Africa’s Heroin Highway to the West
The heroin traffic through Africa’s ‘highway of impunity’ is flooding Europe and also making its way to the U.S.
KAMPALA, Uganda—The Nigerian drug lord warned his heroin mule not to deviate from the plan.
“He told me at any moment you mess up with my business I’m going to kill you,” Brian Ameto says. “You know trafficking drugs is not easy, it involves taking life.”
The Nigerian enlisted the 29-year-old in a seedy bar in Uganda’s capital Kampala. Brian was studying veterinary science at university before he agreed to smuggle heroin in return for $5,000 USD. Brian’s first step was to travel to the Zanzibar archipelago off Tanzania to collect the drugs.
“Every point you reach there is someone you have to meet and that person has to give you the next step, where to go,” Brian says.
An “Arab man” delivered one kilogram of drugs to Brian in a Stone Town hotel room in Zanzibar. For 15 minutes, all Brian did was force masking-tape-wrapped pellets, as hard as stones, down his throat with water. “They have no harm on humans,” Brian says. He was unaware it would take only one pellet leaking to kill him. He swallowed 100 in all. Then the Arab man revealed the pawn’s next move.
Brian would travel by bus non-stop for 48 hours from Tanzania on a circuitous route, across three borders, back to Uganda. The drugs would then be repackaged and trafficked to Europe by air via another smuggler.
Those drugs were to join an unprecedented flow of Afghan heroin passing through East Africa to Europe, largely undetected. The United Nations estimates up to 70,000 kilograms of Afghan heroin is being smuggled via the region to Europe per year, with traffickers capitalizing on weak security and porous borders.
“It is a serious concern that the trafficking gangs have got a perfect route which is absolutely clear of any law enforcement interdictions,” says Shanaka Jayasekara, from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). “Negligible amounts are being detected.”
The heroin is smuggled from Afghanistan through Pakistan or Iran to the rugged Balochistan region’s Makran coast, then hidden in traditional wooden-hulled fishing dhows, their long prows and low profiles little changed over the centuries apart from the engines installed in them, and shipped across the Indian Ocean to East Africa.
The “southern route,” as it’s known, is now a main path for Afghan heroin flowing to Europe, with the traditional Balkan and Northern routes compromised by stricter border checks because of conflicts in the region. There are also signs that some of the heroin is being diverted to the burgeoning U.S. market, where synthetic opioids have whetted the appetite for the original stuff.
The route offers traffickers unique freedom from prosecution even if they are caught in international waters. Forces patrolling the region for drugs and arms, as part of the 31-nation Combined Maritime Forces (CMF), can’t legally detain or prosecute smugglers they intercept. The drugs are analyzed, then dumped at sea, and the crew and vessel are let go.
The volumes of heroin being smuggled on dhows across the Indian Ocean have swelled to record levels recently. In 2014, an Australian warship seized more than one ton from one of the fishing boats off the African east coast—it was the largest heroin seizure ever from a dhow at sea.
In the past four years, the CMF has nabbed 9736.6 kilograms of high-purity heroin. While that’s only a trickle of the suspected flow to East Africa—the CMF patrols the vast territory with only limited resources—it’s more than what’s been detected in East Africa over the same time period. East African authorities have seized close to 2000 kilograms on the continent, according to the UN.
“I would refer to this in some sense as the highway of impunity, because if the heroin gangs can get it past the CMF vessels at sea, they have a clear run across the continent,” says Jayasekara.
Off East Africa’s coast, the heroin is moved from the dhows to speedboats in international waters and taken ashore to Kenya, Tanzania, or more recently, further south to Mozambique and Madagascar. The drugs are broken down into smaller packages, then smuggled on to Europe.
“You have to get where security is weak,” Brian Ameto says.
His smuggling journey took him from Tanzania to Burundi’s capital Bujumbura, then up through eastern Democratic Republic of Congo to the city of Goma, and into Uganda. At each border, he was met by someone arranged by his boss.
“They know the time the bus approaches, in each and every town,” Brian says.
“They would make work easier at immigration for me… cater for my security to make sure I should not get any type of problem.”
Once in Uganda, Brian would excrete and wash the drugs, then his boss would add them to a stockpile for shipment to Europe.
“If the demand in Europe is like 10 kilograms or 20, he would make sure that we get [that] for him,” Brian says.
“Security in Uganda is so weak. So getting on a plane with drugs in Uganda is so easy. All these guys [at the airport] are involved, because you distribute a lot of money to various people.”
Uganda’s Entebbe airport has become a major transit point for both heroin and cocaine smuggling to Europe and Asia, according to the Ugandan police force’s Anti-Narcotics Department.
“It can be put in the breasts of women, it can be put in their private parts in the form of pads… Sometimes it’s in the bottom of the suitcases of the travelers, very many ways of concealment,” says the unit’s acting head superintendent, Tinka Zarugaba.
The drugs come into Uganda from bordering countries hidden on people, in trucks, in furniture, and spare car parts.
“We do not have proper border controls, so the drug smugglers use unofficial [unpoliced] borders to smuggle drugs into Uganda and onto Europe,” Zarugaba says.
He says authorities have only detected about 20 kilograms of heroin this year in Uganda. He admits that’s a small fraction of what’s being smuggled, with law enforcement compromised by limited resources, poor training, and bribery.
Smugglers are also taking advantage of Uganda’s weak laws that allow them to walk free with only a $300 USD fine if caught trafficking drugs, irrespective of the amount, according to Zarugaba.
But he says Ugandan authorities are working to strengthen the laws, equip enforcers, and educate locals about the dangers of drug trafficking and taking.
Afghan heroin has started to feed a growing domestic market across East Africa, as local dealers are paid with packets of heroin for their services. As a result, addiction has grown in many areas of East Africa like Kampala—and with it the threat of HIV.
Justine Sojja, 28, ignored that threat while gathered with 10 hungry addicts and one needle in a Kampala slum.
“I got HIV from that injector because when you share, some of them are HIV-positive, but you don’t consider that because you want that high, that happiness,” she says.
Sharing a needle is often the only option for Uganda’s poor. Justine says one hit costs just under $3 USD. The mother of two and budding reggae singer has turned to sex work to feed her addiction. Earning just under $1.50 USD for one client, she needs to service two men for one hit.
“When you have HIV there is a time you have to stop, to die,” she says.
“Where am I going to leave my children? That’s what makes me… inject myself so much because I am [going] crazy.”
She says she has been approached to smuggle drugs to Europe, but was too afraid at the time. But she hasn’t ruled out the option, considering there is “good” money to be made.
There is evidence the drug trade is linked to traffickers in Iran and Pakistan, who work with organized crime groups in Africa, including Nigerian ones. But with limited policing on the continent and few high level prosecutions, tracing the flow back to the kingpins has proven difficult.
The UN is warning that the traffickers are deepening their influence in East Africa and threatening political life, the security landscape and the lives of citizens.
“We are comparing this to the situation in Latin America where narco-criminality has got a foothold in those parts of the world,” says the UNODC’s Jayasekara.
“We are warning East African [countries]... to wake up to this urgent threat that is emerging and address the issue.”
The head of Uganda’s Anti-Narcotics Department says East African nations need to strengthen border controls and make tougher laws that discourage traffickers.
“We need to train the manpower and equip them with the right equipment to detect drugs. And we need to educate our communities both about the dangers of consumption and of trafficking drugs,” says Superintendent Zarugaba.
“But most importantly, among the East African countries… we need joint cooperation of drug investigators so we can quickly share information—Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania— about the drugs.”
Brian Ameto smuggled for four years until he was jailed in 2014 for nine months, not for smuggling but for possessing a small quantity of cocaine at a Kampala nightclub. Brian estimates he smuggled about 70 kilograms of drugs during the four years. But he has little to show for it: He squandered his drug money and his wife and two children left him.
“That really hurts me because I don’t stay with my kids and I don’t stay with my wife,” he says.
“I wasted a lot of time. I didn’t finish my university because of trafficking drugs—I thought that I would make more money.”
Yet the allure of making money from drugs remains as potent as ever. Despite all Brian has lost, his smuggling days may not be over.
“If I can get someone who I can do business with properly... then maybe I can get some good sum of money,” Brian says with a wry smile.
“Like for $10,000 US dollars, I would do that again.”