When a crack unit of Kenyan narco cops raided a Mombasa villa in November, after an eight-month undercover US investigation, it marked a step change in Africa`s fight against drug trafficking.
The drugs sting was a first in East Africa. Four men were arrested: two sons of a murdered Kenyan drug lord, a convicted Indian trafficker with a faded Bollywood star wife and a bigtime Indian Ocean transporter from Pakistan known as “Old Man”.
The next day, on November 10, a New York indictment was unsealed and a US extradition request lodged. Nearly seven months later the groundbreaking operation is in jeopardy as efforts to extradite the suspects founder, casting doubt on international efforts to block a new “southern route” funnelling heroin from Afghan poppy fields to European and American streets, via Africa`s poorly policed eastern coastline.
“This case is a big test for cooperation between Kenya and any government that wants to work here,” said a law enforcement officer concerned at the faltering progress in the case.
The so-called Smack Track that leads from Afghanistan to the Makran Coast of Iran and Pakistan and across the Indian Ocean to East Africa is an alternative to the traditional opium trail via Central Asia and the Balkans.
The path was first revealed in 2010 when police busted four Tanzanians and two Iranians with 95 kilogrammes (209 pounds) of heroin in Tanga, northern Tanzania.
Since then seizures have grown exponentially. Last year, nearly four tonnes of heroin was seized by piracy-patrolling warships, almost double the amount found in 2013. In Afghanistan, last year`s record poppy harvest means the flow of heroin is set to increase.
“The East Africa region has become a transit route for heroin,” said Hamisi Massa, who heads Kenya`s Anti Narcotics Unit.
Massa said Kenya is “an emerging destination” as well as “a key transit point” with the vast majority of heroin smuggled onwards.When drugs are seized on the high seas they are dumped overboard and the crew given a ticking off before being sent on their way.