocaine consumer.
Three grams of cocaine powder being divided in a coastal village in Kenya. (Courtesy of Jason Eligh).
And revenues are healthy. As of December 2022, a kilogram of cocaine powder wholesales in South Africa for around $26,000 to 29,000, said Jason Eligh. That is just below what it would fetch in parts of western Europe. Likewise, the report estimated the mean retail price per gram as being $38 in South Africa in 2021, which, while low in Europe, still turns a tidy profit.
Nor is the market confined to South Africa. Neighboring Eswatini and Lesotho consume a staggering quantity per capita, while Malawi is alleged to have eight times more cocaine than heroin users. Crack is widely smoked across Zambia, and Kenya’s cocaine trade is lucrative enough to spark violent competition between distributors.
“In short, the research found that the region should no longer be viewed as existing on the periphery of the global cocaine trade,” said Jason Eligh. “It is a major market destination.”