Tobacco smuggling lords in West Africa.. cross-border mafia, warlords and brokers

A classified recording obtained by the Transnational Organized Crime and Corruption Coverage Project (OCCRP.ORG) shows how Safi Moukoko Sow, a well-connected middleman who claims to represent Burkina Faso's tobacco magnate Apollinaire Compaore, offered money to the head of the state tobacco company in the Republic of Mali seeking free passage of Compaore cigarettes through the country.

On a stormy day in August 2017, the wife of a powerful former Congolese general paid a visit to the head of Mali's state tobacco company. She arrived there to "solve" some of the business dilemmas of one of the richest men in West Africa, as she puts it.

Safi Moukoko Sow, a Senegalese self-proclaimed mediator who works throughout West Africa and claims ties to Burkina Faso's ruling family, said she arranged the meeting through a common source.

She was there to persuade Issouf Traore, the company's president and influential figure in Mali's tobacco industry, to prevent Malian customs from confiscating cigarettes owned by Burkina Faso tycoon Apollinaire Compaore, a major distributor of international brands such as Marlboro and AMERICAN LEGEND.

A few months ago, customs stopped hundreds of millions of his cigarettes in the country's northern deserts, where warlords and jihadists vie for control of lucrative smuggling routes to Africa and Europe. Compaore was looking for a way to keep his merchandise moving. According to Mokoko Sow, he thought Traore might provide the key to his problems. But after all, she said, Traoré was the head of the state company that monopolized the tobacco trade and that customs controls were "a matter of state".

Moukoko Sow, the Senegalese wife of a former Congolese general, has alleged that she worked with Compaoré for decades, using her network of contacts and offers of bribes to solve problems for him, an account corroborated by multiple informed sources.

The negotiation is documented in a secret recording of a 90-minute meeting, during which Mokoko Soo sought to confirm her credentials as Compaore's go-between and even offered a bribe. (Journalists verified the authenticity of the tape with a US forensic computing expert, who confirmed that the tape had not been altered or tampered with.)

Although Traore did not accept Mokoko Sow's offer, experts say the meeting was typical of the back-room deals that saw cigarettes smuggled in, despite two decades of global efforts to clamp down on the illegal tobacco trade.

Compaoré's troubles with customs marked the beginning of a decline in his fortunes in Mali. In June 2018, a year after the recorded meeting, Malian customs seized another shipment of his cigarettes, leading to a public controversy. In 2019, Compaore was named in a United Nations report on the illicit tobacco trade, as a figure who worked with regional smugglers.

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