Accra: The security chief at the country’s main airport is accused of ensuring drug dealers can ship cocaine and heroin without worry. A former president voices fears his own entourage may be carrying drugs.

These are not scenes out of 1980s Colombia. This is Ghana, considered one of Africa’s brightest success stories, but where drug traffickers have still managed to use cash, cunning and corruption to turn the country into a key transhipment point.

The authorities have been working with some success to get a handle on the problem, which has threatened to damage Ghana’s reputation.

“Until now, successive Ghanaian governments, and Ghanaian society at large, have underestimated the impact of the trade,” said Stephen Ellis, a professor of African history at the Free University of Amsterdam, who studies the drug trade in the region.

Drug trafficking is nothing new in often-volatile west Africa. Traffickers have been accused of infiltrating the government and military of Guinea-Bissau, while Al Qaida groups in Mali are suspected of using drug money to finance their operations.

However, Ghana is considered west Africa’s rising star, having carried out six successful presidential elections since 1992. Its gold, cocoa and oil-dominated economy is the second largest in the region.

At the same time, the arrest of an airport security boss earlier this year in a sting organised by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) showed the reach and methods of the traffickers.

Prosecutors in the United States allege that Solomon Adelaquaye, who ran a private company that handled security at Kotoka International Airport in the capital Accra, conspired with two Nigerians and a Colombian to move cocaine and heroin onto international flights undetected.

Prosecutors say Adelaquaye got a laptop computer stuffed with a kilogramme of heroin through airport security in exchange for $10,000 (Dh36,728) from the DEA agents.

Adelaquaye and his three counterparts were arrested in May in the United States as they planned to move 3,000 kilogrammes of cocaine in 25-kilogramme instalments through the airport.

The high-profile bust made headlines in Ghana, and sparked bouts of finger-pointing by political rivals eager to capitalise on the allegations.

But the DEA operation tracked just a fraction of what the UN Office on Drugs and Crime says has moved through Ghana in recent years.

Between 2003 and 2008, the UNODC said 2,418 kilogrammes of cocaine and 61,958 kilogrammes of marijuana were seized in Ghana.

Between 2007 and 2008, seizures of cocaine jumped from 283 kilogrammes to 841 kilogrammes, the office reported.

That amount was the highest reported of any west African country for the year, though many countries like Mali, Liberia and Senegal didn’t submit statistics for that period, the UNODC report said.

“It might have been an increase in using Ghana as a transit point and then the effectiveness and efficiency of law enforcement,” said Bernard Henebeng Asamoah, the UNODC coordinator in the country, of the high numbers for those years.

Recently however, drug seizures have been dropping in Ghana. In 2011, police confiscated only 25 kilogrammes of cocaine and 153 kilogrammes of marijuana, the UNODC says.

Elsewhere, cocaine from Ghana has turned up at London’s Heathrow airport stuffed inside plantain peels, or in the stomachs of couriers who died when the pellets of cocaine exploded inside their bodies.

Kwesi Aning, director of research at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre in the capital Accra, said traffickers prefer Ghana for a reason any entrepreneur can relate to: it’s an easy place to do business.

From Ghana, travellers can fly directly to Cairo and Dubai, Amsterdam, London and Frankfurt and New York City.

Ghana also sports a relatively decent system of paved roads, with little of the banditry seen elsewhere in the region.

The same is not true of Mali, Guinea-Bissau and other west African nations.

“In this business I think Ghana plays a key role,” Aning said. “Increasingly, the drug lords don’t like Guinea-Bissau because it’s too fragile.”

Geographically, west Africa is appealing as it lies relatively close to the major European and Asian markets, said Solomon EYO, director of education for Ghana’s Narcotics Control Board.

President John Atta Mills, who took power in 2009 and died in office last year, was concerned with how the airport had become a drug corridor, according to cables from the US Embassy in Accra.

Worried that people with access to the airport’s VIP lounge — including members of his own entourage — might be smuggling drugs, Mills wanted to increase security on the lounge. He set an example by personally submitting to screening for drugs on his journeys out of the country.

But under the presidency of John Kufuor from 2000 to 2008, the cables tell a different story: suspicions of widespread corruption, including instances where airport security was suspected of tipping off smugglers.

“The problems at the airports and the ports demonstrates to you the infiltration of the security services,” Aning says.

Ghana has taken steps to address the issues at the airport, says Asamoah of the UNODC. This month, Ghana’s security agency rolled out a programme to better coordinate their efforts at the airport.

Meanwhile, the government is looking for donor support for a $25 million plan that would pay for things like drug-sniffing dogs and hiring advisors to fighting trafficking. So far, only $154,000 has been pledged, Asamoah said.