African anti-narcotics operation funded with £1m from UK thwarted by corrupt officials at airport, US embassy cables say
A £1m taxpayer-funded anti-trafficking campaign to stem the flow of cocaine into the UK through Ghana’s busiest airport is beset by corruption, with drugs police sabotaging expensive British-bought scanning equipment and tipping off smugglers, leaked US embassy cables reveal.
Ghana president John Atta Mills even worried that his own entourage could be smuggling drugs through his presidential lounge at Accra’s Kotoka airport and asked a senior UK customs official last November for help to screen them “in the privacy of his suite to avoid any surprises if they are caught carrying drugs”, according to the US embassy in Accra (cable 234015).
The US embassy reported what it had been told by Roland O’Hagan, the British head of Operation Westbridge – a joint UK-Ghanaian anti-smuggling operation.
The cable said: “President Mills had expressed interest in acquiring itemisers [sensitive, portable screening devices] for the presidential suite at the airport in order to screen his entourage for drugs before boarding any departing flight.”
The extraordinary request reveals the depth of the crisis in the bilateral operation to crack down on wholesale drug trafficking into the UK through an airport which has become a main transit hub for South American drug cartels channelling hard drugs into the UK and Europe after the authorities successfully blocked routes from the Caribbean.
Drugs worth £100m have been seized so far, amid growing international concern expressed in the cables that drug trafficking is becoming “institutionalised” in west Africa.
The UN has estimated that up to 60 tonnes of cocaine, worth £1.3bn, is smuggled through the region each year.
According to the cables, Ghanaian narcotics control board (Nacob) officers working in collaboration with British officials:
• actively helped traffickers, even telling them the best time to travel to avoid detection (164939)
• sabotaged sensitive drug scanners paid for by British taxpayers
• channelled passengers, including pastors and bank managers and their wives, into the security-exempt VVIP lounge despite suspicions they were trafficking drugs.
Smuggling has become so blatant that on one flight last year, two traffickers vomited up drugs they had swallowed and subsequently died (234015), while parcels of cocaine were found taped under the seats of another KLM plane even before boarding (125133).
Mills had publicly pledged to crack down on trafficking into the UK via the airport and won the presidency with an anti-drugs platform.
But in June 2009 he told the US ambassador to Ghana, Donald Teitelbaum, “he knows elements of his government are already compromised and that officials at the airport tipped off drug traffickers about operations there (214460).”
Embassy contacts in both the police service and the president’s office “have said they know the identities of the major barons,” but “the government of Ghana does not have the political will to go after [them]”, a December 2007 cable said (135389).
A UK official overseeing Westbridge had observed Nacob agents at the airport directing passengers away from flights receiving extra scrutiny, a confidential US embassy cable revealed in August 2008 (164939).
“On one occasion, [the official] returned unexpectedly to the airport at 4am to screen a flight. An arrested trafficker told the UK official that the trafficker had been told that Westbridge was not operating that night. A test by Westbridge officials of the cellphone SIM card of a trafficker found the phone numbers of senior Nacob officials.”
He said two itemisers were incapacitated by sabotage, remarking “the knowledge required to remove the filters exceeded the basic knowledge of the operators”.
The cable concluded: “The government of Ghana does not provide the resources necessary to address the problem and, at times, does not appear to have the political will to go after the major drug barons.”
Operation Westbridge began in November 2006 and the UK government has trumpeted its success.
Last year the minister responsible for drug trafficking, Alan Campbell, told a parliamentary inquiry the scheme was a “very good example” of how to tackle the cocaine trade, while the Home Office said in a written statement that “these operations meet our drugs strategy commitment to intercept drugs and drugs couriers before they reach the UK”.
A different picture emerges in the cables. Kim Howells, a Labour Foreign Office minister, delivered a “stern message” to the Ghanaian government in October 2007 about its lack of co-operation and responded “testily” to a request from Ghana’s interior minister for more scanning equipment, saying: “If a ‘criminal’ is operating equipment, it is worthless,” according to the US embassy.
Three months later the embassy reported that “seizures in Accra drop to almost zero when the Westbridge team … is back in London (135389)”.
In November 2009 O’Hagan told the US embassy that Nacob believes that the airport’s VVIP lounge has been a source of drugs leaving the country.
“Nacob placed two officers in the lounge to screen departing passengers, and the number of passengers using the VVIP lounge has decreased,” the embassy reported O’Hagan saying late last year.