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West Africa now key cocaine hub for Europe

Two British girls were convicted Wednesday of smuggling more than $600,000 worth of cocaine.

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Two British high-school girls now face three years in a juvenile detention center in the West African country of Ghana after being convicted Wednesday of trying to smuggle more than $600,000 of cocaine to England.

The conviction highlights what observers say is a troubling trend for West Africa, as the region becomes a key staging post for illegal drugs heading to Europe from South America.

While cocaine use has leveled off in the United States in recent years, Europe is in the throes of a boom comparable to the one that hit America in the 1980s: According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) there are 4 million users in Europe, triple the number a decade ago. A crackdown on the transatlantic cocaine trafficking route from South America via the Caribbean has led the drug cartels to West Africa, where they take advantage of weak law enforcement and rampant corruption.

"Africa is under attack ... [and facing] a crisis of epic proportions, by and large fueled by Europe's cocaine users," said UNODC chief Antonio Maria Costa at a conference in Madrid last week. "A sniff here and a sniff there in Europe is causing another disaster in Africa, to add to its poverty, its mass unemployment, and its pandemics."

The global police body Interpol estimates that as much as two-thirds of all cocaine headed for Europe is now shipped there via West Africa.

In its annual report on the global drugs trade the UNODC calls the shipment of cocaine via West Africa "the main new trend over the last two to three years."

The British girls were arrested in July by officers of Operation Westbridge, a joint British and Ghanaian initiative launched last fall to stanch the flow of cocaine through West Africa. Since then, customs officials at Ghana's international airport have seized more than 180 kilograms (396 pounds) of cocaine.

But Ghana is just one of 16 coastal West African countries in varying states of disarray and poverty. UN figures released last month show that 2007 is going to be a banner year for cocaine trafficking through West Africa: already 5.7 tons of cocaine worth half a billion dollars has been seized – double last year's haul.

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