Late in 2018, INTERPOL released its analytical report on the state of transnational organised crime in West Africa as part of its work on the ENACT project. According to the report, West Africa ‘represents the main hub for stolen vehicles exported from Western Europe and North America’. The capital of Senegal, Dakar, was named as one of the most popular ports to be exploited by criminal syndicates operating in this market in West Africa.
According to the Senegalese Criminal Investigation Division (DIC), car trafficking has become increasingly prominent since 2016. In September 2016, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted investigations in Senegal to track members of a criminal network believed to traffic luxury vehicles to Dakar. The network, allegedly led by a Guinean national, had reportedly stolen more than 100 high-end vehicles in the US, the majority of which had been shipped to Senegal. That incident was followed by additional arrests of Senegalese nationals based both in Senegal and France. The arrest of a notorious Senegalese trafficker in Dakar in 2016 led law enforcement officers to an underground car park, where eight luxury vehicles were hidden.
Range Rovers and BMW X6s appear to be the most frequently trafficked stolen luxury vehicles in Senegal. Most of them come from Europe, especially from France, and to a lesser extent from North America. The traffickers’ choice of the France-Senegal route can be explained by long-standing relations between the two countries. As the former colonial power, France has been a main destination for Senegalese migrants, who were estimated to number more than 300 000 in 2015. France is also relatively close to Senegal from a geographic point of view. According to a Senegalese car dealer interviewed by ENACT, it only takes six to seven days to drive a car from France to Senegal, via Spain, Morocco and Mauritania.
According to an official from Senegalese customs, international vehicle trafficking takes on various forms. The most common of these is insurance scams. This method, he says, involves luxury vehicle owners in France, for example, staging the theft of a vehicle that was secretly sold to a trafficker. In this way, the owner aims to be reimbursed by the insurer. The second form of trafficking involves the theft of vehicles in Europe and also the US. A third form involves renting cars from agencies in Europe, then shipping or driving them to Senegal via Spain and Mauritania.
Luxury cars are often equipped with trackers, which makes it possible to locate the vehicles in case of theft. A source close to a trafficking network told ENACT that traffickers use machines from Poland, which are said to cost around €60 000, to destroy the tracking devices. Once the stolen cars reach Senegal, they undergo routine checks and procedures. In the past, criminals obtained a licence plate – or sometimes even a stolen one – with relative ease, as there were no verification procedures in places to check whether the car was stolen or not.
With increased international attention, efforts to tighten verification systems appear to have been stepped up. Now, all cars entering the country – whether through the port or overland – must first go through customs clearance. The owner has to go to the DIC, where vehicles are checked against an INTERPOL database. If a vehicle is found to have been stolen, it is immediately confiscated by the police. But if the vehicle has been legally acquired, the DIC issues a certificate to the owner. The certificate is submitted to the traffic department, which then provides the car with a registration plate.
The new verification process, however, has many flaws as it encourages traffickers to sell their cars immediately after clearance at the port. This harms people who unwittingly purchase stolen vehicles for good prices at the port of Dakar. In many cases, victims of this type of scam end up in prison or are forced to endure lengthy criminal proceedings.
To circumvent the new strategies put in place by the Senegalese government and INTERPOL, criminal networks have also been changing tack. The number of stolen cars sent directly to Dakar appears to have decreased considerably. Instead, it seems Dakar is increasingly being used as a transit zone for stolen vehicles on their way to the Gambia, Mali and Guinea-Bissau, where the trade appears to have been linked with drug traffickers. According to one Senegalese customs official, cars transiting through Dakar are protected under international traffic law, and are therefore not subject to checks by INTERPOL or customs.
In the destination countries, the vehicles are not subject to checks before being given a licence plate. To some extent, this gives traffickers a guarantee they will be able to sell their cars and launder the money in Senegal, according to the official.
The international trafficking of stolen vehicles is an illustration of the dark side of globalisation. Senegal is paying a price for its geostrategic position and accessibility via its port. To contain this growing illicit market, the Senegalese government should not only strengthen surveillance at the port and borders, but also strengthen cooperation with neighbouring countries and the countries of origin of the stolen cars.
Mouhamadou Kane, Researcher, ENACT project, ISS