26 Jan 2024

Organised crime in Africa / New measures needed to curb Kenya’s rampant trafficking

Dangerous criminal networks for drugs, people and arms add to insecurity in the northern part of the country.

On 11 September 2022, armed militia suspected to be involved in human and drug trafficking attacked a police patrol of 11 officers en route to Merti Police Station in Kenya’s Isiolo County. One officer was killed and three seriously injured.

On 29 June 2023, a shootout occurred in the Charri area of Merti. Local sources told ENACT that traffickers were transporting over 50 migrants in a Toyota Land Cruiser. They reportedly defied police orders to stop, and gunfire broke out. The driver, from Biliqo village in Merti, and four migrants died. The other migrants and traffickers, many injured, disappeared into the thickets. According to ENACT sources, the driver was a notorious trafficker who has amassed considerable wealth by local standards.

These incidents represent just the tip of the iceberg in illegal trafficking in northern Kenya.

Isiolo town is 300 km north of Nairobi and is considered the gateway to northern Kenya. Isiolo County is located on the Nairobi-Moyale highway and is sparsely populated, with scant policing of its vast pastoral rangelands. It neighbours Marsabit County, which stretches to the long, porous northern border with Ethiopia.

Kenya trafficking routes

Kenya trafficking routes

Source: ENACT

Intricate criminal networks for drugs, people and arms operate in the region, with the supply chain divided into four geographic segments: traffickers and facilitators on the Moyale-Ethiopia side; traffickers in Moyale-Kenya; traffickers in Merti and Isiolo; and traffickers based in Meru and Nairobi.

Each group protects its territories and hands over illicit goods and trafficked people for onward transport. ‘Trafficking is organised in phases’, reveals a source who spoke anonymously to ENACT. ‘One group based in Moyale prepares and hands over the migrants and drugs to another who uses the feeder routes to sneak them up to Merti, Isiolo. From Merti, the migrants and drugs are handed over to another group in Meru or Isiolo town and taken to Nairobi, the final destination.’

The preferred trafficking route used to be the main Moyale-Nairobi highway. However, the presence of Kenya’s multi-agency security units and numerous police checkpoints have driven the traffickers off the main road. According to one former trafficker interviewed by ENACT, this newer preference for bush roads was due to security personnel’s demands for exorbitant bribes.

One of the most trafficked drugs in this region is cannabis sativa from Shashamane in Ethiopia, commonly called shash. Local traffickers told ENACT that the cannabis was of premium quality and in high demand in cities across Kenya.

According to a former trafficker who spoke to ENACT anonymously, drug trafficking is highly profitable. He explained that 1 kg of shash cost US$13 at the source, US$47 in Moyale, US$100 in Isiolo, US$200 in Nairobi and US$470 in Mombasa. Local peddlers regularly produce hundreds of rolls from 1 kg, making a profit of up to US$167 per kg in Isiolo. With such a favourable risk-reward ratio, they gladly chance confrontations with security personnel.

With favourable risk-reward ratios, traffickers gladly chance confrontations with security personnel

Political and economic uncertainties in the Horn of Africa bring thousands of vulnerable migrants into Kenya as they make their way to other destinations. One migrant can be trafficked for a fee of US$1 667 (KES250 000), the former trafficker says. Traffickers easily make US$13 000 (KES2 million) or more from one trip bringing just eight migrants into the country.

Convoys of motorbikes are the preferred method of trafficking humans, due to their manoeuvrability on feeder roads and ease of dispersal in the event of interception by the police. Toyota Land Cruisers and Toyota Proboxes, both renowned for their rugged ability to survive in rough terrains, are also popular among traffickers.

Arms trafficked by the criminal networks fuel recurrent ethnic clashes and the cattle-rustling culture prevalent in this region. The former trafficker told ENACT that an AK-47 rifle cost around US$1 000 and a pistol approximately US$467 at illicit arms markets in Moyale, Ethiopia.

These criminal markets are tolerated by local communities due to high unemployment and the strain that climate change places on pastoral livelihoods. While locals fear reprisals and threats from traffickers should they share information with the authorities, communities also lack trust in the police. A history of security actor laxity, perceived partiality, collective punishment, communal profiling and corruption contributes to this lack of trust. As a result, little information is passed on to the authorities by civilians.

Arms trafficked by the criminal networks fuel recurrent ethnic clashes and the cattle-rustling culture

Despite cannabis and kete (low-grade heroin) abuse being prolific in Isiolo town, County Police Commander Hassan Barua says the response of the county government, community and religious leadership to the drug problem and human trafficking has been limited.

State responses to trafficking include increased surveillance on main highways through mobile checkpoints, stricter border control, drug seizures, the arrest of illegal migrants, and the arrest, prosecution and incarceration of traffickers and migrants. Security agents also carry out frequent patrols along clandestine routes and special and multi-agency law enforcement units have been deployed.

The former trafficker says corrupt state officials and their collusion with traffickers have entrenched the criminal economy in local livelihoods. ‘Whenever there are disagreements over hikes in protection fees or the frequent exorbitant bribes demanded by rogue police officers, clashes are common and fatal,’ he says.

Disrupting this hub for drug, arms and human trafficking would require committed action from community, government and security sector actors. Continual investment in legitimate and alternative livelihoods for the youth, along with county empowerment programmes and drug therapy interventions, could be developed to rehabilitate traffickers and addicts. Doing so may begin a process of building trust between communities and government, including the police.

Empowerment programmes and drug therapy could be developed to rehabilitate traffickers and addicts

Added to this, interviewees proposed regular mobile patrols in the Degogicha and Yamicha areas – the epicentre of frequent clashes between traffickers and police – and the establishment of more police posts. 

Addressing the intractable corruption is an ongoing challenge that requires a shift in business as usual.

Leveraging existing regional economic and cross-border police cooperation to crack down on trafficking cartels and address the causes at the source is critical for building a more secure region.

Halkano Wario, ROCO, East Africa, ENACT Project, Nairobi

Image: © Yasuyoshi Chiba / AFP


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