Europe is catching up with the United States as a top market for cocaine, the United Nations' anti-drug trafficking body said on Monday, warning that the trade may be funding violent extremists.
"In 10 years, the consumption of cocaine in Europe has multiplied by four," Yuri Fedotov, director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, told reporters in Paris ahead of a meeting of G8 ministers on the issue on Tuesday.
"Before the US market was the leading market, now they are almost the same," with the cocaine market worth 33 billion dollars (21 billion euros) a year in Europe and 37 billion dollars in the United States, he added.
Fedotov valued the worldwide market at 320 billion dollars a year, with smugglers forging a cocaine route from South America via West Africa. Some 21 million tonnes passed that way to Europe in 2009, his office said in a report.
He said he strongly suspected a link between the cocaine trade and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the group that has launched attacks and captured hostages in the Sahel region of northern Africa, which includes Mali and Niger.
"I don't have evidence of their involvement," Fedotov admitted.
"But... there are very serious reasons to believe that, as it happens in Afghanistan with heroin, it may be the case that AQIM activities are being funded in the Sahel region by drug trafficking."
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