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.
Drug use is strictly prohibited under Islamic law, but militant groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Taliban in Afghanistan have long profited from turning a blind eye to -- or actively participating in -- the sale of hashish and other drugs cultivated in their territories. During my own reporting trips to Afghanistan in recent years, local opium farmers told me that the Taliban run a sophisticated drug operation, sending couriers to purchase their harvests in cash, processing much of the opium themselves, and then working closely with drug smugglers to ship the finished product to Europe. U.S. military officials estimate that the Taliban reap more than $200 million a year from drug sales.
A similar dynamic has emerged here in Mali, where the Islamists used their time ruling the north to forge close ties to many of the region's local drug lords. Western and Malian defense officials say militants from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) basically run an old-fashioned protection racket, offering the smugglers a free hand to safely move their product through the north in exchange for a hefty tax of 10-15 percent of the total value of the drugs.
The officials said the Islamists have gone even further in recent months, sending small groups of armed militants to physically escort drug convoys through the increasingly lawless north. The extremists, the U.S. State Department says, "provide protection and permissions for traffickers moving product through areas they control."
There's a simple reason that Mali's Islamists have been willing to step up their cooperation with local drug dealers in recent months: sheer necessity. Drug money is far more important to Mali's militants than to those of Lebanon or Afghanistan, which also receive significant funding from other governments or wealthy donors in countries like Saudi Arabia. Malian militant groups like AQIM, by contrast, receive virtually no outside funds, so taxes on the drug shipments that pass through the north is the primary way they raise the money they need to pay fighters and purchase new weaponry.
"They get some money from kidnapping Westerners, but nothing like what they get from the drugs," Col. Didier Dacko, the top Malian military commander in northern Mali, told me in an interview. "It's their lifeblood."
But with some 4,000 French troops on the ground, and Islamists scattered, that blood is running thin. Still, the Islamists' ties to the drug traffickers remain largely intact, and their current attempts to reconstitute themselves in the most remote parts of northern Mali means that they will again be in position to help the smugglers in exchange for cash. That, in turn, suggests that the extremists will be able to fund their operations well into the future.
Mali's growing role in the global drug trade first attracted widespread public notice in November 2009, when authorities found the burned-out wreckage of a Boeing 727 thought to be carrying between 5 and 10 tons of cocaine at a makeshift desert runway not far from Gao. Malian and U.N. officials later said that drug smugglers flew the plane in from Venezuala, unloaded the cocaine, and then torched it when they couldn't get the plane to take back off.
Drug cartels throughout Latin America see northern Mali as an ideal staging point -- it is situated roughly halfway between South America and Europe and has long been largely beyond the reach of the fragile central government in Bamako. The government, even before the active rebel movement began last year, traditionally stationed only token numbers of troops in the north, and most were in major cities like Gao rather than in the remote regions that are home to most of the country's smuggling routes. That made it easy for drug smugglers and their Islamist allies to either bypass or buy off the poorly trained Malian soldiers.
The new Malian government is trying to change that. A senior Malian military official in Bamako, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss upcoming operations, said his government and neighboring countries like Chad will soon launch a concerted effort to interdict drug shipments by stationing more ground troops in remote parts of the north and using aerial imagery from French and U.S. planes and drones to identify specific smuggling routes.
Still, he admitted that it will be difficult, and potentially impossible, to end or significantly degrade Mali's drug trade. Smugglers and Islamists have been traversing the terrain for decades, he said, and the Malian troops will be deploying there in force for the first time.
"I would like to say we'll be able to stop the smuggling, but that would be a lie," he told me. "They know every cave and every little path. We'll be lucky to find half of them. But every shipment we stop will help starve the terrorists of money."
In the meantime, the mansions of Cocainebougou are beginning to take in new residents. A squad of Malian Special Forces have occupied a pair of houses and are busy moving into a third. Two of the soldiers, each wearing a tight-fitting black t-shirt -- emblazoned with crossed AK-47s, a sword, and a lion's head -- walked up to me when I was taking photos of some of the houses. "You have to leave," they said.
I told them that Colonel Dacko had specifically told me to see Cocainebougou for myself. They said they didn't answer to Dacko or recognize his authority. When I asked who they did answer to, the soldiers silently glared at me.
I should move on, they said a few uncomfortable moments later, for my own well-being.
"We have a sniper on the roof, and he might mistake you for a threat," one told me.
I took a few more pictures as Ibrahim briefly distracted the soldiers with talk of a recent Real Madrid match and we piled back into his car. We could see the mansions of Cocainebougou in our rear view mirrors as we drove away, the empty buildings looming over the surrounding one-story houses.