Intercontinental drug trafficking networks operating via West Africa have begun trading hashish directly for cocaine.

In July 2023, Spanish customs seized 6 tonnes of hashish (cannabis resin) on a sailboat near the Canary Islands. The vessel had left Portugal and loaded its illicit cargo off Morocco’s northern port city Safi. It then headed not towards Europe, but South America. The destination was Brazil, an emerging market for hashish.1

This seizure highlights a new dynamic in the long-standing cocaine trafficking flows between South America, West Africa and Europe. Since 2016, Brazil has been by far the most important export point for cocaine moving through West Africa to Europe. Since at least 2020, European criminal organizations appear to be exchanging hashish directly for cocaine from Brazilian networks, the Lisbon-based Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre (MAOC) reports.2

The same ship will often transport cocaine one way and hashish the other, with many vessels traveling via West Africa, dropping off cargo for later pickup and contributing to what law enforcement sources describe as ‘giant stockpiles’ of hashish along the West African coast.3

By enhancing the efficiency of operations and negating the need for cash payments, this new trend of bartering hashish for cocaine could be a step-change in the capacity of maritime trafficking networks to transit larger quantities of cocaine via West Africa. This barter system, and an increase in hashish transported via West Africa, also feeds into overland trafficking routes for both hashish and cocaine, which transit from West African ports across some of the most unstable and conflict-affected areas of West Africa and the Sahel.

The emergence of hashish-cocaine swaps via West African maritime routes

Trading hashish for cocaine directly exploits huge differentials in drug prices across continents. In Morocco, hashish currently wholesales for around US$800 per kilogram and cocaine for US$28 000,4 while in Brazil both hashish and cocaine wholesale for around US$8 000–10 000 per kilogram.5 For a kilogram of hashish that arrives in Brazil, Brazilian groups send 1 kilogram of cocaine in return, an arrangement that suits the trafficking networks as being a far more economical option than cash, likely significantly expanding their purchasing power.

The relationship between Moroccan cannabis trafficking networks and Latin American cocaine trafficking networks has a long history. Around 20 years ago, cocaine trafficking networks began to leverage cannabis trafficking routes from Morocco to Europe to ship cocaine, which these networks were trafficking via West Africa.6 Swapping hashish directly for cocaine is a significant evolution in this long-standing relationship, allowing these intercontinental trafficking networks to use their existing supply chains and logistics arrangements more efficiently. This new trend has arisen amid record-level global cocaine production and record-level cocaine seizures in West Africa.7

Cocaine seizures in West Africa, 1990­–2023.

Figure 1 Cocaine seizures in West Africa, 1990­–2023.

Note: 2023 figures as of end of May.
Source: Data collated by the GI-TOC from various sources, including the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, media publications and confidential sources.

Since 2020, West Africa appears to have become an important transit hub for Moroccan hashish. From 2007 to 2019, MAOC, an EU-supported maritime force focused on counter-drug trafficking operations, seized 457 tonnes of Moroccan hashish, 95% of which was seized in or around the Mediterranean. From 2020 to 2021, 65% of hashish seizures occurred in West Africa, around the Canary Islands or near Brazil.8 Since 2019, over 12.5 tonnes of hashish known to be destined for Brazil have been interdicted across four different seizures.9

Reporting on the June 2021 seizure of 15 tonnes of hashish near the Canary Islands from a vessel with an Italian captain and a Senegalese crew, Spanish authorities highlighted several West African countries as growing hubs in the increasingly popular ‘Atlantic hashish route’. 10 These included Senegal, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and Sierra Leone. In their statement, Spanish authorities reported that intelligence suggests trafficking hashish from Morocco by sea to the West African coast and then northwards overland through the Sahel via Libya to Europe is seen by criminal organizations as more secure than traditional trafficking routes from Morocco to Europe, due to disruption by Italian, French and Spanish law enforcement. 11 Such routes have been leveraged by networks in major hashish-producing countries beyond Morocco: in March 2021, a record interception was made in Niger of 17 tonnes of hashish that had originated in Lebanon and had been imported through Lomé port, in Togo.12

Senegal has made the region’s largest seizures. In June 2021, Senegalese navy vessels intercepted over 16 tonnes of hashish on two sailboats heading south just weeks apart. Local media reported that one of the vessels was bound for Côte d’Ivoire.13 Seizures of smaller quantities along Senegal’s land border with the Gambia have also become an increasingly frequent occurrence since 2020, according to a source in the Office Central de Répression du Trafic Illicite des Stupéfiants (OCRTIS), Senegal’s drug agency. 14

Guinean law enforcement have also reported an uptick in hashish seizures. One investigation into a larger consignment – 84 kilograms – seized in April 2021 resulted in the arrest of a police colonel and several military officers tasked with presidential security, suggesting a degree of institutional protection for the trade among elements of the country’s security forces.15

The emerging role of coastal West Africa as an important transit point for international hashish trafficking may be being overlooked by West African law enforcement. Guinean police commissioner Benjamin Camara noted that the dominant focus of Guinean security forces on cocaine could mean that the rise in hashish trafficking is being missed.16 Similarly, in Senegal, despite there having been large-scale seizures of hashish by the Senegalese navy and within Senegal, several law enforcement sources interviewed did not have a strong awareness of the link with cocaine trafficking or the nature of the cocaine-hashish barter trade. This may reflect a lack of information sharing between the regional and international authorities seizing hashish at sea and the predominantly national law enforcement authorities intercepting drugs flows on land.

Not all the hashish heading towards West Africa is bound for Brazil. Due to increasingly high interdiction rates off Spain and Portugal, traffickers are having to seek new routes into Europe, resulting in an overall southward shift in hashish trafficking routes. Some networks, having smuggled hashish from Morocco south to West Africa by sailboat, are splitting tonnes of hashish into smaller cargos of 200 to 300 kilograms and hiding them in containers leaving West African ports bound for European entry points such as Antwerp and Rotterdam.17

In other instances, criminal networks employ overland routes for hashish from Morocco through the Sahel and Sahara into Libya.18 In 2020, the UN Panel of Experts on Mali described the traffic of ‘hashish, from Morocco, moving via Mauritania and Mali through the Niger to Libya’ as ‘the most regular and stable narcotics flow through Mali’.19 Once in Libya, some of this cannabis is then moved across the Mediterranean into Europe.20

A complex set of intercontinental criminal actors

Europe-based networks play a role in the intercontinental cocaine-hashish trade via West Africa. These include Albanian crime rings, as well as Bulgarian gangs – often based in Spain – that have set up logistics outposts in West Africa. Guinea, for example, was a favoured spot for Dimitar Mitrin, a Spain-based Bulgarian drug trafficker arrested in 2020. Mitrin started out importing Moroccan hashish to Spain, then he expanded into cocaine before realizing the money to be made in exporting Moroccan hashish to Brazil in exchange for cocaine. He reportedly established outposts in Guinea, both for the transit of hashish and cocaine and as locations to conduct swaps.21

Some Brazilian law enforcement sources believe that members of West African criminal networks – most prominently Nigerian networks – negotiate hashish-for-cocaine swaps in Brazil, though it is difficult to say for certain. ‘The West African traffickers most prolific in Brazil are the Nigerians. There is a Nigerian underworld very much active in São Paulo for decades [including] within the prison system,’ Christian Azevedo, a senior official in the federal police, said. Azevedo added that Senegalese and Ghanaian criminal networks are also present, as are Moroccans.22

The São Paulo-based First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital, or PCC) is a pivotal player in the transit of cocaine from Brazil to West Africa,23 collaborating closely with Nigerian cells. Some reports indicate that the PCC may be taking a role in the emerging Brazilian market for African hashish. In April 2023, an investigation uncovered a smuggling ring importing African hashish in the north-eastern state of Rio Grande do Norte. The ring operated alongside what was described in media reports as ‘a large criminal faction in São Paulo’, which is likely a reference to the PCC.24 A sailing vessel carrying three tonnes of hashish off the coast of Brazil was recently seized on 10 November 2023. All four crew members were Brazilian nationals. This is the latest suggestion of Brazilian network involvement in hashish trafficking.25

Within coastal West Africa, Moroccan networks reportedly play a significant role in supplying hashish. According to an officer of the OCRTIS agency in Senegal, Moroccan criminal networks traffic hashish into Senegal under the protection of corrupt security force officers.26

Implications for hashish and cocaine trafficking through West Africa and the Sahel

The development of cocaine-hashish swaps to Latin America – and the far higher volumes of hashish consequently arriving in West African ports – could have broader implications for the political economy of drug trafficking in West Africa.

Swaps offer greater efficiency by enabling vessels to be used in both travel direction, generating significant cost savings for Africa-based traffickers. Reduced operating costs could contribute to further increases in the volume of cocaine that trafficking networks move through West Africa towards European consumer markets.

The increased efficiency offered by these swaps fits into an overall pattern of major criminal actors seeking to enhance the efficiency of the cocaine supply chain between Latin America and Europe. Brazil’s PCC, for example, is known to try to enhance the efficiency of its supply chains. Gabriel Feltran, a Brazilian ethnographer who has authored a book on the PCC and interviewed a number of the PCC’s business partners, hypothesizes that the group often works by decreasing profits per consignment while driving overall profits higher by increasing the volumes transiting the relevant route.27

Increasing quantities of cocaine transiting West Africa could have knock-on effects on political stability. Cocaine markets have a deeply corrosive effect on many West African state institutions, with the high-profit transit trade supporting entrenched protection structures that reach into high levels of the political and security apparatus.28

Furthermore, growing quantities of cocaine and hashish arriving on West African coastlines would also funnel yet more consignments through the extremely unstable Sahel, benefiting non-state armed groups active in armed conflicts in the region, particularly Malian political signatory groups that have long been deeply entrenched in the drugs trade. Cocaine and hashish follow many of the same trafficking routes through the central Sahara, tending to travel through the Salvador Pass into Libya, for example.29 Along these routes, cocaine and hashish are, on occasion, trafficked by overlapping groups that would be paying off the same corrupt actors and armed groups.

Global drug markets are arguably the ultimate example of how illicit economies have become as globalized as their licit counterparts. The price differentials for cocaine and hashish in Brazil and Morocco may seem irrelevant to the activities of Tuareg and Tebu smugglers moving goods through the Salvador Pass in southern Libya, yet they are connected through the global factors of supply and demand. The broader picture of how drug markets are changing – and, in the case of the global cocaine supply, booming – is necessary to understand how trafficking and smuggling dynamics work on the local level.


  1. Interview with law enforcement officers, Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre (Narcotics) (MAOC-N), August 2023, by Zoom; MAOC-N, Spanish authorities seized significant quantities of cannabis resin destined for Brazil, 24 July 2023,

  2. MAOC-N, Spanish authorities seized significant quantities of cannabis resin destined for Brazil, 24 July 2023,

  3. Interview with law enforcement officers, MAOC-N, August 2023, by Zoom. 

  4. UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Prices and purities of drugs, in World drug report 2023: Statistical annex,

  5. Interview with law enforcement officers, MAOC-N, August 2023, by Zoom. They cited figures from the Brazilian federal police. 

  6. See for example: ENACT Africa, Morocco: A critical link in the Latin America-Europe cocaine chain, 27 January 2023,

  7. UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Global report on cocaine 2023: Local dynamics, global challenges, March 2023, analysis/cocaine/Global_cocaine_report_2023.pdf

  8. Interview with law enforcement officers, MAOC-N, August 2023, by Zoom; MAOC-N, Spanish authorities seized significant quantities of cannabis resin destined for Brazil, 24 July 2023,

  9. Interview with law enforcement officers, MAOC-N, August 2023, by Zoom. 

  10. Agencia Tributaria, Incautado un pesquero en alta mar al este de Canarias con 15 toneladas de hachís a bordo, 1 June 2021,

  11. Ibid. 

  12. Alice Fereday and Matt Herbert, Strange days for hashish trafficking in Niger, GI-TOC, 11 May 2021,

  13. Seneweb, Saisie de 8 tonnes de haschich : La drogue était destinée à la Côte d’Ivoire, les mis en cause déférés, 12 June 2021,

  14. Interview with an Office Central de Répression du Trafic Illicite des Stupéfiants agent, 15 August 2023. 

  15. Interview with Guinea’s police commissioner, Benjamin Camara, August 2023, by phone. 

  16. Ibid. 

  17. Interview with law enforcement officers, MAOC-N, August 2023, by Zoom. 

  18. Ibid. 

  19. United Nations, Final report of the Panel of Experts Established pursuant to Security Council resolution 2374 (2017) on Mali and renewed pursuant to resolution 2484 (2019), 2020,

  20. Interview with law enforcement officers, MAOC-N, August 2023, by Zoom. 

  21. Pablo D. Almoguera, La ruta inversa del hachís: de moda en Sudamérica y los cárteles lo cambian por cocaína, El Confidencial, 25 April 2021,

  22. Interview with Christian Vianna de Azevedo, senior official in the federal police and undersecretary at the Department of Justice and Public Security in Minas Gerias, August 2023, by phone. 

  23. Gabriel Feltran, Isabela Vianna Pinho and Lucia Bird Ruiz-Benitez de Lugo, Atlantic connections: The PCC and the Brazil–West Africa cocaine trade, GI-TOC, August 2023,

  24. Luana Amorim, Veleiro europeu e importação de droga: como era esquema alvo de megaoperação da PF em SC, NSC Total, 12 April 2023,

  25. Policia Federal, PF e Marinha do Brasil apreendem veleiro com mais de duas toneladas de droga, 11 November 2023,

  26. Interview with OCRTIS officer, Dakar, September 4, 2023. 

  27. Interview with Gabriel Feltran, Brazilian academic specializing in the PCC, September 2023, by phone. 

  28. Lucia Bird, Cocaine politics in West Africa: Guinea-Bissau’s protection networks, GI-TOC, 22 June 2022,

  29. Mark Micallef, Shifting sands — Libya’s changing drug trafficking dynamics on the coastal and desert borders, European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, 2019,