By David Lewis
DAKAR (Reuters) - Governments in West Africa are not taking the challenge posed by drug trafficking seriously enough and inaction has allowed high-level criminals to escape, forcing foreign involvement, former U.N. chief Kofi Annan told Reuters.
Over the past decade, West Africa's string of poor, weak nations have become a major transit zone for Latin American cocaine headed to Europe. The flow of Asian heroin is up and experts say there is evidence of amphetamine-type stimulants being made in and exported from the region.
"I don’t think the governments are taking the issue seriously, nor are they taking the necessary action required," Annan told Reuters on the sidelines of the launch on Thursday of a report by his West Africa Commission on Drugs.
Annan said reaction to the proposals in the report, which advocates decriminalizing drug use while targeting traffickers, was likely to be mixed, with some leaders fearing being seen as going soft on drugs.
The report urges West Africa to overhaul existing responses and to learn from mistakes made during the decades-old "war on drugs" elsewhere, especially in Latin America, where experts say gang-related violence has increased without significantly denting trafficking or use.
In Africa to speak of experiences from other transit regions, Guatemala's foreign minister said West Africa shared Central America's post-conflict weaknesses. But the region was even more vulnerable, he said, as states were more fragile and institutions themselves more directly involved in the trafficking than in Central America.
Although relatively new, Luis Fernando Carrera Castro warned that the drug threat to West Africa was already "very serious".
Annan said a culture of impunity had set in as high-profile targets have got away "scot-free" and seized drugs disappear.
These shortcomings had contributed to action such as a sting operation last year by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration targeting top military chiefs in Guinea-Bissau, he said.
"If we were to do our own dirty work, pick up those who are corrupting our youth, pushing drugs ... the foreigners wouldn’t have to come," said Annan, who comes from Ghana.
The West Africa Commission on Drugs draws inspiration from work to reform drug policy in Latin America, but Annan said many African politicians would be nervous about the issue.
"They know (current policy) doesn’t work but they don’t want to take it up because, depending on how you handle it, they will think you are being soft on drugs or promoting drugs, which is not the idea at all," he said.
"In some states they are spending more money on prisons than on education. It is not sensible," he added.
ALREADY "VERY SERIOUS"
Carrera, the Guatemalan minister, said that while West Africa was facing a threat, it had the opportunity to learn from the 40 years of a failed "war on drugs" in Latin America that have led to a regional push to overhaul policy there.
"(We are) bringing the story of us as an example, of what has happened in a different part of the world but more or less caught in the same situation," he told Reuters.
Carrera said conflicts had left both Central America and West Africa a legacy of weakened social systems while governments focused more on law enforcement and armies.
"I think it is already very serious," he said of the West Africa drug threat. "It may look like the first stages but the amount of drugs and the strength of criminal organizations in this region is very large."
Carrera said Guatemala had made some progress by targeting the most powerful criminal groups and weeding officials involved in the trade out of institutions such as the police.
"If you don’t hit the largest groups, they will take over the state. We have fired several heads of police until we got the right head that was committed to anti-corruption," he said.
"In Latin America I would say that most of the drug trafficking is due to large organized crime groups. Here in West Africa, there is a higher level of institutional involvement and I think that is the real damaging situation here," he said.
(Editing by Alison Williams)