Guinea-Bissau: Fears of an Emerging Narco-State
Traffickers use planes and ships to drop off and pick up drugs throughout the labyrinth of islands and inlets that make up Guinea-Bissau's coast. (Photo: © David Hecht/IRIN)
Guinea-Bissau has become a key transit point for cocaine moving between Latin America and Europe as drug traffickers take advantage of scant surveillance, government instability, and poverty to ply their trade.
There have been more than 50 known seizures of drugs in the past two years, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
"And that's just the tip of the iceberg," said Antonio Mazzitelli, the United Nation's drug agency representative for West and Central Africa.
Few local residents are believed to be consuming the drugs. But traffickers co-opt them into providing surveillance, transporting the contraband, and otherwise providing support. About 6 grams of cocaine is roughly equal in value to an average salary for one year in Guinea-Bissau.
The country ranks fifth to the last on the United Nation's human development index as it struggles to recover from a brief civil war that ended six years ago. With observers agreeing that political tensions could again spark violence, donors are reluctant to provide assistance, and thus the government remains under-funded and ineffectual.
"As the state is unable to control its own territory, traffickers can operate undetected," Mazzitelli said. "In other African coastal countries traffickers may be confronted by police controls but in Guinea-Bissau the risks are extremely low."
The situation is so serious that government stability is threatened as drug traffickers extend roots into ministries, the army, and the police, according to various sources familiar with the trade who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Getting the Facts
The traffickers use planes and ships to drop off and pick up drugs throughout the labyrinth of islands and inlets that make up Guinea-Bissau's coast, regional drug trafficking experts say. West African coastal countries such as Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Senegal, Nigeria, Togo, Ghana, and others have increasingly become transit points with cocaine literally washing up on beaches.
After hearing tales about local fishermen scooping up packages of mysterious white powder and using it as a food seasoning or for fertilizer last year, the United Nation's drug agency visited the village of Quinhamel, 30 kilometers (19 miles) west of the capital, Bissau, to investigate.
"We confirmed that a ship had sunk in the area in October  and that fishermen had picked up many packages of cocaine that were floating in the water," Mazzitelli said.
"We also confirmed that a privately chartered plane arrived in Bissau soon after with one West African and two Latinos aboard apparently to buy back the packages. Police apprehended them and confiscated some 700,000 euros [$900,000] but a couple of days later they were released."
He said another privately chartered plane soon arrived in Spain from Guinea-Bissau with 100 kilograms of cocaine, worth about $5 million on the street.
"We think all these events were related," Mazzitelli said.
The largest reported seizure in Guinea-Bissau occurred on Sept. 26, 2006, following a shootout in Bissau. "Police arrested two men with Venezuelan passports and confiscated laptops, firearms, radios, plus 674 kilograms of cocaine," Mazzitelli said.
Police deposited the roughly $39 million worth of drugs in a safe at the national treasury and then it disappeared, according to a treasury official who asked not to be named. "Some soldiers came demanding that they be able to count the drugs and we never saw it again," he said.
Army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Arsénio Baldé said that soldiers were not the ones who took the cocaine. "Maybe some people wearing army uniforms came but they were not real soldiers," he said.
Justice Minister Namuano Gomes said he believed that police destroyed the cocaine but he did not see it happen personally.
"The chain of evidence was broken," Mazzitelli said. "No tests were carried out on what, if anything, was destroyed. They might have destroyed 674 kilograms of white cement for all we know."
With the government unable to pay salaries or severance packages to the country's oversized army, many soldiers are getting money from drug traffickers in exchange for providing security, according to sources familiar with the drug trade who requested anonymity.
Army spokesman Baldé denied this. "Things are bad in Guinea-Bissau but not that bad," he said.
Gomes said that the country's justice system and security forces were incapable of handling the problem. He said the 1999 civil war weakened institutions and there is no coordination between the police, the border patrol, the customs, and the army.
"We don't even have a proper prison in this country," he said, "So even when we prosecute someone we don't have the means to keep them much longer than a year. We end up just letting them go."
He also said that international demands for Guinea-Bissau to stop drug traffickers were unreasonable.
"The drugs don't come from Guinea-Bissau and we don't consume them yet they are telling us we have to patrol our uninhabited islands when we can't even patrol the areas where our people live," Gomes said. "How do they expect policemen who are not getting paid to hand in bags of drugs and receive nothing in return? How do they expect civilians to come forward with information when we can offer them no incentives and when people at all levels of society are profiting by facilitating the drug trade?" © IRIN
[This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies.]