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Africa's cocaine coast

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Africa's cocaine coast
People & Power feature - Guinea Bissau cocaine
Guinea Bissau's unpatrolled coastline is a haven for drug traffickers

The tiny impoverished African nation of Guinea Bissau has become a fulcrum for international drug trafficking. People & Power discovers the impact cocaine is having both on officials and civilians.

When local fishermen discovered the packets of white powder floating off the coast of the tiny West African country of Guinea-Bissau three years ago there was much confusion.

"Some people thought it was flour," one fishermen says. "Others thought it was fertiliser to put on their tomato plants, others thought it was something we put in dried fish."

The strange powder was in fact cocaine. One man painted his boat with it. Another used it to mark out a football pitch.

The fishermen were unaware that they had discovered some of the first evidence of a major shift in international drug trafficking.

Latin American drug cartels are finding it harder to send their goods directly to Europe without being intercepted. So the cartels are plotting a new course, straight across to Africa.

Easy target

"The cocaine is then repackaged, is blended with traditional exports of cashew nuts and frozen shrimps and textile and whatever else is available, and then exported into Europe," Antonio Maria Costa from the UN office on drugs and crime says.

Guinea Bissau's location, geography and poverty make it ideal for drug traffickers
According to the United Nations, more than a quarter of the cocaine seized in Europe comes from West Africa. And there are few countries more vulnerable than Guinea Bissau.

The fifth poorest country in the world has been blighted for decades by civil war, coups and cholera.

But a weak government, an unpatrolled coastline and dozens of tiny islands offshore make it a paradise from a drug-trafficker's view point.

A local man, who asked not to be identified, shows Al Jazeera flashy signs of drug wealth among the ramshackle streets.

"There's a bunker where he can store his car," he says pointing out one large gated property. "There's a basketball field, swimming pool, everything, tennis courts. Can you take a look at this house? It's a castle."

Lavish new homes are being built in the style of haciendas favoured by Latin American drug barons and in a country with little electricity or running water such signs of drug wealth are hard to miss in the capital, Bissau.

The United Nations now estimates that the cocaine passing through Guinea Bissau is worth more than the country's GDP.

"Just to give the order of magnitude, in Afghanistan, where the problem is very serious, the opium economy may be 50 or 60 per cent of the national income, in a country like Guinea Bissau it may be 200 per cent of the national income," Costa says.

The judicial police are the only force in Guinea-Bissau attempting to combat these wealthy criminals but they are chronically underfunded and work in primitive conditions.

They have still been responsible for several large drug busts including a seizure of 674kg from a property in September 2006.

Official involvement

But the triumph was short-lived because it seems that drug trafficking in Guinea Bissau enjoys official protection at the highest levels.

Al Jazeera was told that a few hours after the raid the attorney-general and other senior officials turned up at the judicial police and demanded the seized cocaine.

"They took it to the finance ministry," Jorge, a member of the judicial police says, "after that it was not under police custody so the police had no more information."

A UN report confirmed the incredible disappearance of 674kg of cocaine. An army spokesman strongly denies the allegation.

But in April 2008, more evidence emerged of military involvement in drug trafficking. Two army officers were found with 635kg of cocaine. This time the drugs were burned in public but, according to the UN, the soldiers remain unpunished.

Despite the official denials, many people in Bissau, including an international law enforcement agent, tell Al Jazeera that the military and political establishment are deeply involved in drug trafficking but many are openly afraid to criticise the army.

"We put our lives in risk when we are investigating on drug trafficking. I can give many examples," Alberto Dado, one of the few journalists to speak up, says.

Even the judicial police are afraid of confronting the army. At a meeting of the anti-drugs unit, officers say they are worried about cocaine arriving at the airport and being taken into military hangars.

One policeman says he is forced to stand back and watch as people are waved through immigration and customs.

"You have no access to x-ray, no access to the luggage, that thing where the customs officers stand," he says. "I had trouble with this guy from customs, I said to him 'Are all these people diplomats?' No way."

'Risky work'

"It's true this is risky work," Lucinda Barbosa Aukarie, the head of the judicial police says. "But if we start looking how big this really is, we will do nothing at all."

The opulent signs of wealth from drugs are easy to spot
The scale of the problem is large and deeply entrenched.

"A few tens of millions of dollars of revenue generated by the drug traffickers can buy power, can affect the elections - especially forthcoming elections in Guinea Bissau, we are very concerned about that," Costa says.

When the judicial police arrested two Colombian drug traffickers last year, they found weapons, cash and detailed lists of local politicians.

Carmelita Pires, the country's justice minister, says such discoveries concern her.

"It is important to know that we are talking about huge sums of money and these people have every means to corrupt our institutions," she says.

But shortly after their arrest, the two Colombian traffickers were released by a judge.

"There's a question mark over all of us because really this is not right, you fight but you achieve nothing," Jorge says. "We do our jobs but others don't do theirs and we can't control that."


Even if Guinea Bissau was able to convict the drug traffickers who have set up here, there would be nowhere to put them.

The country's only jail was destroyed during the civil war about 10 years ago and an official from the justice ministry takes Al Jazeera to a run-down house that now serves as a prison.

About 20 men live here in cramped, filthy conditions, sharing a single toilet and sleeping on the dirty floors. The house is in the centre of Bissau, with very little security, so escapes are common.

"No one's here for drug trafficking," the official says. "The big drug traffickers rarely end up in prison given the impunity they enjoy and the protection they have in this country."

Although Guinea Bissau is just a transit point for cocaine, a small amount stays here and is starting to do terrible damage.

The country's only rehabilitation centre houses Guinea-Bissau's first crack addicts in conditions more primitive than those at the makeshift prison.

One woman is shackled to a pillar so she cannot escape while pipes for smoking are readily available.

Guinea Bissau's first crack addicts are faced with harsh rehabilitation
"It makes me angry because our civil and military authorities are responsible for this situation because themselves they are involved in drug trafficking," Alberto Dabo says.

The UN has donated some badly needed equipment to the judicial police, including computers and photocopiers.

But unfortunately, the gifts have proved practically useless. They are still in their boxes as the police cannot afford the generator fuel to power the new equipment.

Such futility can be sensed on a financial level as well. In 2006 the UN came up with a plan to help Guinea Bissau combat drug trafficking, requiring several hundred million dollars. So far, it has only managed to raise about eight million.

Journalist Alberto Dabo and police chief Lucinda Aukarie however are both devout churchgoers. Every Sunday they call on a higher power to help save their failing state.

"We have faith that we'll manage to do something, we can not say eradicate but at least reduce Guinea–Bissau's reputation as a revolving door for drug traffickers," Aukarie says.

"I am very pessimistic because there is no political will in Guinea Bissau in order to stop drug trafficking," Dabo says.

"Because even if Lucinda, you understand, who is the chief of the judicial police, even if she wants to stop drug trafficking, she will not be able to do it."
Source: Al Jazeera
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