Still, it would be a mistake to claim that drug smuggling has only been a problem in the north. One Western expert who closely studies illicit trade flows told me that the instability in the north actually stimulated the narcotics trade passing through parts of the country that remained under government control, especially in the Kayes region near the border with Mauritania. This shows the flexibility inherent in drug smuggling routes, which adjust and shift rapidly in reaction to changing security and political environments, spreading or moving not just to different regions but also to different countries as necessary. And just as the trade allegedly flourished with the complicity of some linked to the Malian state, it is difficult to imagine that illicit trade could continue in government-controlled areas without some level of official support or acquiescence. After all, as noted in the recent UNODC report, "smuggling is often accomplished not by stealth, but by corruption."
Some sources allege that members of the Malian military, as well as officials close to the current military junta, are linked to the trade, either as active participants or via relatives whose activities they tolerate. Last August, journalists revealed that several European men believed to have helped organize the "Air Cocaine" incident had been quietly freed from prison.
One night in Bamako, as my conversation with a Timbuktu Arab notable drew to a close, I asked him if the drug trade would come back to Mali once the situation stabilizes and French forces pull away from the north. His response was matter-of-fact: "Of course it will!" The only way to make a dent in the trade and the problems it causes, he said, was to "clean up all of this administration" -- the security services, the government in Bamako, and the system of rule that characterized northern Mali under Touré. And that is a problem that goes far beyond al-Qaeda.