Africa's Cocaine Hub Guinea-Bissau a 'Drug Trafficker's Dream'


Part 2: Planning a Drug Bust

It doesn't help either that the UNODC reported the following at its fall conference on organized crime: "The real-time analytical intelligence database has been delivered to the judicial police." Biague's "real-time database" is the cousin of one of his chief officers -- a farmer who calls whenever he hears aircraft engines.

Biague starts to draw circles and lines: "We could send three men disguised as farmers down there to take up positions. As soon as they hear a plane, we could dispatch a unit to the bridge near Mampatá, where every convoy has to slow down, and intercept the shipment there."

It sounds like a good plan. Why doesn't he do it?

"We don't have any money."

The 300 kilos of cocaine that could be seized during such an operation would have a street value in Germany of up to €120 million ($155 million). How much money does Biague have for the upcoming operation? "Just a second," he says, as he takes his pencil and starts to calculate: The policemen could sleep with relatives. Mangoes grow everywhere, so food isn't a problem. "Five days, three people, that's 15,000. Plus fuel for the police squad, that's three times 20,000 CFA, comes to a total of 75,000 CFA."

That's €115. And where will the money come from?

One of the principles of journalism is to never exert a decisive influence on events that are going to be described. Reporters are to remain observers on the sidelines. Sometimes it's difficult to stick to this rule. SPIEGEL photographer Alessandro Scotti had already been on a research assignment in Guinea-Bissau in July 2008. At the time, 600 kilos of cocaine were seized. The then-chief of police only agreed to the operation under the condition that Scotti would be the only white person present. It was the first and only drug seizure of this magnitude. The head of the operation, one of Biague's predecessors, was immediately fired. One of his men has been shot dead and another is in psychiatric care. The three arrested soldiers were subsequently released. Still, in reaction to the operation, the national police received massive aid from abroad, an Interpol office and training sessions from the EU. We decided to pay for Biague's fuel.

A Failed Operation

The phone call came the very next day: "The plane has landed." Biague says that his people heard engine noises early that morning. The smugglers must have landed on the island of Ilha de Melo, directly on the border with Guinea in the south.

Until a few years ago, the military airport at Cufar was the preferred landing field. But now that international observers are in the country, drug traffickers are primarily using illegal airstrips, mainly in the south. While some are hidden, others lie in plain sight for all to see.

Right outside Mansôa, roughly 50 kilometers from the capital, the road runs straight as an arrow for three kilometers. Just beyond the village of Missina, a long skid mark is still plainly visible. Local residents say that men wearing boots and stocking masks blocked the road and laid out party lights to outline an impromptu airstrip.

Rádio Sol Mansi, a station run by a Salesian priest, reported the incident. All other media kept quiet, although everyone knew about it. It's also common knowledge who owns the poultry farm near the airfield in Missina -- and who is currently expanding his estate there: António Indjai, the general on the back of the pick-up truck -- Guinea-Bissau's army chief of staff.

Biague is hunched over the coffee table in his office, surrounded by his senior officers, and drawing arrows on his MapQuest map. "They always immediately unload their cargo," he says. "The question is whether they will directly pack the goods into speedboats or transport them by land." They only have a chance to seize the shipment on land.

He tells his men to keep an eye out for pick-ups driving toward the coast. However, he doesn't inform his superiors at the ministry about his plan, as that would be too dangerous.

Biague waits until that evening for a call with good news from his people -- but in vain. "The shipment must have been offloaded and moved across the sea," he says, adding that the Fiscalização has a shed nearby, where the goods can be stored. Biague means a small building owned by the customs administration. "I'm sorry," he says, though it might be directed it toward himself.

Perhaps there wasn't even a plane: "It's a game with masks," says a representative of the international community who prefers to remain anonymous. "You never know who is playing what role, and why, even if it's the role of the good guys. You only know that four out of five officials are corrupt. Or are they all four-fifths corrupt?"

Cocaine's Three Routes

In any case, Biague will get a second chance to lose his job faster than expected.

After it arrives in Guinea-Bissau, the cocaine is transported out of the country in one of three ways, on predominantly multipurpose routes where people and arms are also smuggled, sometimes even simultaneously.

First, the Venezuelans have speedboats that they can use to travel all the way to Cape Verde, and even as far up the coast as the Canary Islands. Fishermen are occasionally forced to take a few crates along with them. It's easy to exert pressure on them when their families are alone on land.

The overland route north goes from Guinea-Bissau through Senegal, Mauritania, Western Sahara and on to Morocco. This is a zone filled with all the things that give Western intelligence agencies nightmares, from Tuareg tribes and smugglers, to radical Islamist groups and human traffickers. Nevertheless, given enough money, it is possible to establish a viable transit route. These are well-traveled trade routes that have been maintained since the days of the slave trade.

The cocaine's third route is the intestines of the "swallowers." These are usually Nigerians who, for the equivalent of some €800, swallow capsules -- small balloons filled with up to a kilo of drugs -- and then try to reach Lisbon or Cape Verde on commercial flights.


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