Many Malians and outside observers believe that the rise of the drug business offered members of government -- including, according to some accounts, people close to Touré -- opportunities for personal enrichment as well as a means of managing instability in northern Mali. The scale of the trade's impact can be seen in the now infamous Gao neighborhood known as "Cocainebougou", a part of the city flush with new villas and sudden wealth; an official from the Timbuktu region told me a similar neighborhood sprung up there some time after 2009. He added that the large traffickers even built their own mosque in the neighborhood. While corruption accusations also sometimes dogged the government of Touré's predecessor, Alpha Oumar Konaré, the widespread perception of major corruption under Touré was one of the reasons why many Malians supported the coup that overthrew Touré in March 2012.
It's incredibly hard, of course, to come by reliable numbers on the drug trade. The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated in a recent report that 18 tons of cocaine worth approximately $1.25 billion in Europe transited West Africa in 2010. Some might see this as good news, since that figure is down from an estimated 47 tons in 2007. However, the United Nation's information is based in part on extrapolations from drug seizures, an uncertain metric given the flexibility of trafficking networks and the ability to change routes, tactics, and sometimes simply buy off local officials to avoid arrest. Still, the UNODC office in Dakar, Senegal, estimates that more than $500 million gained from the trade either remained in West Africa or was laundered through the region, in 2012. By comparison, Mali's defense expenditures in 2011 were estimated at around $180 million, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Among the policies that have had a particularly corrosive effect on governance in Mali was Touré's informal ceding of some state control and governance responsibilities to northern intermediaries. His government helped to establish and empower ethnic Arab and Tuareg militias to deal with violence linked to a 2006 Tuareg rebellion centered largely around the region of Kidal. Among other things, the government used various northern leaders as intermediaries in hostage negotiations. In an interview with The Telegraph, Robert Fowler, a former U.N. diplomat who was kidnapped in 2008 by AQIM and held for 130 days, recalls that Touré referred to Baba Ould Cheikh, the suspected trafficker who also helped negotiate Fowler's release, as mon bandite ("my bandit").
As one former minister in Touré's government described it to me over glasses of tea in his house, these intermediaries allowed Touré to exert some degree of political influence in the north, but at the same time it allowed these northern leaders to exploit state power for their own needs. A good example is the career of longtime Tuareg powerbroker and Ansar al-Din founder Iyad Ag Ghali. In 2003 Ag Ghali earned considerable political capital in Bamako by helping to free European hostages seized in southern Algeria in 2003. In 2006 he then played a major part in separatist rebellions in the north -- and then lent his support to efforts by Bamako to end them. He ultimately leveraged both episodes to gain a diplomatic post in Saudi Arabia. Ag Ghali continued to play a key role in shaping events in northern Mali while he was in Saudi Arabia, a country from which he was expelled in 2010 due to suspected contacts with extremists. The maneuverings of Ag Ghali and others weakened the state while helping deepen corruption, with disastrous results.
Illicit and semi-licit commerce existed in northern Mali and the broader Sahel before the rule of Touré, of course. But the drug trade became ingrained in the very fabric of the Malian state at a time when the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), the forerunner to AQIM, was implanting itself in the north. The organization and its commanders (including Mokhtar Belmokhtar, whom Chadian President Idriss Déby claims his troops killed in fighting this month), developed deep social ties to local populations as well as links to various illicit businesses, ranging from hostage-taking to cigarette smuggling and taxing the smuggling of hashish and cocaine.
While reliable details are predictably elusive, my interviewees in Mali -- including Western diplomats as well as Malian notables, including former security officials from the north -- assert that the trade in illicit goods (drugs, cigarettes, gasoline, weapons) continued, and may even have intensified, during the brief reign of the separatists in the north, a supposition supported by some anecdotal reports. (Not everyone agrees, though.) Sitting on the floor of an upstairs room of a house on the outskirts of Bamako, three former security officials, men who had spent their careers in the north, told me that the trade had even become more organized under separatist rule -- even as competing militant groups, cartels, clans, and families continued sometimes long-running struggles for supremacy. They said that the French intervention and the Western military presence in the north, however, not to mention significantly tighter monitoring of borders with Mali's neighbors (notably Algeria), appear to have disrupted the trade significantly -- at least for the moment. But other analysts suggest that the conflict in Mali has simply compelled the trade to find new routes through Africa and into Europe.