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16.12.2010 Politics

Cocaine Barons Use VVIP Lounge

By Daily Guide
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While President J.E.A Mills was publicly submitting to a body search at the Kotoka International Airport (KIA) shortly after assuming office, to signify his battle readiness for drug war, behind the scenes, he was bemoaning corruption within his own ranks and feared his appointees were seriously involved in Ghana's burgeoning drug trade, new Wikileaks documents have revealed.

On Tuesday, the influential London Guardian newspaper published on its website cables from Wikileaks about the illicit cocaine trade in the country, especially at the Kotoka International Airport, stating that President Mills suspected some of his men might have become involved in the drugs trade and therefore wanted them searched 'under cover' outside the prying eye of the public.

The Executive Secretary of the Narcotics Control Board (NACOB), Yaw Akrasi Sarpong, reportedly told the Americans that certain pastors, bank managers and their wives also used the VVIP lounge despite suspicions that they were trafficking drugs.

Mr. Sarpong, former National Democratic Congress (NDC) propaganda secretary, could not deny the leaks except to say that the publication was a 'combination of truths, half truths and people's own personal perceptions.'

He has threatened to no longer share intelligence with Western partners over drug trafficking between the two regions.

Mr. Sarpong wondered how confidential discussions he had with some US embassy officers over the worsening narcotics problem in Ghana, as well as leaked discussions between Ghana's President and the Assistant Secretary to US President Barack Obama, would leak.

President Atta Mills had told Johnnie Carson in 2009 that he feared 'a bleak future for the Ghanaian people' since 'Ghana is struggling with drug trafficking and increased drug use', adding that traditionally, God-fearing Ghana was "becoming a user country."

Mr. Sarpong is also quoted to have asked "how $700,000 mansions could be built in the poor region adjacent to the main Ghana-Togo border crossing' and 'how a single Nigerian woman could buy large parcels of beachfront property but that no one questions the source of her funds.'

In a US Embassy cable dated November 9, 2009, President John Atta Mills is quoted as telling the United States authorities he wanted equipment installed in the presidential lounge of the airport to screen his entourage for drugs when leaving the country.

'Mills wants these officials to be checked in the privacy of his suite to avoid any surprises if they are caught carrying drugs,' the cables, released on December 14, 2009, read.

One of the leaked confidential document was dated Tuesday, 10 November 2009, 09:04, titled, CONFIDENTIAL ACCRA; SUBJECT: GHANAIAN CONCERN OVER DRUG SMUGGLING BY VIP PASSENGERS Classified By: Ambassador Donald Teitelbaum.

A British operation to stem the flow of cocaine through Ghana had been beset by corruption, with local drug police sabotaging expensive scanning equipment and tipping off smugglers to avoid detection, the leaked US Embassy cables revealed.

In June 2009, President Mills told the US Ambassador to Ghana, Donald Teitelbaum, "elements of his government are already compromised and that officials at the airport tipped off drug traffickers about operations there."

Officials of the Narcotics Control Board (NACOB) working together with British officials were noted to have actively helped traffickers, even telling them the best time to travel to avoid detection.

In some cases, they were said to have channelled passengers, including pastors and bank managers and their wives into the security-exempt VVIP lounge despite suspicions they were trafficking drugs.

For this reason, smuggling was touted to have become so blatant that on one flight last year, two traffickers vomited drugs they had swallowed and subsequently died. Parcels of cocaine were also found taped under the seats of another KLM plane even before boarding.

US Embassy contacts in 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.

The cables said Ghana's Narcotics Control Board believes the VVIP lounge at the airport had been a source of drugs leaving the country, while Ghana was increasingly becoming a hot area of concern in the fight against illicit international drug trade.

President Mills is said to have expressed interest in acquiring 'itemizers' [portable screening devices] for the Presidential suite at the airport in order to screen his entourage for drugs before boarding any departing flight.

This was when he had discussions with Roland O' Hagan, the Project Manager of Operation Westbridge, a one million-pound sterling British-Ghana government initiative which was intended to clamp down on the use of Ghana as a drug trafficking point.

As narrated by O'Hagan, President Mills wanted these officials to be checked in the privacy of his suite to avoid any surprises if they were caught carrying drugs.

The itemizers, similar to those provided several years ago by the US Embassy through INL funding, are supposed to be sensitive, portable screening devices that can detect the drug content in droplets of human sweat, after recent external contact or for up to three weeks after ingestion.

All the four itemizers provided to the Government of Ghana to detect drug smugglers among airline passengers are now non-functioning.

O'Hagan believed that the itemizers at the airport were deliberately kept in a dusty, un-air-conditioned room that caused them to break down frequently.

He believed the machines were sabotaged because they were in a storage room, and the filters were removed since the knowledge required to remove the filters exceeded the basic knowledge of the operators.

The report also captured the Executive Secretary, Mr. Sarpong, also making an open admission on October 5, 2009 that though he was a staunch supporter of the ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC), party politics had no place at the NACOB.

That notwithstanding, he indicated that traffickers were using the VVIP lounge of the KIA to avoid searches.

Passengers leaving the lounge, according to the reports, were driven directly to the plane and were not searched before departure.

While President Mills had been outspoken in his determination to combat drug trafficking, Sarpong said that the NDC government had failed so far to provide NACOB with adequate resources, and stressed that low salaries made law enforcement personnel highly vulnerable to drug traffickers.

He claimed to track all drug dealers, regardless of their political affiliation, yet simultaneously made disparaging categorical remarks about drug connections in the former New Patriotic Party (NPP) government.

The United Nations estimates that up to 60 tonnes of cocaine are smuggled through West Africa, mainly to Europe, each year.

The previous Kufuor administration was also indicted for its lack of strenuous action against drug trafficking through Ghana.

As far back as October 2007, the document indicated that there were high concerns about the increasing drug trafficking through Ghana, charging the government as being 'largely clueless as to how to combat it.'

'All sources agreed that if the present trend continues, Ghana would likely see a corresponding rise in crime and drug abuse present in most transit countries,' it noted.

O'Hagan said that he believed the airlines might be willing to pay for the itemizers to be repaired, and specifically mentioned KLM and Delta. In recent times, the drug couriers have allegedly been arrested in connection with the two carriers.

He noted that the cost of maintenance on the itemizers was less than the cost of diverting flights on which passengers suffered drug overdoses.

Within the last few months, said O'Hagan, KLM had diverted to Spain two flights from Accra to Amsterdam because passengers started vomiting drugs. In both cases, the passenger died.

The statistics from Operation Westbridge are quite striking. The ages of arrested persons ranged from 16 to 55 and hailed from Ghana, Nigeria, Romania, the Netherlands, the UK and New Zealand.

Many carriers swallowed pellets and one Ghanaian died in July when a pellet burst.

Others have attempted to conceal narcotics in herbal tea, pictures, hair gel, or suitcases.

Perhaps most disturbing was when Westbridge officials found, before passengers boarded the plane, 1.8 kg of cocaine taped under passenger seats on a KLM flight.

Seizures seem to occur daily when the Westbridge team was present. In total, since November 2006, the operation has seized 350 kg of cocaine, nearly 2,200 kg of cannabis, and 1.3 kg of heroin with a total street value of over $120,000.

By Charles Takyi-Boadu

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