Small trafficking groups embedded in Nigeria’s expansive diaspora play a significant role in moving cocaine between Latin America and consumer markets, the United Nations drugs and crime agency reports.
Nigerian networks employ couriers to move small amounts of cocaine on commercial flights, mostly through Brazil, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) highlighted in a September 25 report titled “Organized Crime in Nigeria: A Threat Assessment.”
The cocaine moved by Nigerian couriers is sourced from Brazilian criminal groups and exits the continent through São Paulo, Brazil’s Guarulhos International Airport. From there, the authors found, couriers fly to Nigeria’s largest city, Lagos, with some passing through other African countries like Ethiopia or Benin first.
After receiving the drug in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, trafficking groups use more couriers to distribute cocaine to other African nations, Asia, and Europe. In this way, the report stated, “Nigeria appears to play an increasing role in the consolidation of cocaine entering the subregion and in the distribution to other countries.”
The amounts of cocaine moved using air couriers are much smaller than multi-ton consignments found in maritime shipping containers: a single courier can transport quantities of up to 10 kilograms, but often less than one kilogram.
Arrest statistics, however, indicate that Nigerian networks employ hundreds of couriers, meaning they are able to move significant quantities, albeit in piecemeal fashion.
In Brazil, Nigerians were the most frequently arrested foreign nationality for drug trafficking in 2018 and 2019, the UNODC found. Worldwide, authorities in at least 70 countries arrested Nigerian nationals for drug trafficking between 2010 and 2019. Nigerians were also the largest non-Latin American and European nationality arrested in European airports between 2016 and 2020 for the crime.
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Nigerian cocaine couriers have become crucial to the expanding transnational cocaine trade by finding holes in Latin American groups’ global distribution systems, pinpointing unmet demand and creating new markets.
Drug trafficking networks in the Nigerian diaspora are small, mainly consisting of members who are not committed to the trade in the long term, Ted Leggett, a research officer at UNODC and one of the authors of the report, told InSight Crime.
“There isn’t a mafia-type structure to it. The networks are small-scale and organic. As soon as they make enough money, they get out of the drug trade and go into other forms of business,” Leggett said.
These courier networks hire vulnerable or impoverished people looking to earn money. This includes not only Nigerians, but Venezuelans living in Brazil. Couriers swallow small amounts of the drug or carry it concealed in their luggage. They know the ins and outs of security at each airport, and even allow some couriers to be captured to distract law enforcement while others pass through, Leggett told InSight Crime.
These features can make it hard for authorities to target them, as their membership is fluid, and with each arrest, another courier will simply take their place.
In São Paulo, these networks cannot compete with the dominance of the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital - PCC). The PCC are Brazil’s main cocaine traffickers and the criminal hegemon in the city. They even control cocaine transit into Brazil from Bolivia.
Instead, Nigerian courier groups have come to agreements with the PCC. Nigerian cocaine traffickers have been a prominent part of the West African route since at least 2005, the report highlighted, meaning they hold the knowledge and connections necessary to be efficient traffickers and valuable partners to the PCC.
Through Nigeria’s massive diaspora, which Nigerian media outlets estimate could consist of 15 million people, Nigerian traffickers are also well-connected to microtrafficking operations in African and Asian cities. This allows them to pinpoint possible new consumers at the street level, providing them with cocaine and other drugs.
“They fill gaps in the global cocaine distribution network,” Leggett told InSight Crime. “It's the invisible hand of the market in action.”
Leggett provided the example of South Africa, where cocaine traffickers embedded in the Nigerian community have created a substantial cocaine consumption market in cities around the country, especially among sex workers.
The courier networks, which are an example of opportunistic, low-level organized crime, are just part of the cocaine trafficking picture in Africa. The continent saw a 400% increase in cocaine seizures in 2021, spurred by trafficking in shipping containers and on private vessels, in addition to air couriers.
“The point of least resistance is usually the place that is least capable of absorbing the damage. West Africa is a perfect example,” Leggett told InSight Crime.
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