For our Global Societies project, reporters around the world will be writing about societal problems, sustainability and development in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe. The series will include features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts looking behind the curtain of globalization. The project is generously funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Suddenly, everything comes to a standstill. Cars stop. Pedestrians freeze in place. The presidential convoy is approaching, looking not unlike a scene from an American action film, combined with a bit of slapstick. The SUV with tinted windows is flanked by several pickups, each with a machine gun mounted in the bed manned by masked soldiers looking like they mean business. Then there is the sniper, strapped in on the roof of a moving vehicle, peering through his scope.
Being the president of Guinea-Bissau, to be sure, is not without risk, as is apparent from the bullet holes in the façade of the government palace. February saw yet another gun battle in the government district, a firefight that stretched out over several hours, though it still isn’t clear who was fighting against whom. What is known, however, is that there have been more than a dozen attempted or successful government overthrows in the country since it gained independence from Portugal in 1974.
Guinea-Bissau is extremely unstable and one of the poorest countries in the world.Foto: DER SPIEGEL
And on more than one occasion, the attempted overthrows have essentially come as a result of a white powder destined for European noses. The gunfight in February was also likely part of a power struggle in the cocaine trade, claimed President Umaro Sissoco Embaló once the smoke had cleared.
Guinea-Bissau is a major hub for cocaine from South America on its way onward to Europe. Elites from the military and politics control the drug trade – and while the country’s navy doesn’t possess even a single functioning ship, it holds sway over extremely well-established distribution channels.
Because of the state’s involvement in the drug trade, the United States has referred to Guinea-Bissau in the past as a "narco-state," an appellation that people in the country aren’t particularly pleased about. Cocaine, though, holds a tight grip on Guinea-Bissau. The country "has the perfect conditions for drug trafficking," says Mark Shaw, director of the non-governmental organization Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, "a bearable level of instability, a corruptible elite, and long-standing connections with Latin-American traffickers."
The city center of the capital city of Bissau consists of a large, paved main road, with a small square about halfway along it that serves as a kind of car wash, where young men polish vehicles with white rags. There are two Hummers parked here, those gigantic American SUVs that cost upwards of $50,000 new. The median income in Guinea-Bissau is around $75 per month.
A Hummer in the heart of Bissau, the capital of one of the poorest countries in the world.Foto: DER SPIEGEL
A proud-looking man in an army uniform climbs into a freshly polished BMW X6. It is unclear whether it is his own car or if he is picking it up for a superior. There is, in fact, a lot that is unclear in the country, something that quickly becomes obvious to visitors. Truths shift by the minute, loyalties change simply by handing over an envelope. It is a perfect environment for drug barons.
History has shown how those drug barons have been able to take advantage of a corrupt, instable country for their own purposes, thus perpetuating that instability. Those who suffer most are all the people who depend on a functioning state and who want nothing to do with the drug bosses.
That instability is perhaps best illustrated by a recent case involving more than 900 kilograms of cocaine – with a market value in Europe of 35 million euros – that simply vanished. Many details of the story remain unclear, and some of them seem too absurd to be credible, yet appear to be accurate all the same. DER SPIEGEL has reviewed investigation files, spoken to a dozen people involved in the court proceedings and interviewed insiders.
The official version from the investigators goes as follows: In late October 2021, Lucas R. received a call from somebody interested in buying 10 kilos of cocaine. Not a huge problem for Lucas, given that he was holding almost a ton of the stuff at the time of the call. And it wasn’t stored at a highly secured property, much less in a safe, but in a small house in the lively neighborhood of Antula, right behind the front door. A gaunt youth in a T-shirt was sitting on a plastic chair out in front of the unremarkable house keeping watch.
In the end, the sale only amounted to 5 kilograms, with Lucas leaving the rest in his trunk, wrapped in colorful packages on which images of strawberries are printed along with the word RED. What Lucas didn’t realize was that someone had likely followed him after the sale to learn where he was hiding his stash – that, at least, is what investigators believe. Images from a surveillance camera show that on the very next day, men drove up to the property in two vehicles, and right after that, the ton of cocaine was gone.
An "Island of Integrity"
Lucas and his accomplice Ivan suddenly had a problem: They had to call their bosses and tell them what had happened. Drug barons tend not to be super excited when merchandise vanishes, and shortly after they admitted the theft, a car showed up. Lucas and Ivan were shoved inside and taken into a thick forest. Photos in the investigative file make it clear what happened next: They show the bodies of Lucas and Ivan covered in bruises and welts, their wrists ringed with dark red marks where the zip ties pressed into their flesh. The owners of the cocaine apparently wanted to make sure they weren’t being taken for a ride.
Lucas’ father got wind of the abduction from neighbors who had witnessed the incident. And he knew that in the entire country of Guinea-Bissau, there is only a single place that could help him: the Polícia Judiciária (PJ), a special unit that experts refer to as an "island of integrity" in the swamp of iniquity in the West African country. If there is a successful drug raid in Guinea-Bissau, then only because PJ investigators again went about their business unilaterally and in secrecy.
Officials from the Polícia Judiciária asked that their names and images not be published for security reasons.Foto:
The impounded cars from previous cases are parked in front of the Polícia Judiciária’s offices, as is Luca’s automobile. They are essentially trophies from an unwinnable fight, but they are still symbolic of tangible successes. It is unbearably hot in the chief investigator’s office, with the air conditioning again not working. The PJ is severely underfinanced, and almost nobody in Guinea-Bissau is terribly interested in the work they do. But the government can’t afford to get rid of the force entirely, since that would mean the elimination of aid money from abroad. So they are simply underfunded or, as an international drug investigator puts it: "They’re just simply trying to survive."
The phoned-in tipoff about the kidnapped cocaine dealers represented the perfect opportunity for the PJ investigators to again land a significant coup. And they didn’t hesitate, placing a call to the phones of the two kidnapped drug dealers, Lucas and Ivan. They actually answered their phones, claiming in shaky voices that everything was just fine. But the calls enabled the drug investigators to determine where the victims were being held, and the police force immediately set off to find them.
The Rules Are Different in Guinea-Bissau
Just a short time later, the suspected kidnappers were behind bars. But only during the interrogation of the purported kidnapping victims did the investigators realize that they had stumbled across one of the largest drug cases in recent years. They learned of the ton of cocaine that had disappeared and named the investigation "Operation RED." It would have been a significant success in most other countries, but the rules are different in Guinea-Bissau.
In an interview with DER SPIEGEL, an investigator says: "The higher-ups are always trying to bury our cases." Several PJ officials say they have received threatening phone calls in the past. "Of course, I’m afraid. Every day could be my last," says one of the police officers. "The Polícia Judiciária have not given up after years of pressure. It is remarkable given what they have faced," says Mark Shaw from the Global Initiative.
The office of Moussa Sanha, the lawyer for the suspected kidnappers, is an opportune place to learn about the other side of the country. His desk is not adorned with the scales of Justitia, as one might expect, but models of the famous trio of monkeys: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. "My clients were simply taking part in a religious ceremony with the others in the forest," he says with a serious expression on his face. "The case will dissolve into thin air."
Guinea-Bissau's Attorney General Bacari Biai in his office. He doesn't think much of the investigations carried out by the Polícia Judiciára.Foto: DER SPIEGEL
And he may even turn out to be correct in his assessment. The chief public prosecutor receives his guest from the comfort of a leather armchair. His office is chilly, as is the atmosphere. We are not allowed to quote directly from the interview, but it is safe to say that the government agency is at war with the Polícia Judiciária and does all it can to discredit the work of the investigators. Even the very existence of the more than 900 kilograms of cocaine is cast in doubt. Instead of maintaining law and order in Guinea-Bissau, observers and investigators fear that the public prosecutor’s office is more interested in accepting discreetly presented envelopes than gathering evidence of wrongdoing. Such suspicions, of course, cannot be proven.
Either way, PJ investigators have already had to release one of the suspects, a man they had tracked down in the nearby country of Gambia with great difficulty. Indeed, Gambian officials had even taken him into custody and brought him to the border. But a WhatsApp arrived at the last second. "Pressure from above," says an investigator. They returned in frustration without the suspect.
Operation RED is extremely sensitive, since the trail leads to senior military officers, including Tchamy Yala. The former officer was already lured into a trap once before in 2013 by American drug investigators and arrested. He and two accomplices from the military had been hoping to set up a huge deal on a luxury yacht, complete with champagne and scantily clad women. Once the ship crossed into international waters, though, the purported business partners turned out to be DEA agents, and Yala was taken into custody.
Yala was released after a few years and has been pursuing his dirty avocation since then. The investigators believe that he was also pulling the strings behind the current case, in part because they were watching as he spoke with those responsible for torturing Lucas and Ivan. Yala has since been arrested, but not for his suspected role as drug kingpin, but because he is thought to have participated in the attempted government overthrow in February.
"A New Dimension"
A confidential memo from abroad, which DER SPIEGEL has seen, reveals additional explosive details. A few weeks before the call that was placed to Lucas, a private plane took off from the Osvaldo Vieira International Airport in Bissau. On board, according to the memo, was one of the primary suspects of Operation RED along with Tchamy Yala. Officially, the flight was part of the preparations for a pending visit of the Guinea-Bissau president to Brazil – the perfect cover.
But the jet apparently landed in Bolivia instead of Brazil. Investigators believe that is where the details were hammered out for the cocaine delivery that would end up with Lucas a short time later. "It is a new dimension," says a European official. "Military leaders used to only operate as henchmen for South American cartels, but now it looks like they are putting together deals themselves."
Bissau is a rather modest city when compared to other capitals around the world.Foto: DER SPIEGEL
Insiders believe that at the very top of the drug trade in the country is a man whose name is only spoken in a whisper in Guinea-Bissau: Former General Antonio Indjai. American officials issued a warrant for his arrest several months ago, combined with a reward of $5 million for tips leading to his capture. Yet everybody knows where he is: On his sumptuous farm north of the capital Bissau. Yet no moves have been made to arrest him. On the contrary, President Embaló was photographed with the general as recently as two years ago.
Several of those thought to have been involved in the RED case are considered to be Indjai henchmen, who do nothing without instructions from their boss. But even the Polícia Judiciária stay away from such connections and are forced to be satisfied with smaller fish. The result is that the drug trade from the small West African country in the direction of Europe can continue to flourish, with serious consequences for society.
"It is in the interests of the drug runners to keep the country in a state of permanent instability," says Augusto da Silva of the human rights organization Liga dos Direitos Humanos. "As a citizen, I find that incredibly frustrating, because nothing has worked here for quite some time." Guinea-Bissau is one of the poorest countries in the world and the state is simply non-existent in many regions.
Pastor Domingo's rehabilitation center is treating an increasing number of cocaine and crack addicts.Foto: DER SPIEGEL
And the drug trade has also resulted in more bad news for Guinea-Bissau: an apparently rising number of addicts. The expensive cocaine from South America is processed into cheap crack in the country and sold on the streets of Bissau. It allows the dealers to make a bit of extra cash locally before the bulk of the product is shipped onward to Europe.
About an hour’s drive from Bissau, where lush mangrove forests hug the coast, Pastor Domingo runs a drug rehabilitation center. The patients here are distracted from their addictions by hard physical work: They produce bricks or plant corn on a small farm. Lunch is being served as we arrive, it’s loud and raucous. The pastor says that he used to primarily treat cannabis users, but now, almost a third of his patients are cocaine or crack addicts. "It is a growing problem, and violence is on the rise as well," says the pastor, a heavyset man with high eyebrows.
José used to be an addict, earning money for his habit by dealing drugs on the street.Foto: DER SPIEGEL
He then calls José over, whose name has been changed for this story. His baseball cap is pulled down low over his eyes, and one can see in his face that he has spent some time living on the streets. José started taking drugs when he was 11 and later became addicted to cocaine. He earned money for his habit through dealing, with a gram costing 3 euros in Bissau. "The bosses were all in the military or police, but we never saw them," says the former junkie. If anyone was arrested, it was the dealers on the street, but never those in charge.
As appears to be the case with Operation RED as well. The verdict was supposed to be handed down in the middle of April. But the judge’s computer allegedly crashed – and the verdict has been delayed.
This piece is part of the Global Societies series. The project runs for three years and is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The Global Societies series involves journalists reporting in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe on injustices, societal challenges and sustainable development in a globalized world. A selection of the features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts, which originally appear in DER SPIEGEL’s Foreign Desk section, will also appear in the Global Societies section of DER SPIEGEL International. The project is initially scheduled to run for three years and receives financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.