The BBC reports today, in a news piece titled 'Two tonnes of cocaine seized in The Gambia' , that:
'At least two tonnes of cocaine with a street value estimated at $1bn has been seized in The Gambia, bound for Europe.'
Similar reports have run in number of other outlets including AFP (Billion Dollar cocaine seizure in Gambia), Reuters , the Daily Mail, and numerous others. There is a discrepancy in the reporting in the quantity seized, which varies from 2 to 2.5 tonnes, but all report the 1 billion dollar street value estimate, with the exception of PA that does not mention any street value figure, and also puts the size of the seizure at 2100 kg.
It is not clear from the piece who made this estimate of street value - whether it was the Gambian authorities, the UK's Serious Organised Crime Agency (who were involved in the operation), although the AFP report suggests the latter.
Either way it immediately rang alarm bells; the number not only seems conveniently rounded - one of those dramatic sounding media-friendly numbers that we see so often in drug stories (see here and here for example) - but also it was suspiciously big.
A couple of quick sums. Two tonnes of cocaine amounts to 2 million grams. To get a street value of $1 billion dollars would mean that each pure gram was selling for $500, or £344 at current exchange rates. That seems somewhat high - given that UK 2009 cocaine prices are nearer £40 a gram, which would give a total street value of £80 million or $116 million.
But this would not account for the fact that the street drug is heavily cut. If we factor in lower end average purity levels of 25% (itself a SOCA stat) this would give you a figure $464million.
Even if we go with the higher 2.5 tonne figure (the 2.1 seems more likely, but anyway)- this would still take the street value to $580million - which remains some distance from 1 billion. Having exhausted all the available tricks: street value (at least x 10), purity (x4), convert to US dollars - even though its for sale in Europe (x 1.2), I'm still struggling to see how they could push the figure up to a juicy billion. Maybe the fact most 'grams' sold are a little under could nudge it up by 50 million or so, but the only way I can see they could have managed it is to base calculations on a cherry picked example of fantastically expensive/rubbish cocaine from somewhere in Europe. Who knows? (but we are interested to hear btw, should those concerned care to illuminate us).
These sorts of (all too familiar) boastful statistical shenanigans can be seen to reflect the wider malaise in drug interdiction. In the face of their futile battle against an undefeatable enemy, there is a desperate need for enforcement agencies to demonstrate success, especially when the spending axe is hovering. Even if the street values are shown to be completely correct - there is still the relentless trumpeting of seizures to consider in the light of the rarely mentioned but relentless increases in availability and use that accompany them.
Whilst demand for cocaine remains, and cocaine remains prohibited, organised crime will always find away to exploit the lucrative opportunity that this creates. They are an endlessly flexible, innovative and ruthless enemy. Localised 'success' will only ever shift transit routes elsewhere - as the shift from Caribbean to West African transhipment routes demonstrates. These seizures are Pyrrhic victories; the enforcers are inadvertently part the problem they are simultaneously trying to stamp out.
There is a way to put the criminal drug traffickers out of business for good, but the key players in international drug control don't want to talk about it.