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New report on illicit drug trade in the Western Indian Ocean published |10 June 2021

A newly published report on the illicit drug trade in the Western Indian Ocean shows that drug markets are expanding and diversifying, fuelling corruption and driving growing domestic consumption.

Entitled ‘Changing Tides: The evolving illicit drug trade in the western Indian Ocean’, the new research report from the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime (GI-TOC) has been co-authored by Lucia Bird, Julia Stanyard, Vel Moonien and Riana Raymonde Randrianarisoa.

It documents far-reaching corruption underpinning the drug markets of the Western Indian Ocean islands and warns of Madagascar emerging as a drugs trafficking hub.

The islands of the Western Indian Ocean have been drastically impacted by illicit drug markets which fuel widespread corruption. The islands (namely Mauritius, Seychelles, Madagascar, the Union of the Comoros and the French Overseas Territories of Mayotte and Réunion) are particularly vulnerable because of their proximity to a major heroin trafficking route and growing regional methamphetamine and cocaine routes.

This report documents significant changes currently under way in the inter-island drug trafficking ecosystem, as increasing volume and diversity of illegal drugs are trafficked to and between the islands. It sheds light on the dynamics of each of the major drug markets across the islands, namely heroin, synthetic cannabinoids, cocaine and cannabis.

Mauritius and Seychelles are home to deeply entrenched heroin markets, and Seychelles is estimated to have the highest per capita rate of heroin consumption in the world. The report details how demand for heroin in both islands, together with changes occurring on the East African seaboard, is fuelling Madagascar’s emergence as a ‘plaque tournante’ – a turning point – in regional, and to a lesser extent global, drug trafficking routes.

Growing volumes of heroin are being trafficked via Madagascar, which also operates as a significant cannabis exporter in the inter-island drugs economy.

Since 2015, long-standing heroin flows have been joined by a flood of synthetic cannabinoids, which have fundamentally disrupted drug markets in Mauritius, Mayotte and the Comoros and driven widespread harm.

Further, record-breaking cocaine production in Latin America and spiralling demand in Europe and Australia have combined to supercharge global cocaine trafficking routes, with significant impacts for the region.

Drug pricing data, drawing from surveys with people who use drugs, sheds insight into trends across retail drug markets, including decreasing heroin prices in the Seychelles, and rocketing cannabis prices in Mauritius, where prices have spiked almost fourfold between 2015 and 2020, from US $18 to US $69 per gram (MUR 800–MUR 2,675).

The research delves into the unique structure of the networks controlling each island’s drugs market – from Madagascar, where the business is stable and power concentrated in few hands – to the highly fragmented nature of synthetic cannabinoid markets across the islands.

This report underscores the drastic impacts of the burgeoning drugs markets on the islands. It documents widespread state complicity with drug markets, and explores the unique corrupting power of the drugs market in Mauritius and Seychelles, documenting widespread unease of governance decay expressed by interviewees.

Drug markets penetrate the society of each of the island states, driving cultural change and entrenching inequality. In Mauritius, some networks have demonstrated the characteristics of a shadow welfare state, contributing to funeral or wedding arrangements, paying electricity and water, and distributing food during Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020 and 2021.

The report explores the differing responses adopted by the island states, assessing their impacts and concluding with a number of recommendations to better respond to drug trafficking across the islands, including:

1. Recognise and respond to the role of the drugs market in driving systematic corruption across criminal justice and broader state infrastructure;

2. Address the rapidly emerging role of Madagascar as a key regional drug trafficking hub, and the consequences this has for regional illicit markets and stability;

3. Embed people who use drugs at the heart of policymaking and civil-society response frameworks;

4. Adopt approaches that decriminalise the use of drugs;

5. Strengthen the regional civil society response, particularly by enhancing media coverage of drug trafficking and its impacts.

Since 2012, levels of cocaine production have been sharply rising, with UNODC estimates indicating that 2017 was a record production year, with 1976 tonnes manufactured – a rise of 25% on the previous year. Forthcoming research on cocaine markets in East and Southern Africa documents the impact of growing volumes being trafficked through the region.

The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime is a network of professionals working on the frontlines of the fight against the illicit economy and criminal actors. Through a network of global civil society observatories on the illicit economy, they monitor evolving trends and work to build the evidence basis for policy action, disseminate the expertise of our Network and catalyze multisectoral and holistic responses across a range of crime types. With the Global Initiative’s Resilience Fund, we support community activists and local NGOs working in areas where crime governance is critically undermining people’s safety, security and life chances.


Press release from Global Initiative Against Transitional Organised Crime

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