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Drug Trafficking, Violence and Politics in Northern Mali

By International Crisis Group
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Conflict among drug traffickers in northern Mali generates levels of violence unparalleled in the region and hinders the implementation of the 2015 inter-Malian peace agreements. Fully eradicating the problem is unrealistic in the short term, but Mali and its partners should work to demilitarise drug trafficking.

What’s happening? Drug trafficking in northern Mali is generating a level of violence that is unparalleled in the subregion; many of the armed groups in the north rely on the drug trade to finance operations, meet logistical needs and acquire weapons and vehicles.

Why does it matter? Drug traffickers’ rivalries obstruct the implementation of the 2015 inter-Malian peace agreement, and contribute to disputes among the groups who signed that deal. Violent interceptions are fuelling the militarised protection of drug convoys that is in turn delaying disarmament.

What should be done? Stamping out drug trafficking is unrealistic in the short term. Instead, Mali and its partners should strengthen control mechanisms, ranging from local dialogue to punishments, so that stakeholders can agree on how to demilitarise drug trafficking in northern Mali.

Executive Summary
Drug trafficking in northern Mali is generating a level of violence that is unparalleled in the subregion. The Malian state’s inability to bring the area under control has spawned particularly fierce conflicts among traffickers. Weapons circulating after the rebellions of the past two decades have exacerbated the progressive militarisation of trafficking networks, whose rivalries fuel political and inter-communal tensions. Smuggling narcotics is not only a means by which armed groups gain funds but a source of conflict in itself. Thus far, policies against drug trafficking have proven ineffectual; indeed, it is unrealistic to expect the problem to be eradicated any time soon. But Malian authorities and their international partners could take steps to at least demilitarise trafficking and reduce violence. These include backing regional stability pacts that informally regulate smuggling, redoubling efforts to rid all armed groups who signed the 2015 peace agreement, including those working with traffickers, of heavy weaponry, and using coercive measures (notably targeted sanctions) against those who refuse to disarm.

The influx into northern Mali of drugs (hashish in the 1990s, cocaine in the 2000s) has shaken up the local economy. Initially monopolised by Arab tribes, the enormous profits generated by the drug trade have, since the mid-2000s, attracted other groups’ involvement. The resulting competition – and the inflow of arms across the Sahel – has militarised smuggling, with traffickers using heavy arms and militias to protect or intercept convoys. Drug money has caused disputes among communities and upended traditional hierarchies. Conflicts degenerate into protracted feuds because criminal groups increasingly fall back on their communities for support. For years the Malian state, unable to prevent or regulate trafficking, has backed some armed groups against others, with officials seeking to gain resources and prevent them falling into rebels’ hands – although the government has denied this.

Rivalries among trafficking networks sometimes provoke confrontation between armed groups that those groups would prefer to avoid.

The 2012 Malian crisis worsened a situation that had been deteriorating already for a decade. After the rout of state forces from the north, traffickers adapted, forging closer ties to the region’s various armed groups, including in some cases jihadists (though the link between jihadism and drug trafficking in the Sahel tends to be overstated). Major traffickers maintain relations with both Malian authorities – which the latter denies – and political and military groups in the north; indeed often trafficking networks are embedded in, or overlap with, those groups, who themselves depend on trafficking to finance their operations and to buy weapons. That said, ties between armed groups and traffickers are not trouble-free: they do not always share the same interests. Rivalries among trafficking networks sometimes provoke confrontation between armed groups that those groups would prefer to avoid.

Drug trafficking remained a side issue during the inter-Malian talks that sought to end the crisis and which took place first in Ouagadougou in 2013, and then in Algiers in 2014 and 2015. Though discussed behind-the-scenes, the subject was virtually absent from the June 2015 peace agreement. On the other hand, subsequent local deals known as Anéfis 1 (October 2015) and Anéfis 2 (October 2017), have sought to regulate trafficking. In particular, they have included influential figures involved in trafficking and by keeping routes open for all transit have attempted to diminish armed competition and theft around those routes and to prevent rivalry among traffickers from escalating into fighting among the armed groups that signed the peace agreement. International actors, understandably reluctant to enter into open discussions about regulating trafficking, thus far view these efforts warily.

Actions to combat drug trafficking in northern Mali remain limited and ineffectual. National and international policymakers acknowledge the need to combat the drugs trade. But many avoid shouldering responsibility, citing the (often valid) reason that the problem falls outside their remit. On the ground, the fight against trafficking appears a lesser priority for international actors than implementing the peace agreement, conducting counter-terrorism operations and combatting clandestine people smuggling. Their reticence to act against traffickers also can be explained by the complexity of the networks involved and the fear of upsetting business interests, which could reach into the upper-most levels of regional governments. Moreover, for UN peacekeepers already under attack from jihadists, picking another fight would bring further danger, particularly given many armed groups’ involvement in trafficking.

The global struggle against the drug trade has known few successes. To be effective, measures should be global, coordinated and agreed between countries of production, transit and consumption, whose interests often conflict. Meanwhile Mali, like other transit countries exposed to violent competition over trafficking, needs a strategy based on its own needs and developed with the regional context in mind. Its efforts should focus on curtailing drug trafficking’s most destabilising consequences. The Malian government and its foreign partners should seek to demilitarise trafficking in northern Mali as best possible in order to reduce associated bloodshed and facilitate the peace agreement’s implementation. They should prioritise three interlinked strategies:

  • Encourage local security agreements such as the Anéfis deals, which complement the inter-Malian peace process; replicate such deals elsewhere in the north; and, without condoning trafficking, allow those agreements to include those involved to establish non-aggression pacts around transit routes and ensure that any fighting over trafficking not escalate into clashes between the major armed groups in the north that signed the 2015 peace deal.
  • Use security mechanisms put in place by the peace agreement, notably the Technical Commission for Security (Commission technique de sécurité, CTS) set up to help enforce the deal and which now comprises UN and French forces, to reduce the circulation of heavy weapons and regulate the movement of vehicles used to transport such weaponry by all signatory armed groups – including those connected to traffickers – in the north. Already the CTS provides a mechanism that allows UN peacekeepers and French forces to monitor such convoys; stepping up these efforts could accelerate disarmament and thus the demilitarisation of trafficking.
  • Adopt coercive measures, including targeted sanctions and the confiscation of heavy weaponry, in order to curb the activities of the most violent drug traffickers, who continue to employ the military resources of signatory groups. The Security Council, based on the findings of its panel of experts, can already sanction those who violate the 2015 peace deal while the security committee established in Mali by the peace agreement can also confiscate heavy weapons of signatory groups’ unauthorized military convoys; these mandates could provide sufficient grounds for action against those refusing to demilitarise.

Dakar/Brussels, 13 December 2018