"You're never going to stop the drug flow through West Africa," said Rudolfo Landeros, a former assistant police chief in Austin, Texas, who is senior police advisor to the U.N. in Sierra Leone. "But we have to take a stand somewhere and it might as well be here, so Sierra Leone doesn't become like Guinea-Bissau."
Guinea-Bissau has been called Africa's only narco-state, a nation controlled and corrupted by drug cartels. In many ways, it is an ideal host for the parasitic drug trade. Since independence in 1974, the onetime Portuguese colony has suffered coups d'etat, dictatorships and civil wars.
The elegant facade of the presidential palace, on a traffic circle honoring the independence struggle, is a ghostly monument to that past: Its gutted interior is blackened by the bombs of civil war a decade ago. An American aid organization has unearthed 3,000 anti-personnel mines in the capital and is still digging up unexploded ordnance in the countryside.
"I'm taking on a sick state in all aspects," said Guinea-Bissau's president, Malam Bacai Sanha, who took office in September.
"We have serious problems, and drugs is just one of them," Sanha said. He cited increasing deaths from malaria, a flood of counterfeit medicines, poor roads, rickety schools, and a lack of reliable electricity and clean water. "The first medicine the country needs is stability," he said.
Stability is a lofty goal. If the 62-year-old leader survives the next five years, he will be the first head of state to complete a term of office in 35 years of independence.
"I will pray to God every single day of those five years," he said with a chuckle.
Like other politicians in West Africa, Sanha doesn't put a high priority on drug interdiction.
"It's not just Guinea-Bissau's problem," he said. "These drugs don't come here to stay. Our people cannot afford drugs."
Allegations that government officials and military officers are involved in the drug trade "is just talk without proof," Sanha said. But he recognizes that foreign aid is linked to progress on the drug front. "We cannot ask the international community to help us if we allow drugs to be sent to their countries from here," he said.
One sign pointing to an influx of drug money is the flurry of activity in a seaside suburb known as the "ministers' quarter." Bissau has few wealthy businessmen, no industry and no foreign exports other than peanuts. The average income is less than $2 a day. Yet construction crews in that neighborhood are building pastel-colored two-story homes with ocean views. Workers at the sites declined to identify the owners.
Guinea-Bissau was an inviting target for traffickers primarily because of the Bijagos Archipelago, 70 beautiful islands that were once a stopping point for seafaring traders. Only about 20 of the islands are inhabited, but many have natural ports and abandoned airstrips built by Portugal during the war for independence.
"Our concern now is that the traffickers are changing their modus operandi," said Mendes, deputy director of the judicial police. "They used to bring drugs in by plane, but now it's ships at sea. This is a big problem for us. We don't have the means to control our coast."
Mendes leads a staff of three dozen officers, about a tenth of what he figures he needs to do his job. The judicial police, the only one of nine government police forces in the country responsible for drug interdiction, do make arrests, mostly of locals with small amounts of cocaine who are foot soldiers for the cartels.
Some are freed by corrupt judges, Mendes says, and the others get off with fines because there's no prison to hold them. International governments recently agreed to build a high-security prison in Bissau, but it won't be completed before the end of next year.
On the outskirts of the capital is the Municipal Cemetery, where the late president, Joao Bernardo Vieira, and the army chief of staff, Batista Tagme na Waie, are buried about 100 yards apart, beneath the shade of mango and acacia trees in a setting overgrown with stiff grass and weeds.
The motives for those assassinations remain a mystery. Tagme had reportedly told his officers that if anything happened to him, they should assume the president did it. Tagme's troops listened; they went to Vieira's home after the bombing and killed the president. But Mendes says his commission has concluded that the president was not behind the general's killing.
Some believe it was a battle over power in a country where the defense force -- 4,500 troops, with three officers to every private -- has long held sway. Others suspect that the cause was either a dispute over the missing cocaine from the Gulfstream or a battle for control of the drug trade.
What is clear is that moving cocaine through a small country like Guinea-Bissau requires help from the government or the military, or both.
"You must have the approval of someone in authority," the U.N.'s Schmidt said.
An empty plane