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Guinea Bissau: Cocaine traffic hub

The unstable nation, along with other West African countries, makes an ideal stop for cartels smuggling drugs from South America to Europe.

November 16, 2009|By Scott Kraft :: reporting from bissau, guinea-bissau

Second Of Two Parts — As a senior police official, Edmundo Mendes' job is to arrest the South American cocaine traffickers who use his troubled West African country, with its starry array of remote islands, as a transit point for drug shipments bound for Europe. It hasn't been easy.

To demonstrate, Mendes walked a few steps from his office into the gritty mix of smoke and car exhaust in downtown Bissau. He fished a ring of keys from his pocket and made quick work of a rusty padlock. The metal door groaned open to a small courtyard. Across the way was a room, about 10 by 15 feet, where four men looked out drowsily from behind a barred, glass-less window.

This holding cell is the only jail in a country of nearly 2 million.

"We live in paradise and hell at the same time," said Mendes, a baby-faced 35-year-old with master's and doctoral degrees from France and Portugal. "In paradise, there are no prisons. In hell, there are no prisons. Without a prison, all the work we do is for nothing. At the moment, this is a paradise for criminals."

That's just one reason Guinea- Bissau has been an easy mark for the world's drug cartels.

The country's navy has a single aging ship to search for smugglers, and the head of the navy fled the country amid accusations that he was involved in the drug trade. When a Gulfstream jet from Venezuela landed last year at the Bissau international airport, its $250-million cargo of cocaine was whisked away in army trucks before police arrived. A judge freed the three Venezuelan pilots, including one wanted on an arrest warrant from Mexico.

Then, in one 12-hour period this year, the army chief of staff was killed by a bomb in his office and his soldiers retaliated by hacking the president to death in his kitchen. Three months later, soldiers killed a presidential candidate and two former government ministers whom they accused of plotting a coup.

Disputes over the drug trade are believed to have played a role in the mayhem. But the investigation has stalled because the soldiers refuse to be questioned.

$70-billion market

West Africa is among the world's poorest, least developed and most politically unstable regions. This patchwork of coastal nation-states has long been exploited by international profiteers, from the slave traders who fed off it for centuries to the European colonizers who later tried to sculpt tropical replicas of France, England and Portugal.

Today it is buffeted by another outside force: the $70-billion global cocaine market. As much as a third of the cocaine that moves from South America to Europe every year goes through West Africa. Since 2005, cocaine with a wholesale value of more than $7 billion has passed through this region, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

This new route reflects a shift in consumption. Cocaine exports to the United States have declined, but they have doubled and tripled to European countries, where the strength of the euro against the dollar has brought more revenue for traffickers.

Law enforcement efforts have made the direct route from South America to Europe riskier for traffickers, causing them to detour through this part of the world. Cocaine arrives here in large shipments, sometimes by air but more often by sea. It is broken into smaller parcels that come ashore -- where officials are paid off in cash or in kind -- or continue north by boat, truck or plane toward Europe.

"West Africa has everything criminals need: resources, a strategic location, weak governance, and an endless source of foot soldiers who see few viable alternatives to a life of crime," a recent U.N. report concluded.

A day after the Gulfstream arrived in Guinea-Bissau in July 2008, a twin-engine Cessna landed about 300 miles south, at the international airport near Freetown, Sierra Leone. This one was met by local and international authorities, who seized $350 million worth of cocaine and arrested seven men from Colombia, Venezuela and the United States.

In Guinea, a nation on the coast between Guinea-Bissau and Sierra Leone, the death of a president and a military coup led to bloody confrontations with protesters in September -- and revelations that the late president's family was deeply involved in cocaine trafficking. The president's son, an army officer, has admitted clearing cocaine shipments that arrived in planes marked with the symbol of the Red Cross.

That same month, authorities in Ghana seized 350 pounds of cocaine, valued at $8 million, on a ship arriving from South America, the second major seizure there since May.

"Drug trafficking here evolves at a much faster rate than in places like Afghanistan and South America," said Alexandre Schmidt, the U.N. drug office's representative for West and Central Africa. "When we become aware of trafficking routes in West Africa, the drug traffickers are already one step ahead."

The U.N. launched a $50-million effort this year to train and outfit West African police, beginning with Sierra Leone.

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