‘I Do It To Survive’: Women Caught Up In Liberia’s Drug Trade

Dealing heroin is a risky business, she says, but she would rather do it than sell her body.  “I do this just to survive and not be on the street. To sell your body cheap for money on the street, that is not fine, so I rather help people to sell their drugs,” she says.

Princess (not her real name) says her husband disappeared into the bush looking for food during the war. Her baby starved to death. She earns LD $2,000 per day selling LD 250 hits of heroine. Princess says she has no other options.

“It’s a risk. It’s so costly,” says another woman selling “market” – the Liberian euphemism for illicit drugs. “The whole life is a risk. I’m not really pleased in doing it. I know God will make a way. I know one day I’ll be saved from this. It’s just the start of my life, it’s not the end.”

Drug use and drug trafficking are on the rise in West Africa, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Increased efforts by drug enforcement authorities in the U.S. are making it harder for South American drug cartels to push their products through America.

High levels of corruption and poverty in West Africa mean drug pushers have an easier time getting the local help they need to move the drugs through the region. As more drugs enter the country en route to Asia and Europe, they leave a legacy of pushers and users.

Women are particularly susceptible, observers say. For many, prostitution and drug use go hand in hand. Many women have turned to prostitution to survive or to support a drug habit. Some, like Patience, say they sell drugs rather than sell their bodies.

In an orange blouse, a colorful necklace and a checkerboard yellow and blue lappa, Christine, 28, whose name has been changed because she fears retribution, is gaunt and sickly. She has been using heroin since 2005. She says she sells her body to get her daily fix.

“I feel fine when it is in my system. When it is not in my system it gives me problems, I feel cold and my stomach can hurt unless I take some again before I feel fine again. That is why I make sure to get money before it leaves my body,” she says.

Christine says that the first time that she snorted heroin, she didn’t realize the drug’s addictive power. Now, she says her only hope is extended treatment in a hospital or rehabilitation facility.

“I go on the streets to hustle, and have sex to get that money.  Some men pay us LD$75.00 or LD$100 for the time. Some of them don’t use condoms because they can say, they can’t enjoy it and when we refuse, they can say it should stay. So I can do it without condoms to get the money,” she says.

A high school dropout, Christine says she’d like to go back to school. She says she would quit drugs if someone would help her. “I live on the street because I have nobody to help me.”

“I’ve two children but they are not with me because I don’t have a room, and they can’t sleep on the street with me because I sleep on the sidewalk. Sometimes the police can beat us and drive us from the streets, but when they leave, we go back because we have nowhere else to go,” she says. Christine says she knows people who have overdosed on drugs. “I’m afraid for my life,” she says.

Motivated to earn money to buy drugs, users often commit other crimes, says Liberia National Police spokesman George Bardue. “Some of these people are charged with multiple crimes, like theft of property, armed robbery, even murder,” he says. Confrontation between police and criminals is also on the rise, he acknowledges.

However, he denies that the police beat up drug users, as Christine alleges.

“There is no way you as an officer should violate the rights of others. When we go to make arrest, if they don’t put up resistance, police won’t just beat them up. We expect them to report if their rights were violated during the arrest process,” he says. He adds the arrest of women for drug possession is on the rise.

A  June U.S. State Department report says most of Liberia’s illicit drugs are smuggled from Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria. With at least fifty tons of cocaine transiting West Africa on its way to Europe, the report also points to Liberia becoming a significant transit point for drugs en route to other countries.

“The trafficking is increasing and continues to have a chance to increase because as in other parts of Africa there is minimal governance and the law enforcement capacity is non-existent,” says Vanda Felbab-Brown, an academic who studies the drug trade at the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution.

Traffickers are choosing to move drugs through Liberia because security is lax, according to a security expert who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press.

“People try to use Liberia as a transit point because they have found out that the security situation has a whole lot of lapses. To enter into Liberia with drugs is easy,” he says.

The security expert says the drug trafficking is creating a growing domestic market. “They get so addicted, they can sell all the assets and belongings that they have, because when they are involved, they cannot easily leave it,” he says.

While President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is publicly committed to combating organized crime, corruption is rampant. Police and civil servants’ salaries are low. In the past there have been successful bribes of government officials for access to airports or seaports to move drugs.

Nevertheless, Liberian security has had some notable successes. A South American drug cartel called drug enforcement agency director and Johnson-Sirleaf’s stepson Fombah Sirleaf in 2007 offering a US$1.4 million bribe to traffic drugs through Liberia.

Mr. Sirleaf called U.S. authorities and helped intercept US$100 million in cocaine. Nine members of the cartel, including several West Africans, were jailed in the U.S.

LNP statistics show there were 143 drug-related arrests in the first six months of the year. That’s double the total number in 2009. But drug possession is a bailable offense, and there are many repeat offenders.

Christine says she would abandon the cycle of drugs and prostitution if she were offered help. But there are only a handful of drug-rehabilitation programs in the country. For now all signs are that Liberia’s drug problem will only get worse.