By Edith Honan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States hopes to expand a two-year-old effort against organized crime in West Africa to include wildlife trafficking and money laundering - activities that it says exploits some of the same networks long used for drug trafficking.
William Brownfield, the Assistant U.S. Secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, said on Tuesday that his office is ready to take "the next step" in its anti-drug efforts when U.S. officials convene a high-level meeting later this week with 15 west African countries.
"The same organizations that move drugs and people and firearms and doing basic smuggling are moving rhino horn and elephant tusk and other products that come from illicit wildlife trafficking," Brownfield said, speaking on the sidelines of a major African summit taking place in Washington.
While there might not be a "complete overlap," criminals are sharing their networks, including corrupted customs, immigration and financial regulatory officials, he said.
The anti-trafficking effort was launched in 2011 with the cooperation of Colombia, Brazil and five Western European nations - United Kingdom, France, Spain Germany and Portugal - along with an array of U.S. law enforcement agencies.
The program, which has so far cost around $100 million, has helped draft laws and regulations, as well as share financial intelligence, such as identifying suspicious transactions and unexplained sums of money.
The focus has been on stemming the flow of narcotics. Drug traffickers, frustrated by anti-drug efforts focused on North and South America, are seen to have shifted their operations through parts of West Africa, and countries like Guinea Bissau.
Brownfield, who previously served as U.S. Ambassador to Colombia, said he was not thinking of wildlife trafficking as a "top priority trafficking issue" when he took his current post. He said the issue is now viewed as an extremely high priority.
(Reporting by Edith Honan; editing by Andrew Hay)