Picture taken on May 13, 2014 and released by Australian Defence shows two inflatable boats from HMAS Darwin getting ready to board a suspicious vessel to conduct a search for illegal narcotics off the East African coastPicture taken on May 13, 2014 and released by Australian Defence shows two inflatable boats from HMAS Darwin getting ready to board a suspicious vessel to conduct a search for illegal narcotics off the East African coast (AFP Photo/Lsa Stephen Mcgreal)
Nairobi (AFP) - 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.
- Crack squad -
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.
In April 2014 an Australian warship found more than a tonne of heroin aboard a dhow loaded with sacks of cement: the record quantity, with an estimated street value of $240 million (217 million euros), was equivalent to all the heroin seized off East Africa between 1990 and 2009.
Seeking a "legal finish" -– prosecutions that can disable or deter trafficking gangs –- the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), UK National Crime Agency (NCA) and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) are working with regional security forces to bust shiploads of drugs within territorial waters and prosecute suspects under national laws or, in the case of the two Kenyan suspects, Baktash and Ibrahim Akasha, extradite them.
"It is a collaborative arrangement," said Massa.
In 2013 the DEA established an elite 16-man "vetted unit" within Kenya's drugs department tasked with pursuing high-profile targets.
Members of the elite squad have passed lie detector and drug tests and received special training paid for by the US military's Africa Command.
Last year it was responsible for two of the region's biggest busts: the seizure of the Al Noor, a dhow carrying 341 kilos of heroin, and the arrest of the Akashas.
- Knock-down prices -
The Akasha sting began in March last year with a DEA agent posing as a member of a Colombian drugs cartel eager to source heroin for the US market. According to a 21-page US indictment, Ibrahim Akasha personally delivered 99 kilos of heroin and two kilos of methamphetamine to undercover agents. Meetings and conversations were recorded.
The indictment describes Baktash Akasha as "the leader of an organised crime family in Kenya", his younger brother Ibrahim as his "deputy" and Gulam 'Old Man' Hussein as "the head of a transportation network that distributes massive quantities of narcotics throughout the Middle East and Africa" while Vijaygiri 'Vicky' Goswami "manages the Akasha Organisation's drug business".
The men are accused of conspiring to import pure "white crystal" heroin into the US at a knock-down price of around $10,000 (9,100 euros) a kilo.
US officials believe the Akasha brothers are continuing the business of their late father, also named Ibrahim, who was described in a secret 2006 US diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks as a "drug baron".
He was killed in Amsterdam -- shot four times by a bicycle-riding assassin -- in May 2000 as he took a morning stroll with his wife along Blood Street in the city's Red Light District.
Cliff Ombeta, lawyer for the four men, says his clients are victims of entrapment. The latest extradition hearing is due in Mombasa on June 4 and law enforcement officers are worried. In court, Ombeta has challenged the extradition request and scored important victories, persuading a judge to release his clients on bail infuriating law enforcement officers who fear they may evade trial altogether.
"It's always going to be the highest value cases that are most susceptible to corruption," said Alan Cole, head of the UNODC's Global Maritime Crime Unit.
In West Africa, Latin American cocaine traffickers have strengthened their grip since the mid-2000s where drugs money fuels corruption and in the case of tiny Guinea-Bissau –- dubbed Africa's first narco-state -– may even outstrip national GDP.
Law enforcement officers and anti-drug officials fear a repeat of that corrosive process in East Africa.