Immersion in the tramadol traffic and consumption circles in Tombouctou, capital of the 6th administrative region of Mali where these two scourges are gaining momentum.

Since the beginning of the security crisis in Mali in 2012, there has been an explosion of drug trafficking in this Sahelian country hit by terrorism. One of the major consequences: the state of Mali has lost control of most of this territory, which has become a no-man's land, in which terrorists and armed groups carry out criminal activities.  A fertile breeding ground for drug trafficking.

Released on December 13, 2018, the Africa Report No. 267 of the International Crisis Group (ICG) confirms: "The Malian state's inability to control this area has made narco-trafficking particularly competitive. The circulation of weapons of war, linked to the rebellions of the last two decades, contributed to its militarization. Rivalries between traffickers’ fuel political and community tensions in the region. Trafficking is both a source of funding for armed groups of all kinds and a cause of clashes."

Long before its occupation by the coalition of terrorist movements in 2012, the northern part of Mali was already considered as the starting point of the Sahel routes for the transport of drugs to Europe and Asia. Confirmed by the Malian press in a publication (November 2009) titled "The Air Cocaine Case" to designate the wreck of a Boeing used to transport, to the municipality of Tarkint (in the region of Gao) eleven tons of cocaine then spread across the vast Sahelo-Saharan space, after trans-shipment in small planes and trucks.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Organized Crime (UNODC): "Since 2006, 20 to 40 tons of cocaine a year pass through the region to Europe. With 20 tons valued at US$1 billion, exceeding the GDP of some West African countries.

there has been no major drug seizure in northern Mali

With regard to tramadol, the OCS statistics reveal that large quantities have been seized in the last four years: 77 packets and 54140 capsules in 2014; 67 packets and 432 brochures in 2015; 15 cartons, 30 packets and 298 packs in 2016; 22 cartons, 206 packets, 414 packs, 25,616 tablets in 2017 and more than 270,000 tablets in 2018.

Yet, in northern Mali, seizures are rare. Since 2012, there has been no major drug seizure in this part of the country, apart from a few instances where tramadol, partly for local consumption was seized. The evidence, according to statistics of drug seizure in 2018 collected from the Central Office of Narcotic Drugs (OCS), of the 270 000 seized tramadol tablets seized, 1200 where seized by its antenna in Tombouctou.

To learn more about the extent of tramadol traffic and consumption in one of the localities of northern Mali, we stayed in the city of Tombouctou, located more than 1000 km from Bamako, the capital.

Tramadol, whose active ingredient is hydrochloric tramadol-hydrochloride, is an analgesic agent for the relief of moderate or severe pain. The best known dosage unit is the 50 mg tablet.

Origins of Tramadol

Information gathered from the OCS antenna in Tombouctou shows that most of the tramadol found in the black market in Tombouctou comes from Bamako and neighbouring countries. According to Captain Moussa Koné, chief of antenna of the OCS, the illicit tramadol arrives in Tombouctou certainly by land from Bamako, but also by fluvial means aboard the canoes.

B.D, a former tourist guide converted freight transporter between Mopti and Tombouctou, is more specific about the origin of tramadol fuelling an illicit market in Tombouctou. He admits to having sold drugs when he was a tourist guide and claims it was at the request of tourists that he became an intermediary for the acquisition of cannabis for their consumption. Driven by the lure of profit, he admits, he became a dealer by diversifying his offer to increase his income. Is he out of this business? Nothing is certain as he hesitated before responding evasively stating: "I did it with the tourists, but they do not come any more".

As a connoisseur, B.D. reveals several supply circuits of tramadol to Timbuktu. For him, this locality is at the heart of the network that extends from Niger to Burkina Faso with large quantities transported through land routes in areas under the control of armed groups that are in collusion with traffickers. This tramadol fraudulently imported or diverted from its medical use, is then sold in several countries of the Sahelo-Saharan strip.

His companion, a truck driver, admits to using tramadol for several years, as a van driver transporting travelers from Douentza to Tombouctou. He claims, to have used the drug to deal with the difficulties of this chaotic journey of 200 km of sandy track through the use of drugs. Cannabis initially, then drugs in the form of tablets, mainly tramadol.

According to him, much of the tramadol sold on the black market in Tombouctou is produced in Nigeria and then transported to Mali via Ghana and Mopti by canoe. Taking advantage of the confusing situation caused by insecurity in the city of Tombouctou, stocks are then scattered across the Malian territory.

To find out more, we visited Dibida and Dabanani, two major locations in the Grande Marche (main market) of Bamako and as recommended by H.K a pharmacist interviewed by us on the illicit sale of tramadol. He said that “the state must take responsibility for dismantling drug distribution chains outside pharmacies. It has become a lucrative business because in Dabanani and Dibida, stocks are visible in stores and we know that there are hidden, large quantities of tramadol.”

Our investigations in these two places reveal a propensity of drug sales activity as one would do for ordinary goods. Large parts of the Dibida and Dabanani markets are occupied by warehouses of wholesalers that supply not only resellers in Bamako, but also those of the regions that come to supply them.  In the main market of Bamako, we realize that there a strong demand is registered for resellers established in Mopti and Gao,

"It has become a lucrative business"

After several attempts, we were able to convince a woman who came to buy drugs and claims to sell them in her neighborhood. To our question: "Is it profitable? She replied, "Yes, especially with tramadol, which is very popular with young people".  To confirm her statements, she opens a big bag to show us packets of tramadol capsules.

Having exchanged with a sandwich kiosk owner on the spot, who also admits to selling the drug, he revealed to us another origin of tramadol: Guinea. "Since the border between Mali and Guinea is porous, there are people who get rich with the fraudulent importation of tramadol from Guinea. The product enters by canoe at any point of the river to then take rural tracks through the Wassoulou strip straddling the two countries, to then reach Bamako. "

"I sell tramadol as some of my customers prefer to take on the spot before ordering a cup of coffee and customers have preferences, depending on whether it is tramadol from Nigeria or Guinea; because that of Nigeria is more popular so more expensive," he said in an unconcerned manner, apparently in ignorance that he was committing a crime.

For Captain Moussa Koné, Tramadol "is sold in Tombouctou by mafia networks maintained by Tombouctou nationals with connections in some neighboring countries such as Niger", a country which is fast becoming a hub for tramadol traffic, considering the large quantities that have been seized in recent times. Indeed, in June 2018, the Customs of Niger dismantled a vast network of tramadol traffickers operating between Libya, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso. During the operation, more than 300 thousand tramadol tablets were seized.

Who are the consumers?

Consumers are aged 14 and over, and most are aware of the dangers. But the situation is such that consumption does not discourage the most reckless.

They are for the most part, drivers, driver apprentices, manual workers, students, members of armed groups, explains Mr. H, an elected official in the region of Tombouctou. In the absence of official data, he added that many young people under 30, throughout the region, are regular consumers of tramadol. Confirming this trend, Professor Souleymane Coulibaly, a psychiatrist at the Point-G hospital in Bamako indicated that more than 20% of patients consulted at his unit suffer from drug addiction, including Tramadol.

This young man, whom we call M to preserve the anonymity requested is a little over twenty, lives in Hamabangou district and is a regular consumer of tramadol.  "Every morning before I unload the trucks at the market, I pass by my supplier and take two tablets of 120 (mg). My provider has a perfect cover. He sells bottled gasoline. We know each other well and each tablet costs 350 Fcfa.

Observed from a distance, the fuel seller in the heart of Hamabangou is not suspicious and looks like a normal trader. Yet, he is one of the largest distributors of tramadol in Tombouctou. We have tried to approach him through the young man cited above, but distrust is the rigour needed in such activities.  It is difficult for an uninitiated person to integrate this environment that uses codes for communication between traffickers and consumers.

"Every morning before I unload the trucks at the market, I pass by my supplier and take two tablets of 120 mg"

Another young driver’s apprentice, an acquaintance of our guide, tells us: "I consume tramadol out of necessity because it helps me to face the long distances, to change tyres quickly and to work fast without feeling tired. I’ve been consuming it for over a year because grass (marijuana or Indian hemp) does not give me the desired effect anymore.”

Our guide introduced us to two other sources.  We had an afternoon appointment at the Gaddafi canal. They seemed to be in a normal state and we spent an hour chatting.

A well-organized network

The Tramadol traffic network is large, well organized and extends its branches daily, explains Captain Moussa Koné, chief of the OCS antenna in Tombouctou and his deputy, the police commander Tahibou Lamako. According to them, "some students put the packets in their backpacks and distribute the product at school."

An officer from the Tombouctou MOC (Coordination Operational Mechanism), who requested anonymity, explains that most armed groups have control over the trafficking of Tramadol and other illicit substances because it is one of their main sources of income.

A young lieutenant from the MOC, also a Tombouctou national and a former consumer of Indian hemp confirms health worker Bouba A. Touré’s assertion that the amount of tramadol consumed in Tombouctou, no matter how important, is in no way comparable to the stocks passing through the city.  And that Tombouctou is not the final destination for tramadol shipments.

The city is a hub of international drug trafficking. Some traffickers come from the commune of Ber, located about 53 km east of Tombouctou via Algeria, to exchange substances such as cocaine and hashish against Tramadol. It is recalled that in December 2018, three individuals whose links with terrorist groups or trafficking activities could be proven were sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council. Mohamed Ousmane Ag Mophamedoune of the Coalition for the People of Azawad (CPA), accused of having links with the terrorist group for the defense of Muslims in the region of Timbuktu; Ahmoudou Ag Asriw of the auto-defense Tuareg Imghad and allies (GATIA), accused of drug trafficking to finance attacks against Malian forces and Mahamadou Ag Rhissa, businessman from Kidal and member of the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA) , for his involvement in migrant smuggling and other smuggling activities.

The consumption of tramadol

The consumption of tramadol like all other narcotics by young people often starts with an inferiority complex or bad friendship circles, according to psychiatrist Professor Souleymane Coulibaly.  The Chief of the OCS antenna adds the ease of accessibility of the products as another cause.

Mohamed Garba, a manual worker in Tombouctou, explains that his colleagues use tramadol to fight fatigue and to be at their best. As for Sidi Mohamed, a young man from the Hamabangou district of Tombouctu, some young people take Tramadol for sexual prowess.

"Depending on the dose taken, the effects sought for recreational use are typical of opiates, that is to say that tramadol consumption may have the same effects as other drugs in circulation," according nurse Fadimata Walett and former manager of the Allama Kati camp pharmacy (looted and burned during the crisis in 2012).

According to her, "Tramadol addiction poses a considerable health risk. First, the person can consume 2 tablets of 120 mg per day, then 4 and over time, he must consume more to have the desired effect.” This can lead to convulsions and mood swings. Simultaneous use of tramadol with other opioids, including alcohol, can lead to psychiatric problems.


The fight against drug trafficking...

The Central Office for Narcotic Drugs, created by Decree No. 10-212 / P.RM of April 13, 2010, regularized by Order No. 2013-012 / P-RM of September 2, 2013, is the organ to fight against drug trafficking in Mali and therefore against tramadol trafficking. According to M. Kanouté, the structure’s communications officer, the OCS acts on two aspects: prevention and repression: "The OCS is in charge of carrying out an acute control on the circulation of all sorts of drugs including tramadol. Playing the function of judicial police. This presence extends further into the remote corners of Mali and especially the outlying areas of the Malian capital, "he explains.

According to him, the structure has limited means to put an end to drug trafficking. The lack of collaboration of the population is also a handicap. As proof, the antenna of Tombouctou in 2018 alone made only four arrests related to drug trafficking, including two linked to tramadol.

Recently installed in Tombouctou, the antenna is struggling to make things happen because of insecurity. According to Captain Moussa Koné, the population is afraid to collaborate with the OCS for fear of retaliation of traffickers who are very dangerous. As a result, it is very difficult to apprehend the actors involved in this traffic, he concludes.

Record seizures of Tramadol in Mali

Several seizures testify to the importance of Tramadol circulation in Mali in recent years. In 2017, according to the summary report of the central office of the fight against drugs, its branch of Kayes, the first administrative region of Mali, seized of 200,000 tablets of Tramadol with about fifty arrests.

There is however no data to determine the number of tablets entering and leaving the region of Timbouctou.

Tramadol prices in Timbuktu

Despite its exorbitant price compared to the region of Kayes, Tramadol is sold at 350 Fcfa in Tombouctou per unit against 200 Fcfa, and the platelet of 10 tablets of 200mg is sold between 3000 and 5000 Fcfa per pack among street vendors.

Nevertheless, tramadol has become a substance very much used by young people today. In Mali, more precisely in the region of Tombouctou.