On a sultry March afternoon at Liberia’s newly-opened northwestern border, drug enforcement agent Octavius Manning scrutinizes cars as they roll across the bridge from Sierra Leone.
The main crossing point between the West African neighbors- the road over the Mano River at the trading post of Bo Waterside, was closed for six months in a bid to halt the spread of Ebola.
Reopened in February with the epidemic on the wane, Bo Waterside has welcomed an influx of traders — and a resurgence of opportunists, small-time crooks and well-connected professionals smuggling cocaine and cannabis.
“This is the most crucial part of the job here. Almost every day we discover new tricks by drug traffickers. They camouflage the drugs in the goods they bring,” Manning tells AFP.
The head of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) Bo Waterside branch, Manning is in charge of stemming the flow of narcotics into Liberia from Sierra Leone.
Locals regard him as something of a hero. High-profile stings in recent years have snared police officers and other security forces personnel from both sides of the border.
Manning says the respite brought by the temporary closure of the border was all too brief for his overstretched three-man team, which has inadequate resources.
“Drug trafficking between Liberia and Sierra Leone is a very serious challenge. Taxi drivers, business women, even some security people are involved in it. So it is like every day we are faced with a bigger challenge,” he explains.
In recent years, international narcotics traffickers have transported huge quantities of cocaine and marijuana, worth billions of dollars (Euros), through several West African countries that have emerged as a key transit point to Europe.
They have often sought to bribe high-level public officials with large cash payments and narcotics in order to ensure the safe passage and distribution of their cocaine shipments.
High-profile arrests carried out by the United States alongside the work of local security personnel like Manning are turning the tide, however.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the estimated flow of cocaine through West Africa declined from 43 tons in 2007 to 16 tons in 2013.
In November 2013, several months before Ebola spread from Guinea, Manning and his team smashed an international drug smuggling racket transporting marijuana worth $4 million (3.7 million euros).
Perry Dolo, a former commander of the presidential motorcade, was jailed after Manning detained him in a jeep carrying 315 kilograms (694 pounds) of a high-grade version of the drug known as “compressed sensi”.
Manning’s team also arrested a Sierra Leonean former soldier in the vehicle, which had at one time been used as the lead car in President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s convoy, as well as a second Liberian police officer.
“Octavius Manning and his team, we call them ‘the rocks’ because of their toughness on the job. They have made some incredible arrests here that no one could imagine them doing,” Sidiki Waah, a resident of Bo Waterside, tells AFP.
The DEA’s figures showed that last year in Liberia, the agency seized more than 1.4 kilograms (3 pounds) of heroin and nearly 2.9 tons of marijuana and more than 250 grams (0.5 pounds) of cocaine.
Since February’s border reopening, Manning says he and his men have made seven arrests, seizing around 80 kilograms (175 pounds) of “high grade” marijuana worth around $10,000
Showing AFP a haul of marijuana and other narcotics worth $75,000 collected at his office since June last year, Manning laments the lack of equipment the DEA has to combat trafficking.
The team has no motorbikes — essential to properly police unofficial crossing points where there are no roads — and no sophisticated testing kits or scales.
“There are more than 50 illegal crossing points between Liberia and Sierra Leone. To effectively keep all these points under surveillance we need to be mobile,” he says.
“There are no roads so only motorbikes can help. We don’t even have a single computer here,” Manning says.
A greater worry, according to Manning, is that he and his team are not allowed to carry weapons, meaning that they often find themselves outgunned when making arrests.
The agent recounts one of his more terrifying near misses, when he confronted a Sierra Leonean attempting to cross the Mano River, which forms the border, in a canoe filled with marijuana.
“We had a fight in the middle of the river. He had a gun and I had nothing. We had a tussle and he managed to escape,” he recalls.
“I seized the canoe and the drugs (floated) down the river. Later I realized I took a big risk. He could have killed me.”