COLUMN ONE : A Gaping Gateway for Drugs : Corruption and lax security make Nigeria one of the world’s top transit points for cocaine and heroin. Nightly, couriers fly off with illegal stashes--many bound for the United States.


The woman blended effortlessly with the hundreds of travelers negotiating the maze of security checkpoints, tax collectors, passport stampers and bribe-takers at Murtala Muhammed Airport.

She was a slender, 25-year-old Nigerian with braided hair, dressed in light cotton trousers and a T-shirt. She held a ticket for the late-night flight to Amsterdam. It was her container of palm oil, a staple of Nigerian cooking, that raised the security officer’s suspicions.

“You’re taking this to Europe?” the officer asked.

“It’s for my boyfriend,” she replied. “He’s never had a meal cooked in palm oil.”

Skeptical Nigerian agents heated the gallon-sized jug of solidified oil and, lo and behold, a plastic bag of heroin bobbed to the surface.


But for every smuggler the Nigerians catch, there are hundreds, probably thousands, who walk unchallenged through the gaping airport security net.

Foreign drug agents based here estimate that every plane, every night, holds at least one passenger smuggling heroin or cocaine.

In fact, lax security at the airport and a culture of corruption have made this city of 8 million people one of the busiest drug transit points in the world, international experts say.

Heroin arrives here in bulk from the Far East, often via Lebanon or Pakistan; cocaine arrives from South America. Then nearly all of it is exported, pound by pound, on the backs, in the luggage and, increasingly, in the bellies of Nigerian couriers.

“Nigeria is a major, major heroin trafficking and transit point,” said Roger Guevara, a spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Washington. “I hate to say anything derogatory about Nigerians, but let’s just say they’re very good at what they do.”

In recent years, almost 80% of the heroin seized at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York has, at one point or another, passed through Lagos, DEA and U.S. Customs officials report.


Half of the heroin seized in the United States is being carried by Nigerians or other West Africans. Just a few weeks ago, agents busted a Nigerian drug smuggling ring based in San Francisco.

“Nigeria is a safe haven for individuals, drug barons and drug dealers,” said a Western drug expert with three years’ experience in Nigeria. “The reason? C-o-r-r-u-p-t-i-o-n.”

Like other foreign drug agents here, he spoke on condition of anonymity. In the last year, one American drug agent and one Italian agent have been shot in ambushes. No arrests have been made.

The battle by American and European authorities to close the Lagos loophole in the world drug network has been uphill.

The American government, citing poor security, banned all direct flights between Lagos and the United States last August. In response, the Nigerians installed their first airport X-ray machine.

But American officials say security remains poor.

A review of the flight ban is expected in March. If the airport isn’t recertified, the United States is legally bound to suspend all non-humanitarian aid to Nigeria.


Shutting down direct flights to the United States has only changed the path of the drug highway.

Now, American experts say, more Nigerians are smuggling drugs into the United States through European airports, overland from Canada and Mexico, and on flights from the Caribbean.

The Nigerian government’s anti-drug efforts are coordinated by the 4-year-old National Drug Law Enforcement Agency, housed in a collection of dilapidated, unmarked buildings in a thicket of palm trees on Lagos’ Victoria Island. Of its 2,000 agents, 200 are assigned to the 24-hour airport detail.

Nigeria’s drug agency is sharply criticized by foreign diplomats as incompetent and corrupt.

The agency is especially plagued by cases of confiscated drugs that mysteriously disappear. Four agents were sent to jail last year for tampering with evidence.

Nigerian authorities made 279 drug arrests last year and confiscated 135 pounds of cocaine and 80 pounds of heroin.


But much more got through.

Authorities at London’s Heathrow Airport arrested nearly one Nigerian a day last year. And those are just the couriers.

Nigerian agents have been unable or unwilling to arrest any major drug barons, many of whom receive friendly escorts through airport checkpoints and flash their enormous wealth on the streets of Lagos.

“The Nigerian authorities are doing exactly nothing, except collecting money from the drug barons,” a U.S. drug agent complained. “It’s a disgrace.”

At one border post two months ago, authorities had to fire tear gas to break up a dispute between Nigerian customs agents and drug enforcement agents.

The fight, it turned out, was over who could extort money from importers.

Then, last month, a 560-pound shipment of heroin from Thailand was seized by Nigerian agents, acting on a tip from British intelligence.

Within days, some of the heroin was reported missing.

“We do not condone this at all,” said Abiodun Adesola, chief spokesman for Nigeria’s drug agency. As he talked, loud rock music pulsed from a stereo system at his elbow. The sign on his desk read: “A life of drug addiction is a dead life.”


It is not drug addiction, of course, but transportation, that is Nigeria’s biggest problem.

Although drug use in Nigeria is on the increase, few can afford such an addiction in a country of nearly 100 million beset by crippling poverty.

But the transport business is booming. In recent months, Nigerian drug barons have forged into new markets in the rest of Africa, especially in South Africa.

The DEA has three field agents in Lagos, the agency’s only office in sub-Saharan Africa. But agency offers of assistance to the Nigerian government have, for the most part, been spurned.

When the Americans gave two drug-sniffing dogs to local agents, for example, the animals were never used and eventually died. Nigerians blamed the heat.

Nigerian officials acknowledge that their efforts to stop trafficking have been insufficient.


They blame the country’s political travails, which have seen three unelected dictators in power over the last year. And they also blame the American appetite for drugs.

“Nigeria is not a generator of this drug traffic,” said Jerry Gana, the government’s minister of information. “We are not a nation of crooks.”

But he acknowledged that Lagos has become one of the world’s leading drug conduits “because our laws were not applied firmly in the past.”

Adesola, of the Nigerian drug agency, contended that, although Nigeria has a duty to stop the drug traffic in Lagos, “the U.S. also has a duty to teach people not to use them. This is a problem forced on us by poverty and the ready market in the United States and all these developed countries.

“Our people are desperate to make ends meet, and they become tools,” Adesola added. “If you (in the United States) don’t tackle the demand, it’s difficult for us.”

While Nigerian drug barons are hardly innocent victims of the world’s narcotics habits, American officers admit that the promise of a $1,000 cash payment can easily turn an impoverished Nigerian into a contraband courier.


“In Nigeria, you’ve got 100 million people ready to take that chance,” said a Western diplomat in Lagos. “And even if they get nailed in London, they still get a nice jail cell and good meals. There’s an economic incentive right there.”

The lax security network and corruption are only two reasons for the growing number of Nigerian drug barons.

U.S. drug agents admit that Nigerians are among the world’s most sophisticated smugglers--and the most difficult to stop.

“If Nigerians ever put their intelligence and energy into legal things, they would control the world,” said another Western diplomat in Lagos.

Couriers are promised that, if they are caught, their families will be taken care of until they are freed. And they sign a vow of secrecy, which they respect, knowing that drug lords could harm their families.

Couriers undergo rigorous training by the Lagos syndicates. In the drug barons’ fancy homes, couriers are taught how to avoid being caught, how to answer authorities’ questions and how to act if confronted.


They are supplied with high-quality forged passports, which can be obtained in a few days in Lagos.

Swallowing heroin-filled condoms is the most common method of drug smuggling here, and couriers often perfect their technique by swallowing grapes. Couriers also often use okra soup, a favorite Nigerian dish, to help wash down their stash. In fact, an effort to target the “swallowers” in 1992 was code-named “Operation Soup Bowl.”

Foreign drug agents encourage flight attendants on planes leaving Lagos to report any passengers who refuse to eat or drink. But they are often outwitted by drug lords who flood flights with couriers. Agents call this “the army of ants tactic.”

And American agents say Nigerians are now recruiting more women, especially white women, to be couriers.

“They don’t just take the average Joe and say, ‘Take this to America,’ ” a U.S. agent said. “They are very sophisticated. They’ve had on-the-job training, and they know how to beat us.”

The Nigerian Connection

While there is no direct service between Lagos, Nigeria, and the United States, there are plenty of flights to European and African cities that have numerous daily flights to the United States.


DAILY FLIGHTS to Europe: London: 6 Rome: 5 Brussels: 4 Frankfurt: 4 Zurich: 4 Paris: 3 Amsterdam: 3 Sofia: 1 *

To Africa capitals: 54 *

Other service Saudi Arabia: 2 Rio: 1 Beirut: 1