The Gambia is a key transit point for South American cocaine being smuggled to Europe. In February, over 800 kg of cocaine that had been transferred from a larger ship in the open sea was confiscated from a Gambian fishing boat in Senegalese waters. In 2021, Gambian authorities seized almost three tonnes of the drug, hidden in a shipment of industrial salt from Ecuador.
A police officer with the Drug Law Enforcement Agency (DLEAG), who requested anonymity, said the rise in maritime cocaine smuggling in the country could be traced back to the early 2000s. At that time, the opening of global markets saw traffickers start using West Africa as a transit point for cocaine shipments from South America to Europe.
The country’s 200 km coastline and limited resources to effectively police its maritime domain make it an attractive location and practical transit point for cocaine trafficking. Transnational organised criminal groups have also capitalised on the limited law enforcement capacity at the country’s ports.
The Gambia shares a long border with Senegal – a major transit point for drug traffickers.
Under Yahya Jammeh’s rule, the government faced substantial challenges in investigating and prosecuting drug crimes, according to Michael Davies, Executive Director of Public-Private Integrity, an anti-corruption civil society organisation. He told the ENACT organised crime project that this primarily stemmed from ‘inadequate case management, a shortage of staff in the judicial sector and court overload – and the criminals knew that.’ The country’s former leaders and institutions have also been implicated in drug trafficking.
In recent years, however, The Gambia has been fighting back. Ismaila Sow, a police officer with Dleag, said the current administration was working with regional and international partners to share intelligence, run joint operations, train law enforcement and improve capacity to detect and intercept drug trafficking boats. The country’s 2021 agreement signed with Nigeria indicated its willingness to fight the maritime drug trade, said Sow.
From January 2021 to April 2023, the Dleag recorded 1,629 cases involving 1,665 accused.
In January, The Gambia signed an agreement with SEACOP, the European Union-funded Seaport Cooperation Project that works with countries to disrupt and prevent maritime trafficking. The project’s main implementing partner, Expertise France, aims to build capacity and strengthen cooperation in countries on the trans-Atlantic cocaine route.
Akizi-Egnim Akala, SEACOP’s Deputy Regional Coordinator for West Africa, told ENACT that the SEACOP-Gambia agreement would build on the ‘good work the current administration is doing to take the fight to the criminals.’
To achieve results, however, The Gambia must prioritise improved information sharing, intelligence gathering and joint operations between police, customs and port authorities, as called for by the agreement. A specialised maritime task force dedicated to combating drug trafficking must be established, comprising members of various security agencies, including the police, navy and customs. The unit will need resources and training to investigate and apprehend traffickers.
Akala said the SEACOP project would provide The Gambia’s drug enforcement agencies with equipment and training in October. SEACOP emphasises intelligence-driven approaches and technology to identify high-risk containers and detect illicit goods. It will provide authorities with advanced container scanning equipment and data analysis tools that should significantly improve The Gambia’s ability to identify and intercept contraband.