A Nigerian trafficking network is now using "mules" to move drugs from South America to Europe, exemplifying how this growing drug consumer market is drawing mafias from around the world to the Americas.
A recent report by the Investigative Rebel Alliance (Alianza Rebelde Investigativa - ARI) zeroed in on the arrest of two Venezuelan citizens who had carried hundreds of capsules of cocaine into France in early 2020. This would have been just one of many cases of Venezuelans being used as drug mules by Colombian or Brazilian criminal groups, except for one striking difference. This time, the drug traffickers were Nigerian.
The ARI report broke down how Nigerian mafias have become a small, yet growing player in South America's drug trafficking scene. This network uses Venezuelans as drug mules to carry cocaine to France, leaving from Brazil, Suriname and French Guiana.
SEE ALSO: South Africa Raises Profile as Cocaine Trafficking Hub
Here, InSight Crime breaks down how African organized crime came to Latin America:
The Overlooked African Connection
In 2017, Colombian newspaper El Tiempo reported that up to a third of cocaine leaving Colombia reached African shores before being distributed in Europe. While such a figure is hard to verify, the growing importance of African countries as trafficking distribution points is undeniable. An investigation by Carolina Sampó, coordinator for the Center for Transnational Organized Crime (Centro de Estudios Sobre Crimen Organizado Transnacional - CeCOT) at the University of La Plata, Argentina, found that Nigerian mafias were recruiting mules to move cocaine from Brazil to Africa.
Some of the most prominent drug traffickers in the region have sought to cash in on this connection. Another example, in April 2020, Gilberto Aparecido Dos Santos, alias “Fuminho,” a prominent leader of the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital - PCC), was arrested in Mozambique, Africa, while establishing contact with other mafias on the continent. He had reportedly been hoping to corner the cocaine trafficking market in neighboring South Africa.
SEE ALSO: Mozambique Becoming Southern Africa's Cocaine Platform
Still, the links between Nigerian organized crime and drug shipments from Brazil, French Guiana and other countries, as described by ARI, are relatively new.
This trend makes sense, however, when considering that Italian and Albanian drug trafficking gangs have long had a presence in the region to secure primary sources of cocaine.
Exploiting Venezuelan Community in Brazil
According to an investigation by InSight Crime, Brazil is the main dispatch point for cocaine shipments bound for Europe.
Local, European and now even Nigerian organized crime groups are in charge of collecting and moving the drugs out of Brazil, while many of the mules come from neighboring Venezuela.
Figures cited by Agencia Analodu from the National Committee for Brazilian Refugees (Comité Nacional para los Refugiados de Brasil - Cornare) indicate that between the second half of 2020 and 2021, about 17,385 Venezuelans had requested refugee status in Brazil. Those who cross illegally into the country are not included within those figures.
According to the ARI investigation, no direct link was found between Nigerian mafias in Venezuela and those in Brazil, but circumstantial evidence remained strong. One Nigerian man, which ARI connected to the drug trafficking ring, owns a hotel in Brazil's northern state of Roraima, which Venezuelan migrants use as a stopping-off point on their journey. He was previously an evangelical pastor and lived in Venezuela, where a small Nigerian community is often involved with evangelical churches. Another Nigerian citizen, identified only as Mike, who allegedly runs the Suriname side of the drug trafficking network, also used to live in Venezuela, according to the investigation.
One of the individuals interviewed for the investigation, who spoke on condition of anonymity, explained that she was recruited in Brazil by the Nigerian group after she arrived in the country to look for job opportunities.
“The food is the reason that I am here [in Paris]. I decided to make the trip for the food,” one of the Venezuelans arrested in France told ARI. According to the publication, the migrant referred to as Marvin was offered up to $5,000 to carry drugs within his body as a “mule.”