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

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Photo Gallery: Tilting at Windmills in Guinea-Bissau Photos
AP

Guinea-Bissau has become a major hub of cocaine trafficking between Latin America and Europe. But any wealth the West African nation has derived from its middleman status has been offset by increased violence and instability.

João Biague says he only has one way to lose his job: "success." As soon as he manages to seize a shipment of drugs, he admits, "I'll be fired." But "success" is not actually part of the job description of the director general of Guinea-Bissau's judicial police.

Biague has his office in a colonial building slowly turning black from the moisture and humidity. It's located on a dirt street near an athletic field. The potholes are filled with plastic refuse and seashells. A woman is crouching under a ceiba tree and roasting a scrawny ear of corn over a smoldering fire.

His agency corresponds to the headquarters of Germany's Federal Office of Criminal Investigation (BKA) in Wiesbaden -- or the FBI in Washington, DC.

Biague has the build and slightly swollen eyes of a heavyweight boxer. He's wearing a well-tailored suit, as if to protect himself from the inadequacies of his law enforcement agency. The 45-year-old judge also has a side job teaching law at a local university.

In this country, Biague embodies justice -- but not power. The title of his Ph.D. dissertation was "Coordination Problems in Public Administration, as Exemplified by Brazil, Portugal and Guinea-Bissau." Today, Biague has to deal with other coordination problems: "I have to crack down on the cocaine smugglers -- but without the military getting wind of it."

And that just won't do, as that would be "success."

The World's Only True ' Narco State '

Guinea-Bissau is sandwiched between Senegal and Guinea, where the African continent extends the farthest west toward South America. The fish market in Bissau, the capital, is just as far from eastern Brazil as from southern Spain, or nearly 3,000 kilometers (1,850 miles) as the crow flies. That's an easy distance to cover with private medium-range jets -- even if they are loaded with freight.

In order to run their trans-Atlantic trafficking operations, the cocaine barons of Latin America need countries with an ideal geographic location, under the radar of international interest and characterized by the highest possible corruption index. Guinea-Bissau comes very close to fulfilling this ideal.

The country has porous borders, inconspicuous airfields and a virtually powerless civilian government. Extradition agreements are practically unknown. One of the most sought-after American fugitives from justice, convicted murderer and hijacker George Wright, worked for years as a basketball coach in Bissau.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) sees Guinea-Bissau as the world's only example of a narco state: "In Afghanistan and Colombia, individual provinces are in the hands of drug lords. Here, it's the entire state," says a high-ranking official at the agency's headquarters in Vienna. In Colombia, the drug lords take advantage of the chaos. In Bissau, they benefit from the secure environment.

For a narco state, Guinea-Bissau seems rather peaceful, even sleepy at times. There are no junkies here and no beheaded traitors on the roadside. The daily drug trade is conducted virtually without violence.

"The situation is difficult," says Biague, as he closes his office door. After the military coup in April, he explains, there has been an increase in smuggling. "The positions have been reshuffled, and the police and civil authorities have become even more cautious," he says. One of his men was recently almost beaten to death -- in an army barracks, he claims. Biague also says his predecessor fled because she couldn't stand the threats anymore.

Biague has a habit of sketching mind maps as he speaks. He draws circles and arrows, followed by even more arrows, and finally thick lines that underscore his main point: "Everyone is simply afraid."

Coups and Cocaine

There are few occasions to calmly observe the shadowy men behind the international cocaine trade. But one of these took place on Sept. 24, Guinea-Bissau's Independence Day.

On that day, the Avenida Amilcar Cabral is cordoned off with red-and-white plastic tape with little hearts. The capital city is still steaming from an early morning tropical shower, and the clouds towering over the wooden stands are slowly retreating. The truncheons of the National Guard are gleaming in the sun.

At precisely 10 a.m., the crowd begins to clap. There is no cheering, just some applause to be on the safe side -- the kind of accolades reserved for a military leader in a bulging uniform as he is slowly driven to the VIP stand on the back of a pick-up truck -- applause to acknowledge power.

The man in the uniform embodies power, not justice. General António Indjai is in command in Guinea-Bissau. He has controlled the country ever since the last freely elected president, João "Nino" Vieira, tragically died in 2009 (in one of the few cases in which a governing head of state has been hacked to pieces) and, at the very latest, Indjai has ruled the land since the coup in April 2012, when he ousted the prime minister and all remaining rivals.

All of this wouldn't matter much to the rest of the world if this hot and humid little African country merely supplied global markets with cashew nuts and timber -- instead of an estimated annual 40 metric tons of a substance that doesn't appear in any foreign trade statistics: cocaine. General Indjai, who has now seated himself among the other generals, guests of honor and first ladies, also allegedly controls the country's drug trade. Everyone stands at attention for the national anthem: "Sun, sweat, verdure and sea … "

An Increasingly Bloody History

In Sept. 1974, Guinea-Bissau gained its independence from Portugal. The guerrillas from those days are now sitting in the stands -- veterans from an era in which the "fight for liberation" still had a good ring to it.

Since the liberation, the country's elite has mainly been occupied with achieving some sort of balance between clans, political parties and military divisions -- a process that involves coups, arrests, torture, death threats and assassinations. No democratically elected president in the history of independent Guinea-Bissau has ever completed his term in office.

The country ranks 176 out of 187 countries on the United Nations Human Development Index. Under the old president, there was a cooperation agreement with the European Union to improve the security apparatus. But this program was terminated in 2010, quite possibly because a rear admiral who was appointed commander of the navy is listed by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), as a kingpin of the cocaine trade in West Africa -- along with the air force chief of staff.

Before João "Nino" Vieira was assassinated, the then-chief of staff of the country's armed forces was killed in a bomb attack. A quarter of a year later, presidential candidate Baciro Dabó was shot by soldiers, as was the former defense minister. The perpetrators were never found, and perhaps never sought.

There is little doubt that the killings were linked to the struggle for lucrative shares of the country's burgeoning drug trade. Drugs dominate political life in Guinea-Bissau, and the cocaine trade has made changes of government more brutal.

A Weigh Station for Drugs

"The military is currently the only power in the country," says Biague. In front of him lies a mind map, and above him hangs the gallery of his predecessors. "You saw our airport when you arrived, I presume?" he asks. "Did you take a close look?"

Osvaldo Vieira International Airport is named after a national hero of the struggle for liberation. When an aircraft from Dakar or Lisbon arrives in Bissau, three older civilians sit in what look like booths for parking lot attendants and stamp passengers' passports.

Sitting on the tarmac right next to the terminal is a Grumman Gulfstream II private jet registered in the eastern US state of Delaware to Lb Aviation Inc., a shell corporation. The aircraft had to make an emergency landing in Bissau on July 12, 2008 due to a faulty hydraulics system. "When the police tried to search the plane, a group of soldiers appeared," says Biague. "They surrounded the machine and prevented anyone from boarding it."

According to Spanish police, there was half a ton of cocaine on board -- and three Venezuelans, including Carmelo Vásquez Guerra, who reportedly works for the Mexican Sinaloa cartel, headed by Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, currently the world's leading cocaine baron. Last year, the business magazine Forbes ranked Guzmán as the 63rd most powerful person on the planet.

Guzmán was unable to save the Gulfstream. The next day, a second, smaller aircraft arrived from Venezuela to repair the Gulfstream. This time, police were able to seize the machine. No trace of the cargo or the crew has ever been found. The two aircraft, though, can even be seen on Google Earth (11°53'9.58N; 15°39'14.25W).

The UNODC suspects that even old Boeing 727s are used for drug flights to West Africa. Such a jet can carry over 10 tons of cargo.

Waging War without Maps

Biague is sitting in his office with the door locked and the shades drawn. Given his description of the situation, it's understandable that he would prefer not to set foot outside.

Tomorrow is the ninth birthday of Biague's daughter. She lives in Verona in northern Italy -- and he hasn't seen her for five years. "I don't want this job," he says. "I just want to accomplish something -- then it's over. But it has to be some kind of success." He dreams of a job with some international organization -- and one as far away from Guinea-Bissau as possible.

"A trafficker's dream" is what a US diplomat wrote to his superiors after spending four days sailing through the Bissagos Islands. This archipelago of 88 islands in the Atlantic lies two hours from Bissau by boat. With its beaches lined with palm trees and waters teeming with fish, the Bissagos Islands could be the Maldives of West Africa. But, so far, they have only been a dream destination for drug lords.

The state barely has a presence in the archipelago, in large part because Biague's police force doesn't own a boat. Aircraft not listed on any flight list land on unpaved airstrips dating back to the colonial period.

Once, a plane ran into mechanical difficulties, and over half a ton of cocaine was dumped into the sea. Some of the locals reportedly whitewashed their houses with the stuff. Others thought it was manioc flour. At least one person thought it was dried milk formula for infants.

The drugs are flown in shipments of between 600 and 1,200 kilograms (1,300 to 2,600 pounds) and stored in three warehouses, allowing wholesalers to ship 300 kilos to Europe within just a few days. International investigators know that at least one of these depots is located in a military zone. Biague knows all of this: "I even know that a flight will land this week in the south," he says.

And where will this happen?

There doesn't appear to be a single map in the headquarters of the national police of Guinea-Bissau. Biague has his secretary print out a map from MapQuest. Then the power cuts out.

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