LISBON, Oct 1 (Reuters) Seven west European countries on Sunday launched an agency to tackle the ever-changing routes whereby South American cocaine finds its way onto European streets, particularly via West Africa.
The Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre - Narcotics (MAOC-N) will help national authorities work together to catch cocaine shipments, often through high stakes operations on the open seas.
Cocaine use has tripled in Europe in the past decade to become the second most used drug in Europe after cannabis and the vast majority of it passes into the EU through Iberia -- Spain and Portugal.
''We are the Atlantic border of Europe,'' Portuguese Justice Minister Alberto Costa said during a ceremony to inaugurate the agency yesterday. It was signed by Portugal, Ireland, France, Italy, Spain, Britain and the Netherlands.
About 70 tonnes of cocaine was seized by Spain and Portugal in 2006 out of about 100 tonnes seized in the whole of Europe.
The decision to establish the agency was in large part a reaction to the growing use of West Africa by South American drug runners as a staging post to Europe.
''Concern about the growing importance of the African western coast in this trade is one of the raisons d'etre of this centre,'' said Costa.
Law enforcement authorities in Portugal have pointed to Nigeria and especially Guinea Bissau as countries South American cocaine passes through on its way to Europe.
COLOMBIANS IN GUINEA BISSAU A UN official warned last week that Guinea-Bissau could ''explode'' if the international community does not help stop Latin American drug traffickers from overrunning the country.
Arrests of Colombians in Guinea-Bissau have prompted concerns that the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) left-wing guerrilla group has established itself there in order to extend drug financing of its operations at home.
''Whether they are FARC members of not I couldn't say for sure, but clearly we know there are Colombians down there (in West Africa),'' said Tim Manhire, the executive director of the new agency.
Manhire said this was one angle the agency would pursue with US authorities that are more familiar in dealing with Colombian militants in their use of the drug trade to finance conflict. The US has observer status at the agency.
''Clearly we will be looking to work with our American colleagues at trying to intervene in that environment,'' Manhire said.
The price of cocaine has fallen sharply in Europe in recent years, suggesting more of it is reaching Europe, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addicition, which is also based in Lisbon.
See also: Police are underdogs in Guinea-Bissau drugs war [ID:nL06815236] Reuters MP VP0737