DOUALA, Cameroon — The arrest of a Nigerian allegedly smuggling heroin here highlights what officials say is a growing problem of drug trafficking in Central Africa.
Egboka Ikechukwu, 28, appeared in court in Douala, Cameroon's economic hub, Oct. 25 to respond to charges of cross-border drug trafficking.
Mr. Ikechukwu was arrested Oct. 23 by police at Douala International Airport shortly after arriving on a Kenya Airways flight. He has been formally charged with the possession of 15 pounds of heroin.
"The passenger's behavior betrayed suspicion, which prompted an exhaustive search of his person and luggage by customs agents," said Customs Subdivision Commander Gregoire Biloa. "They found three empty carryalls whose stitches had been tampered with to hide the powder, which has been tested and confirmed to be heroin."
Mr. Ikechukwu faces up to 10 years of imprisonment and fines that could amount to $20,000, said Mr. Biloa.
Speaking to The Associated Press from his jail cell, Mr. Ikechukwu denied the charges.
He insisted he is a prosperous businessman in Nigeria, and he flew to Bujumbura, Burundi, via Nairobi, Kenya, on Oct. 18 to visit a friend.
"I don't know who put the drug in my bag. I don't know whether it's in my hotel room in Bujumbura that they did this thing to me. In my life, I've never pushed drugs before. I don't know anything about drugs," said Mr. Ikechukwu.
"I'm a businessman. I have my own shop in Nigeria, and I'm doing well. I went to Bujumbura to visit my friend, and from there, I came back to Cameroon to see one of my friends, that's all. And now I find myself in all this mess. It's a setup," he insisted.
Hub for transit and use
Despite his denials, Mr. Ikechukwu is one of a growing number of suspected drug traffickers here, according to the state prosecutor as well as the customs and police departments.
The arrest is the latest in a steadily swelling series in recent months that show that Cameroon and Central Africa are fast becoming a transit zone and marketplace for South America's drug cartels, according to Mr. Biloa.
There has been a dramatic increase in seizures of cocaine and heroin amounting to hundreds of pounds, according to data from border police and customs departments at air and seaports in the subregion.
That is a significant increase from a few grams a couple of years ago.
The neighboring region of West Africa already has become established as a transit point to Europe for South American traffickers, according to a report issued in July by regional Interpol officials.
According to them, the burgeoning seizures confirm that Central Africa is not only fast becoming a South American drug passageway, but also a consumption base.
"A few decades ago, it was zero," Lawrence Tang Enow, senior police superintendent and Interpol regional training officer in Cameroon, told AP. "After some time, we started seizing a few grams. Now we got to a situation where last year we seized [308 pounds] at the Douala International Airport alone."
Separate Interpol country reports based on police and customs statistics show increased seizures of Europe-bound cocaine and heroin and rising numbers of arrests of peddlers.
The South American cartels and their local accomplices are turning Central Africa into a steppingstone along their "cocaine route" to Europe by exploiting local weaknesses, such as deficient controls at ports, poor traveler inspection equipment, porous land and sea borders, and endemic corruption overwhelming security and customs departments, according to Interpol.
In February, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated that cocaine smuggling in West and Central Africa generates $900 million annually, up from $800 million in 2009.
Particularly worrisome is the suspected involvement of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Nigeria's Islamist terrorist group, Boko Haram, which may be involved in trafficking to fund their activities, according to a report published last year by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
"When the drug dealers come in, they influence the politics of countries, criminal activities and corruption. It is a very serious problem," said Conrad Atefor Ntsefor, an official at the Interpol Central Africa Regional Bureau in the Cameroonian capital, Yaounde.
According to Mr. Atefor Ntsefor, the wealthy and powerful cartels, whose bank accounts sometimes dwarf the state budgets in some African countries, can easily buy off government officials.
UNODC has warned that Central Africa also risks increases in piracy off its coasts, illegal arms circulation, human trafficking and general instability.
"The fear is that if we don't act and act in time, this phenomenon will become a serious cankerworm," Mr. Atefor Ntsefor warned.
The Central Africa Regional Interpol Bureau has been working with various country police and customs departments to merge and coordinate intervention strategies, reinforce databases on the movements and activities of suspects and encourage prompt information-sharing to facilitate the tracking down of traffickers.
Officials say the work is paying off gradually.
"We try to share information, intelligence and better coordinate through our secure communications system. I must admit here that that is what has been the driving force for the arrests of drug traffickers," Mr. Atefor Ntsefor said.
The regional efforts add to periodic crackdowns being jointly organized across West Africa, Central Africa and Latin America by the World Customs Organization, UNODC and Interpol.
In November and December 2011, one operation, staged across 25 airports in West-Central Africa and Brazil, resulted in the arrests of about 50 suspects, the seizure of more than 1,100 pounds of cocaine, heroin, amphetamines, guns, counterfeit medicines, ivory and more than $3.2 million in cash.