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Ghana struggles to stem West African drugs trade

By Staff
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ACCRA, Apr 17 (Reuters) A plain clothes narcotics officer scans the packed departure hall to spot the drugs couriers among hundreds of passengers on their way to Europe.

''Sometimes you can tell who is carrying drugs by the way they are sitting,'' he says.

Two days ago, officials at Ghana's main airport caught a man who had swallowed more than 1 kg of cocaine.

They nicknamed him ''80-foot container'' for his ability to stomach 110 of the 10-gram pellets.

''We are looking for suspicious people and behaviour, fraudulent documents,'' said the officer at Kotoka International Airport in Ghana's capital Accra, one of many transit points for drugs smuggled through West Africa by criminal networks.

The officer, one of eight on the night shift, did not wish to be identified for fear of blowing his cover.

Young men who look too poor to be travelling to Europe or people whose accents do not match the nationality of their passports are obvious suspects. In practice, virtually any of the travellers could be carrying cocaine or heroin.

Narcotics control staff have information about half a dozen couriers expected on tonight's flights to Europe.

Two passengers have already been taken for stomach x-rays.

Both were both found to be ''travelling empty''.

Perhaps the couriers themselves were tipped off, the officer says. Or maybe they just got nervous.

Couriers whose x-rays show bags of drugs in their stomachs are held in an airport detention centre until they pass their precious packages -- known as ''laying their eggs''.

EUROPEAN FLIGHTS Those who make it on to the plane can relax, at least until they land and must run the gauntlet of European customs.

But Ghanaian officials say the more relaxed approach to drugs of some European countries, particularly the Netherlands with its famously liberal mores and open consumption of drugs, undermine their work and do little to deter couriers.

About six flights leave Accra for Europe each night.

The Amsterdam flight is hard to police, with many Ghanaians making frequent journeys between Accra and Amsterdam's large Ghanaian community, due in part to the centuries-old trading and cultural links between the two countries.

There is a ready supply of couriers, lured by a free trip, or even the prospect of a new life in Europe -- or simple cash.

''Professional couriers will not settle for anything less than 4,000 euros. Fresh couriers are in dire need of money and will settle for anything,'' said Moses Othniel Moses, of Ghana's Narcotics Control Board.

Campaigns to deter would-be couriers, including publishing photos of those caught in newspapers, can reduce the flow of drugs, but he says the effect is usually short-lived.

Nigerian networks dominate West Africa's drugs trade and have proved highly effective at getting packages to clients across the globe, said Antonio Mazzitelli, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime's representative for West and Central Africa.

In recent years, passports as well as flights from Africa's most populous country have come under increasing scrutiny, and smuggling operations have moved abroad.

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