GAO, Mali — There is nothing subtle about the garish mansions of the neighborhood locals call "Cocainebougou," or Cocaine Town.
The houses rise three, four, five stories from the ground and can be seen from blocks away. One has a pair of fake marble pillars at the top of the short staircase leading to the front door. Another has a driveway enclosed by arched metal doors decorated with carvings of flowers and vines. A third has an enormous open-air balcony lit by bronze friezes and ringed by ornamental fencing painted a disconcertingly bright shade of red. The houses are said to have cost more than $300,000 to build, an enormous sum here.
They belong to the local, predominantly Arab, drug traffickers who have for decades raked in vast sums of money from their involvement in northern Mali's expansive and highly lucrative narcotics trade.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that more than $1.25 billion of cocaine, hashish, and other drugs bound for Europe travel along smuggling routes which pass through Mali and other West African nations each year, and former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo described northern Mali earlier this year as "a den of drug trafficking, extremism, and criminality." Even a tiny sliver of the drug money which pours through the region each year would be more than enough for a local kingpin to build a nice house in Cocainebougou.
And there are many here. But now, mostly, they sit empty. The Arabs who owned and lived in many of the mansions in Gao fled a few months ago, when French forces ousted the Islamist fighters who had controlled the city, fearing reprisals from locals who saw them as de facto allies of the extremists.
During a recent visit to the neighborhood I asked my translator, a sweet-natured soccer fanatic named Ibrahim, what would have happened to the Arabs if they had stayed.
"They'd have been killed, of course," he said matter-of-factly.
Ibrahim led me through a house that had systematically been looted of furniture, electronics, doors, sinks, light fixtures, tile flooring, and toilets. The robbers, he pointed out, had even managed to rip the copper electrical wiring out of the walls.
The mansions of Cocainebougou are more than just a morbid tourist attraction, however. They are also a vivid illustration of why it will be so hard to fully defeat the shadowy Islamists who until recently ruled the north.