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Telephonic Press Briefing on Drug Trafficking in Africa – JULY 21, 2020
July 21, 2020

Moderator:  Good afternoon to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Africa Regional Media Hub.  I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from across the continent and thank all of you for joining this discussion.

Today we are very pleased to be joined by Heather Merritt, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.  Deputy Assistant Secretary Merritt will discuss U.S. efforts to combat drug trafficking in Africa.  We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from Deputy Assistant Secretary, or DAS, Merritt.  Then we will turn to your questions.  We will try to get to as many of them as we can during the briefing.

As a reminder, today’s call is on the record.  And with that, I will turn it over to DAS Merritt, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Heather Merritt.

DAS Merritt:  Well, good morning, everyone, and I’m speaking to you from my home here outside of Washington, D.C.  It’s a pleasure to be with you.  I understand we’ve got not only my media hub colleagues based in South Africa but we’ve got journalists on the line from across the continent.  It looks like South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, Rwanda, Ghana, Liberia, maybe Zimbabwe on the line.  I’m really excited to be with you this morning.  I know that you’re calling in from around the world, and for some of you it’s late in the day, so I really appreciate your interest and your participation.

Just to set the scene for those of you who may not be familiar, I work at the Department of State in the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, which we refer to by the acronym INL.  And INL works around the world to counter international crime, illegal drugs, and instability.  And we do this by helping countries improve their civilian security and justice sector institutions.  We want to help strengthen the capacity of police, courts systems, prosecutors.  And we do this through diplomatic engagement and through on-the-ground foreign assistance programs.  We’re trying to encourage reform, promote more effective governance, improve the rule of law, and develop more effective institutions.  So that is where I’m coming from today.

Of relevance to you all, one really important aspect of our work is relationships with African partners.  And through our U.S. embassies on the continent, INL works with countries across Africa, partnering with governments to develop the capacity of their criminal justice sector entities, and we want to really work on civilian security and rule of law in order to prevent and address non-state, criminal, and terrorist threats.

We work primarily at the institutional level, trying to promote both top-down reforms to prevent and address criminal threats, but also at the community level, a lot about ensuring programming meets the needs of citizens facing these threats every day.

And the threat we want to concentrate on primarily today is the threat of drugs and drug trafficking.  I happened to look last night through – the UNODC has a really useful report, the World Drug Report, which you all can find online.  And their latest one came out in June, and I was looking at the numbers, and unfortunately the numbers of sort of abuse of drugs and use of drugs around the world continue to rise.  And I want to note at the top, it’s not just around the world; it is a rising problem in Africa.  It’s a threat in many ways, not only to public health but also to security, so we’re going to just talk about that as we go through.

So look, in Africa, illicit drug production, trafficking, and consumption are linked to organized crime, illegal financial flows, corruption, and, increasingly, terrorist financing.  Porous borders, poorly patrolled coastlines, weak institutions and enforcement regimes make Africa an attractive location for traffickers, and it’s something that we all need to work together to fight this transnational crime because it endangers us all.

So Africa’s coastline on the east, from southern Somalia to South Africa, has become a primary transshipment location for Afghan-produced heroin – also sometimes Pakistan or Iranian heroin – en route to markets in Africa, Europe, and the United States.  Heroin is trafficked along what’s referred to as the “southern” or the “maritime” route from the southern coasts of Pakistan and Iran by boat through the Indian Ocean.  The product can be offloaded, primarily along the coast of Kenya, Tanzania, and Mozambique, sometimes in the island states, and repackaged then for onward shipment to markets, often via South Africa or countries in West Africa.

West Africa has also been a historical hub for cocaine trafficking and reports suggest that that route is experiencing a resurgence.  Increased cocaine production in South America destined for markets in Africa, Europe, and the United States has increased trafficking – and seizures – in the region.  More cocaine was actually seized in the first three months of 2019 in just two countries – in Guinea-Bissau and Cabo Verde – than the whole amount seized by the entire African continent between 2013 and 2016.  Those were an astonishing three months in 2019.

And even in the Sahel, there is increasing concern that the porous borders there and the movement of groups, including illegal armed groups and transnational criminals, is enabling narcotics trafficking that may be indirectly funding some of the terrorist networks and activities, as traffickers pay for safe passage via under-governed spaces and through routes that have been exploited as well by terrorist entities.

I think it’s important at the top as well to note that while transit is our primary concern, sadly, Africa also is becoming a source of illicit drugs.  We know, for example, that some Nigerian criminal organizations have learned simplified but effective production methods to convert uncontrolled precursor chemicals – so I would call them pre-precursor chemicals – into methamphetamine, and so it’s becoming Nigeria and a few other locations a growing methamphetamine producer and supplier.  And other countries in the region are sadly at risk of following this trend.

This relatively free flow of drugs threatens African countries and the United States and strengthens Transnational Criminal Organizations, or TCOs.  There are several well-established TCOs operating in Africa and they facilitate not only illicit drugs, but I would note that we believe strongly that the TCOs in Africa are largely commodity-agnostic.  The same people who can move drugs can also move weapons, can also move people, can also move wildlife goods, and so it’s something we all need to be concerned about.

The State Department is investing significant resources to counter drug trafficking in Africa, and we work with our interagency partners in the U.S. Government, and we want to protect the sovereignty of our African partners and we want to protect African security and U.S. national security jointly.  We increase the capacity of law enforcement entities to prevent the free flow of illicit drugs, to interdict those flows, to analyze financial transactions, and investigate and prosecute the traffickers and their networks, as well as to develop accountable institutions.

One issue that we also work on is cross-border or regional coordination, not just between individual African states but amongst our African partners.  In the Sahel, for example, we’ve helped to convene leaders from counternarcotics agencies across North and West Africa to help them address the growing threat of narcotics trafficking in the Sahel.  Participants focused on opportunities for improved communication, coordination, and collaboration, and ultimately decided to create an informal network to enhance their cross-border communication and promote intelligence sharing.

Within days of this conference’s conclusion in March 2019, we had some information-sharing successes, including one related to a major tramadol seizure in Benin that was connected to a company from Niger.

Through INL’s maritime security programming in the Gulf of Guinea, which has been implemented primarily with our UN partners and INTERPOL, countries have become more capable and sophisticated at interdicting vessels loaded with drugs and other illicit goods which may be headed for the U.S. or Europe and conducting maritime investigations that can lead to effective prosecutions.  The Gulf of Guinea countries participating in these programs are coordinating across jurisdictions and with their counterparts to share information with one another and to conduct joint operations.

I also want to note that our programming focuses on increasing the capacity of partner states’ justice sectors.  We care about the training and advisory opportunities for prosecutors and judges, to include collaboration with their law enforcement entities, and we also work to address and to lower pre-trial detention rates.  All of these efforts should improve the ability of the criminal justice sector to effectively identify, arrest, prosecute, and detain drug traffickers and other serious criminals.

One tool that we use in these efforts is our network of international law enforcement academies, or ILEAs, that we sponsor in several locations around the world.  Some of you may be familiar with our International Law Enforcement Academy, or ILEA, in Gaborone, Botswana.  We also have some of our African partners who train in our Regional Training Center in Accra, Ghana, and we also have an International Center in Roswell, New Mexico, in the United States.  And at these academies, we bring together multiple partner nations and we cover topics such as training in narcotics trafficking, combating wildlife trafficking or trafficking in persons, addressing corruption, and improving community policing.

As I wrap up, I want to note that we also take a balanced approach in the United States Government.  We care not just about stopping the supply of drugs, but also the demand, and we recognize that evidence-based demand reduction programs and treating substance use disorders is incredibly important.

Cooperation between Africa and the United States in drug prevention, treatment, and recovery has been ongoing and it’s a way that we can help address the very serious problem of global drug use.  One of our key efforts has been to increase the number of trained practitioners in evidence-based drug treatment, prevention, and recovery programs.

A number of our African partners have worked with a group that we have sponsored, the Colombo Plan, to substantially improve their capacity for drug treatment using something called the Universal Treatment Curricula and the Universal Prevention Curricula.  And to date, 21 African countries have received trainings and we’ve helped to form over 2,500 national trainers.  These – let’s see.  These trained and credentialed drug treatment and prevention professionals are a really needed asset on the continent, and they’re able to spearhead evidence-based and cost-effective drug demand reduction initiatives, advise their leaders on policies and practices, and help to inform future professionals to positively transform communities.

INL has also helped to support the creation of the International Society of Substance Use Professionals, or ISSUP, and through that network much information is shared, trainings are provided for those involved in drug prevention and treatment.  There are currently five national ISSUP chapters in Africa and they’re helping their countries to address those issues.  Both ISSUP and the African Union are going to host a web event this fall on African drug issues, and I would encourage everyone to check that out on the ISSUP website and to participate.

Finally, I do, on a related note, want to close by saying that wildlife trafficking and poaching also represents an escalating international security and conservation crisis.  We know that poaching operations have expanded beyond small-scale, opportunistic actions to coordinated slaughter that is often commissioned by armed and organized criminal syndicates.  And those syndicates, as I noted earlier, are often the same people who engage in multiple crime areas, and those networks may traffic in wildlife, drugs, people.

INL absolutely takes a criminal justice approach to countering this.  We know that other parts of the U.S. Government are more focused on the community development and environmental side, but we are supporting training and technical assistance for African law enforcement, including training on investigations to follow the money and to conduct cross-border investigations.  And we provide training to prosecutors on laws and strategies that will lead to successful prosecutions.  We also offer some technical assistance to help governments strengthen their laws and increase penalties.

So with all of that, talking about addressing the supply and the demand for drugs, talking about the cross-overs to other forms of transnational organized crime, and talking about the fact that with transnational crime we really are all linked together in an increasingly small world and we have to partner together for success against these organizations, the criminal organizations that are increasingly global – with all of that, I want to close and thank you for being on the call today, and I really look forward to taking your questions.  Thank you.

Moderator:  Thank you, DAS Merritt.  We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.  For those asking questions, please state your name, affiliation, and please limit yourself to one question related to the topic of today’s briefing: U.S. efforts to combat drug trafficking in Africa.

Our first question will go to South Africa, the Financial Mail, Ms. Simthandile Ntobela.  We will combine two of her questions.  “How did the global lockdown aid law enforcement around the world?  And in a post-corona world where travel is a lot more controlled, do you foresee more cross-border trafficking or increased domestic labs?”

DAS Merritt:  Thanks, Simthandile, for that great question.  It’s certainly very topical.  I think it’s hard to have any conversation these days that doesn’t end up focused on coronavirus.  I can’t speak to the specifics in South Africa, but I would say around the world law enforcement had a number of new challenges as a result of the stay-at-home orders and other measures of enforcement required to help our public health and government officials address the COVID-19 pandemic.  We’ve certainly witnessed some things have been challenged by trying to enforce those new requirements and some of the instability that’s resulted from the pandemic, and it kind of exposes and magnifies in some cases existing weaknesses.

I should also note that our kind of frontline workers do include law enforcement and corrections officers, and they have been at a very high risk of exposure to COVID-19 as they do their jobs to try to protect and serve, and they have to be extremely careful and have access to the appropriate protective equipment to help – to help keep themselves healthy and avoid being a source of contagion.

So a couple of things.  Obviously, concerns about those clashes with trying to enforce new and challenging orders to stay at home.  We’ve also seen increased online activity due to the requirements for social distancing, and that has presented some new vulnerabilities to cybercrime and cyber-enabled crimes, including some of the counterfeiting, including fraud related to sales – alleged sales of public health goods, so people who are unfortunately exploiting those who are seeking PPE or other equipment to help them respond to this global emergency.

I’d also note that some of the emergency funding measures that governments have enacted to respond to the pandemic or even new influx of foreign assistance to help respond to the pandemic can create new opportunities, sadly, for corruption either in procurement or fraud, as we noted earlier.  So we’ve got to really make sure that our governments and our law enforcement entities are prepared to deal with these new threats.

Finally, I’d say over the medium to long term the socioeconomic disruptions we’re seeing may lead to increases in criminal activity as some are pushed out of legitimate work due to economic downturns, and we see that illicit economies may be advantaged when there are prolonged supply chain disruptions.  So it may create new black markets for goods.

Transnational criminal organizations that provide loans or even can provide goods and services on the black market to populations may become more legitimate, which could be a threat to our governance and our state authorities.  And so a lot of things are changing.  I think we’re also going to see disruptions in the supply chains and distribution networks, including those drug trafficking organizations, and law enforcement entities and other investigatory bodies may diminish their – may have diminished resources, and so we have to be careful with that as well.

So INL and the State Department and the U.S. Government in general is trying to help our law enforcement organizations combat these vulnerabilities, but it is definitely a struggle.

So the second part of your question I want to address is this question of what will be the impact on either cross-border trafficking or more use of in-country labs.  I think it’s difficult to predict because we’re still in the midst of this totally new COVID-19 environment, and it’s hard to predict what comes next.  I mean, I do think prior to the pandemic, we saw that drug trafficking was on the rise, sadly, across Africa, and even if some of the cross-border smuggling is at a lull due to reduced travel since it’s harder to get that illicit cargo onto legitimate travel or shipping, the factors that led to our increased trafficking are unfortunately there.  So there is more supply in the world; there is great demand; there are emerging markets.  UNODC also points to urbanization as a factor in drug demand, which is important in the African context.

So domestic production is definitely rising.  As I noted earlier in Nigeria, there have been networks who have figured out how to make methamphetamine in new ways.  I think we worry a lot that other countries in Africa are at risk of following that lead, and so it’s something we have to work on together.  I would say that increasing within countries the vigilance to those precursor chemical markets and some of the things that are sort of legal – legal entities but if they are used improperly can lead to illicit trafficking, that’s going to be an incredibly important response by our law enforcement partners.

I think with that I’ll stop and we’ll take the next question.  Thanks.

Moderator:  Okay, perfect.  Thank you.  We’re going to do our best to get to as many questions as we can.  We are going to go live to Anita Powell from Voice of America.  Anita, are you there?  Anita Powell, Voice of America.

Okay, we’re going to switch.  Okay.  Hello?

Question:  Yes, can you hear me now?

Moderator:  Yes, yes, we can.  Please go ahead with your question, Anita.

Question:  Okay, I just – my question is very similar.  I just wanted to know if you’d noticed any trends at specific transshipment hot spots in the last three or four months as countries have gone on lockdown.  Have you had more seizures, more flow of drugs through these traditional places where they send them through?  Yeah, that’s it.

DAS Merritt:  Hi, Anita.  It’s a great question.  I don’t have specific data from the African region.  I do think that what I’m hearing from our drug enforcement and law enforcement colleagues, more perhaps from the Western Hemisphere, from the Americas, is that some of the cross-border flows, particularly like the U.S.-Mexico border, there is reduced numbers of seizures.  I think the difference is occasionally, when they do make a find, it’s larger because there are just fewer targets, fewer people crossing through or trucks, all that kind of thing.  But I don’t have specifics in the Africa context except to say that, again, fewer planes, fewer cargo shipments, et cetera, do mean fewer opportunities to get things across a border.  But we know that supply is there and that demand is there, so there’s probably – where there’s a will there’s a way.  We also know that African borders tend to be more porous, and so there may be things that are not captured in the border crossings or the listed port transactions, things that are getting through either at unmarked ports or cross-border, nontraditional crossings.  Thanks.

Moderator:  Thank you.  We will stay on the live line and go next to Geoff Hill.

Question:  Thank you, and thanks to Marissa Scott for another great briefing.  Assistant Secretary, we’re seeing in places like Mozambique but also in West Africa increasing crossover between the trafficking in drugs and trafficking in counterfeit goods – high-name liquor but made as fakes, illicit tobacco, and fake pharmaceuticals, which of course are also drugs, but medicine.  Are you seeing this and is it something that your agency is trying to deal with or cooperate with in other agencies?  Thank you.

DAS Merritt:  Hey, thanks, Mr. Hill.  Great question.  We’re definitely concerned about Mozambique, and I think not just Mozambique but the trend that you identified is something that I alluded to earlier, that criminal organizations are fairly commodity-agnostic.  We have certainly worked in West Africa – Benin comes to mind – supported authorities in trying to do better about the control either of counterfeit drugs, so illicit drugs that are perhaps counterfeit and either not what they purport to be or not made by the manufacturer that they are legally made by, so things that are dubious that may not be – have the efficacy that the brand drug would have, which is incredibly dangerous, as you note; and smuggling of other commodities, whether it be, as you note, kind of alcohol and luxury goods, wildlife products, humans, arms.

So our belief, and I’ve talked to FBI, DEA, and others agree with me that the true – the criminal networks, particularly in Africa, have become commodity-agnostic.  If you have the corrupt officials, if you have the transport, if you have the connections, you can smuggle across border and find a market for just about any product.

And what’s really dangerous about it, while there’s an added danger with the illicit drugs of the health effects and the bad effects on our society and on the users, even something that you might think is more innocent, let’s say alcohol or, I don’t know, a luxury good, the issue still is the corruption, right?  It’s the people that are – the border guards who are looking the other way and taking the payment.  It’s the way that the financial flows can go to either terror groups or to other things that undermine the proper workings of our justice system and of our government.  So we want to guard against all of that.


Moderator:  Excellent.  We’re going to go to Paulo Agostinho.  This is a question we received via email from Lusa News Agency.  The question is: Is there any relation between drug trafficking trends and current instability and the increase in instability in Mozambique, specifically the attacks on Cabo Delgado, and the political uncertain in Guinea Bissau?

DAS Merritt: Hi, Paulo.  Well, that – those are great questions.  I would certainly say that we are watching Mozambique in particular and concerned about the trends there.  In East Africa, I think I mentioned that we are working to counter some of the flows of heroin that are coming down from southwest Asia, and I would note in Mozambique our work is focused on some of the drug trafficking trends that also goes beyond that.

We’re concerned that Mozambique is increasingly being exploited as a base of operations by criminal networks for the drug trafficking.  But with Mozambique’s extensive coastline, with hundreds of miles of isolated and unpatrolled beach there, drug traffickers and violent extremists have both utilized the ungoverned space.  And it’s really – and it’s just limited patrolling and limited law enforcement reach there, and so it’s been an advantage to those dangerous networks who want to exploit the space.

So we feel like there is a lot of coincident – or not – coincidence is the wrong word.  There’s a lot of overlap between the drug traffickers and extremists and the types of conditions that enable them to thrive, and sadly, those conditions are present in Mozambique.

So in Mozambique, my part of the State Department, INL, is working closely with the U.S. DEA, and together we’re supporting some of the Mozambiquan government’s counternarcotics efforts.  We’re also working through the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, UNODC, to do some capacity building for the Mozambiquans, the capacity of civilian maritime law enforcement agencies to help them disrupt some of the transnational organized crime at sea through more effective patrolling, and we’re working as well on some of the justice system, the judicial system, to pursue legal due process in maritime cases and trying to increase regional cooperation.  I think we’re looking as well to future activities kind of more on the capacity building for law enforcement space beyond drugs.  So I would say it’s very concerning.

Guinea Bissau is a whole other issue, and it’s definitely one that the U.S. Government is concerned about.  Guinea Bissau for a long time has suffered from a tremendous amount of trafficking through the country, sadly, but it is – we are concerned as well in particular about the current government and whether or not the political will exists to do the necessary in terms of stopping the flows of drugs through that region.  So places that we are definitely concerned about.

We’re hearing reports as well in Guinea Bissau about President Sissoco’s dismissal of his justice minister and the head of the judicial police, and those are two leading figures in the fight against drug trafficking.  There’s also a lot of worry about attacks on freedom of speech and efforts that may undermine the rule of law, and all of that could lead to increased drug trafficking, which is the wrong direction.

But we do have to note there had been a major victory against trafficking in Guinea Bissau in early April.  They had actually convicted 12 people for cocaine smuggling after a seizure last September of about 1.8 tons of cocaine, which had been the largest seizure in Guinea Bissau’s history.  And INL had helped along with our DEA in training some of the officials there who had been engaged in the advanced narcotics investigations course, so we had a regional activity that some Guinea Bissau officials had participated in, but sadly, I think more recently we’re very concerned about those trends with the dismissals of officials and also some of the changes with freedom of speech and other things seem to be undermined.  So, worrying trends.  Thank you.

Moderator:  We’re going to stay in Lusophone Africa.  Leigh Elston, I believe your question was answered in DAS Merritt’s question related to Mozambique and trafficking.  If you didn’t feel like that was answered, please, please send in another question or extend that question.

Dr. Joseph Hanlon of Mozambique News Reports asks, “Can you speak on Mozambique and the heroin trade?”

DAS Merritt:  Hi.  Well, thanks and boa tarde.  I don’t know that I have a lot of specifics to offer, but I think I’ve noted several times that we are quite concerned.  I think UN and other reports are showing a serious uptick in the heroin that is coming from Southwest Asia via that maritime route to the Swahili Coast and the east coast of Africa.  And so we are certain that that is happening.  We’re working in partnership with other  U.S. law enforcement and Mozambican officials and other regional governments to try to increase not only the intelligence or the domain awareness of what’s coming in primarily by sea, but also working together to better investigate because we recognize that seizures are not enough; that it is necessary to understand these networks and to understand the financial flows behind them if we are going to address the problem and try to prevent Mozambique from being as vulnerable to the scourge of that drug trafficking as they are.

I should also note that you think sometimes about these countries as transit countries, and perhaps we could ask the question:  Well, being a transit country, is that so bad?  Maybe it’s not as dangerous as being the destination country.  I would actually say that we should be very concerned about Africa as a transit country for drugs because drugs tend to get used wherever they stop.  And unfortunately, creating a population of people who have access to dangerous drugs, like heroin, who become accustomed to it, that in itself is dangerous and the financial flows which undermine governments through corruption are also very dangerous.  So thanks for that question.

Moderator:  Thank you.  We’ll go to Pearl Matibe live on the line from Open Parliament.

Question:  Hello, it’s Pearl Matibe.  DAS Merritt, it’s great to be discussing these issues with you again.  My question I know you’ve already answered was regarding Mozambique, and some of that you’ve already answered in terms of what the U.S. is doing with these criminal networks.  But could I ask you just to expand because if you don’t have some of the information at hand today, perhaps if we could reach directly out to your office, because as you know, the Islamist extremist issue in Cabo Delgado has been going on since October of 2017.  And so we are seeing product – ivory, rubies, emeralds, heroin as you’ve already addressed – being distributed north and south and reportedly with external support.  Can you provide comment on or do you know where the product is going?  Is it going south to Zimbabwe?  We’ve certainly seen a spike in drug use in Zimbabwe.  And I wonder if you’ve seen illegal wildlife trafficking out of Zimbabwe, perhaps to Asia or is the product going down to South Africa?  Can you provide any comment, and if you don’t have details, please let us know if you are willing for us to contact your office directly and give you more time to respond.  Thanks.

DAS Merritt:  Hi, Pearl.  Good morning.  Good afternoon, I should say.  Those are great questions, all of them.  I mean, just quickly, I would say we can perhaps take offline or have a follow-up discussion in more detail because I can’t get into all of the details today.  But I would note that generally my understanding is that many of the commodities, including heroin, including wildlife products, are smuggled sometimes via South Africa or West Africa in the case of the drug flows.  And so the drugs may land on the East African coast, including Mozambique.  They may then move via either West Africa or via South Africa in transit to markets that are often in Europe, sometimes in Asia, although again, I noted earlier that just because something’s in transit doesn’t mean that a portion of that shipment doesn’t kind of bleed out on the continent and do it harm.  So it’s something to be aware of.

And the wildlife products – I mean, it’s certainly an issue around the continent.  Southern Africa in particular has been hit hard by the poaching and smuggling of wildlife products, including ivory.  Often those – so the market, the demand is coming from Asia, but I don’t think it’s exclusively Asia.  But the primary routes are Asia, but there are a number of ways I think that the different trafficking groups route the products to get out safely to those destinations or buyer markets.  And perhaps the best way to address your question is to try to take that question back to the team for some follow-up at a later date.

So yeah, excellent questions, all of them.  I agree that we are as a U.S. Government concerned about the extremism in Cabo Delgado and sort of the Mozambican area.  It’s a whole-of-government concern.  We recognize that it’s a security threat that has a nexus to criminality, to terrorism, and to looking at sort of governance capacity, law enforcement capacity, and military capacity within Mozambique.  We want to have a whole-of-government response and partnership with our Mozambican and regional partners.  And so perhaps that’s a conversation for another day.  Thanks.

Moderator:  Thank you.  We are going to go to Mauritania.  A question from Mohammed Salem Ahmed, a freelance journalist.  Two questions combined here.  “Why is the U.S. interested in Africa in the fight against drug trafficking?  And how does the U.S. Government assess or evaluate the cooperation with African governments?”

DAS Merritt:  Thanks, Mr. Ahmed.  Those are – those are very good questions.  I mean, I would say that the United States is interested in cooperation and sort of stopping the flows of drugs globally because it really is a global demand and supply market and we need strong links in the chain to stop that global market.  Unfortunately, anyplace that’s a weak link in the chain can be exploited by those organized criminals, by the drug trafficking organizations.  Transportation flows, passenger flows – everyplace on the globe is connected now.  It’s hard to think of a place that wouldn’t be affected if it is vulnerable to exploitation by those criminal groups, eventually those illicit products can come and affect American citizens, as well as Mauritanian citizens, as well as European citizens, and so we need to cooperate and partner together.

I would also say that it’s in the U.S. interest to partner to counter those drug trafficking organizations and other criminals because we care about having a secure, prosperous, democratic set of countries in Africa with which we can partner.  We want to have trade flows, we want to have people-to-people ties, and we are better when we have strong, capable partners on the other side.  And what we know, unfortunately, is when countries are exploited by drug trafficking organizations or by transnational criminal groups or by illegal armed groups, they’re not strong enough sometimes to withstand the corruption that comes with the finances that underpin that group.  And sometimes the violence that those groups bring can really undermine legitimate governments and bring danger to the people.

And so it’s in our interest to strengthen the criminal justice response so that we can have strong trading partners who have control over their entire territory who can enforce their rule of law, who can be safe destinations for our citizens to flow back and forth and to exchange and to partner.  And I think it’s really in our interest.  Thanks.

Moderator:  Next, we will go to Rwanda.  Mr. Dusabemengu of Ange de la Victoire, Top Africa News, again, in Rwanda.  His question is, “Is the U.S. a place where trafficking is primarily a business for the rich?  The media often portrays it as such.  How is the U.S. dealing with these issues in Africa when there is such a pressing duty to deal first with buyers and sellers in the U.S.?”

DAS Merritt:  Thanks for the question, Mr. Victoire, and I would just note that, as I said before, it’s a global issue and yet the United States favors a balanced approach to addressing drug trafficking.  We recognize that we have to address supply, we have to address transit, and we also have to address demand, and we’re working on those issues at home and abroad.  We’re trying to help globally all of our partners address drug demand and address substance use disorders around the world.

The devastating consequences of drug use – they don’t know any geographic or social or ethnic boundary.  Every year, hundreds of thousands of people who are rich, poor, educated, not so educated, male, female, even children die of substance abuse disorders, and many others are victims of drug-fueled violence, whether that’s in the Sahel or whether that’s on the U.S.-Mexico border.

So beyond the toll that drugs take on the health and the welfare of our people, substance use disorders, drug addiction, it really undermines the economic development, diminishes social and political stability, and reduces security.  And I would also note, again, that it fuels corruption and that that corruption is part of undermining legitimate government, undermining the democracies that – that our people have voted for, and it keeps us all – it – corruption makes us all less safe and undermines our ability to have government by the people and trade.

For over four decades, INL has responded boldly to the global challenges of drugs with innovative, evidence-based drug demand reduction programs, which helped to set worldwide standards.  And we have really done a lot in the prevention and treatment space.  We have also worked through cross-border dialogues and joint projects with foreign partners.  And so we’ve been sharing some of our programming ideas and proven approaches to prevent drug use in the United States and around the world.  And we conduct long-term evaluations of programs as a part of continuous improvement and reassignment.

So the programs that we’ve worked on with the Colombo Plan institutions, with ISSUP, with other international institutions, have really demonstrated increasingly effective ways to reduce use and – drug use and drug-related crime.  So we are really proud of those efforts.  So I think it’s important to note it is not a problem of the rich.  It’s not a problem of the poor.  We are all affected in very serious ways by the use of these substances and by the transnational criminal groups that move them around the world.  Thanks.

Moderator:  Thank you.  We have one last question that we’ll take live, again, from Pearl Matibe.

Question:  DAS Merritt, I just want to bring you back to some memories.  I know that Southern Africa is a region that is very close to your heart.  And I know that you’ve worked pretty hard to improve U.S.-Africa relations.  In about May of 2019, there was – you talked about some trainings between Kenya and United States and the DRC.  I think you made a trip.  I can’t remember.  But do you have any planned trips, any new trainings that are coming up with any particular countries with ILEA – in the ILEA program?  Can you speak to any new techniques, tools, tactics or training, maybe virtual trainings that you might be doing?  I don’t know.  Just trying to see, year over year, what you are doing in terms of trainings and those measurement assessments.  Thanks.

DAS Merritt:   Well, thanks, Pearl.  Thanks for remembering that.  You are correct that when we spoke, I did one of these events in May of 2019.  I was just back from a great trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo.  I have done a number of trips during my time in this job to Kenya.  I have had a lot of opportunities to reach out and to interact with our partners in Africa and the Middle East, which has been my area of responsibility here in INL.  Look, I would say that COVID-19 has been a disruption to a lot of our trainings and activities that had been planned.  I had a whole series of trips that I was supposed to take, for example, in these last few months.

But we are working to pivot to virtual trainings.  But it’s taking a little bit of time, both because of the technology involved and also just all of us have been – and frankly, law enforcement partners, justice partners, some of our target audiences around the world have been incredibly busy just trying to keep their own populations safe, just trying to find ways to do their own job.  So I noted before we have a network of institutions that are INL-run training institutions.  We have our ILEA in Gaborone, Botswana.  We have our Regional Training Center in Accra, Ghana.  We have our facility in Roswell, New Mexico, our ILEA.  All of those are now working to pivot to some virtual training.  But on average, those institutions host multiple trainings a month for partners from around the continent.  And so while there has been a slowdown in this early part of 2020 due to the COVID pandemic, we are not stopped by any means.  We have also typically done a lot of training in the correction space trying to improve the safety and the efficacy of the different corrections institutions around the continent.  And a lot of that has taken place with our partner institution, the Colorado Department of Corrections.

Again, that has been paused due to some of the COVID-19 travel disruptions.  But we are absolutely working to find ways to continue that partnership virtually, as are other U.S. government entities.  I know that our FBI, our DEA, our Homeland Security folks work hand-in-hand with partners around the world and on the African continent to make sure that we’re linked up, both in terms of information-sharing, sharing of leads and law enforcement information, but also kind of capacity-building and partnership development.  Nothing has come to a stop, but we have been significantly slowed due to COVID.

So I don’t have any – any personal stories to share at this point of travel, just because we have all been kind of locked down for these recent months, and we’re doing what we must for the good of public health around the world.  But I should certainly say that our work continues.  And it’s going to continue because we are very committed to this mission and to the partnership between the United States and our various partner nations across the continent.  Thanks.

Moderator:  Thank you.  Thank you.  And DAS Merritt, we’re just going to ask you to give us some final remarks.  But I do want to thank you. We will now – we’ll now move to DAS Merritt’s final remarks.  And I just ask that you talk about what success looks like on the continent as you – as you wrap up and close us out.  Go ahead, DAS Merritt.

DAS Merritt:   Well, thanks everyone, again.  And thanks, Marissa, and the African Media Hub staff for hosting this great event.  Thanks to my INL team for helping me prepare.  I just want to note again that we can become better together.  So the United States and Africa have so much in common.  We have common dreams.  We want safe, healthy environments for our people.  We want to see the rule of law prevail.  We want our country to be able to trade and become more prosperous.

We want our people to get to know one another through tourism, through academics, through different ties.  And so what I think INL is doing and what we have seen in success is we’re helping to build the capacity of civilian security officials, whether they are law enforcement, justice, corrections, border agents.  You name it.  In – in our – in our government partners, we are trying to build that capacity so that they are more responsive to their own people, they are able to uphold the rule of law, they are better able to partner with their neighbors and with international friends like the United States, and we can all work together so that criminals and terrorists don’t exploit lack of knowledge or ungoverned spaces.

I think we have made tremendous strides during the time that I’ve worked in INL.  I have seen successes, whether it is the huge seizure that Cabo Verde made back in 2019 when they seized 9 tons of cocaine.  They arrested a ship with traffickers on board.  We have seen huge cooperation in Ghana and the United States where the Ghanaian Government officials have helped to bring down some cyber criminals that were exploiting people and were defrauding people across borders.

We’ve worked together on a number of issues in Kenya.  We have absolutely helped to work together on combating corruption.  We have also worked on accountability for the police.  We recognize that appropriate civilian and government oversight of institutions is incredibly important.

Liberia, we have helped to build up the capacity of the Liberian National Police and the LDEA, the Liberian Drug Enforcement Agency.  And I noted some of the successes we are seeing in the Sahel, not only building cooperation with the United States but building cross-border cooperation amongst the countries of North and West Africa.

So I see nothing but a positive on the horizon.  At the same time, I wanted to go back to that UNODC World Drug Report for 2020 and just note that, unfortunately, drug use trends in Africa – drug use is rising.  The UN estimated that 6 million people in Africa abuse opioids – this is in the 2020 report – and that about 1.9 percent of adults in West Africa are using – are substance use disorder.  They are suffering from substance use disorder.

And in Nigeria, the numbers are even worse.  I learned when I was in Nigeria last fall what a terrible problem it is and how the Buhari Administration is incredibly concerned about drug use in the Nigerian population.  And according to the UNODC, 4.7 percent of adults in Nigeria are nonmedical opioid users.  That should be of concern to us all.  We need to partner together to stop that.  I think INL and the State Department are playing a key role.  And I see our work continuing.  We are pivoting to virtual because COVID has interrupted some of our travel and our face-to-face interaction.  But I believe that our partnership is only going to strengthen and continue.  And together, we will help to improve rule of law and stop those transnational criminal organizations.  So thanks for your time.

Moderator:  That concludes today’s call.  I want to thank Heather Merritt, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs for joining us and thank all of our callers for participating.  If you have any questions about today’s call, you may contact the Africa Regional Media Hub at afmediahub@state.gov. Thank you.

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