Guinea-Bissau: Cocaine’s traffic hub

Augustine Beyai was brought to the Quinhamel drug treatment facility from Gambia by his family.
(Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times)
Reporting from Bissau, Guinea-Bissau

As a senior police official, Edmundo Mendes’ job is to arrest the South American cocaine traffickers who use his troubled West African country, with its starry array of remote islands, as a transit point for drug shipments bound for Europe. It hasn’t been easy.

To demonstrate, Mendes walked a few steps from his office into the gritty mix of smoke and car exhaust in downtown Bissau. He fished a ring of keys from his pocket and made quick work of a rusty padlock. The metal door groaned open to a small courtyard. Across the way was a room, about 10 by 15 feet, where four men looked out drowsily from behind a barred, glass-less window.

This holding cell is the only jail in a country of nearly 2 million.

“We live in paradise and hell at the same time,” said Mendes, a baby-faced 35-year-old with master’s and doctoral degrees from France and Portugal. “In paradise, there are no prisons. In hell, there are no prisons. Without a prison, all the work we do is for nothing. At the moment, this is a paradise for criminals.”


That’s just one reason Guinea- Bissau has been an easy mark for the world’s drug cartels.

The country’s navy has a single aging ship to search for smugglers, and the head of the navy fled the country amid accusations that he was involved in the drug trade. When a Gulfstream jet from Venezuela landed last year at the Bissau international airport, its $250-million cargo of cocaine was whisked away in army trucks before police arrived. A judge freed the three Venezuelan pilots, including one wanted on an arrest warrant from Mexico.

Then, in one 12-hour period this year, the army chief of staff was killed by a bomb in his office and his soldiers retaliated by hacking the president to death in his kitchen. Three months later, soldiers killed a presidential candidate and two former government ministers whom they accused of plotting a coup.

Disputes over the drug trade are believed to have played a role in the mayhem. But the investigation has stalled because the soldiers refuse to be questioned.

$70-billion market

West Africa is among the world’s poorest, least developed and most politically unstable regions. This patchwork of coastal nation-states has long been exploited by international profiteers, from the slave traders who fed off it for centuries to the European colonizers who later tried to sculpt tropical replicas of France, England and Portugal.

Today it is buffeted by another outside force: the $70-billion global cocaine market. As much as a third of the cocaine that moves from South America to Europe every year goes through West Africa. Since 2005, cocaine with a wholesale value of more than $7 billion has passed through this region, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.


This new route reflects a shift in consumption. Cocaine exports to the United States have declined, but they have doubled and tripled to European countries, where the strength of the euro against the dollar has brought more revenue for traffickers.

Law enforcement efforts have made the direct route from South America to Europe riskier for traffickers, causing them to detour through this part of the world. Cocaine arrives here in large shipments, sometimes by air but more often by sea. It is broken into smaller parcels that come ashore -- where officials are paid off in cash or in kind -- or continue north by boat, truck or plane toward Europe.

“West Africa has everything criminals need: resources, a strategic location, weak governance, and an endless source of foot soldiers who see few viable alternatives to a life of crime,” a recent U.N. report concluded.

A day after the Gulfstream arrived in Guinea-Bissau in July 2008, a twin-engine Cessna landed about 300 miles south, at the international airport near Freetown, Sierra Leone. This one was met by local and international authorities, who seized $350 million worth of cocaine and arrested seven men from Colombia, Venezuela and the United States.

In Guinea, a nation on the coast between Guinea-Bissau and Sierra Leone, the death of a president and a military coup led to bloody confrontations with protesters in September -- and revelations that the late president’s family was deeply involved in cocaine trafficking. The president’s son, an army officer, has admitted clearing cocaine shipments that arrived in planes marked with the symbol of the Red Cross.

That same month, authorities in Ghana seized 350 pounds of cocaine, valued at $8 million, on a ship arriving from South America, the second major seizure there since May.


“Drug trafficking here evolves at a much faster rate than in places like Afghanistan and South America,” said Alexandre Schmidt, the U.N. drug office’s representative for West and Central Africa. “When we become aware of trafficking routes in West Africa, the drug traffickers are already one step ahead.”

The U.N. launched a $50-million effort this year to train and outfit West African police, beginning with Sierra Leone.

“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.”

Stability first

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

The private Gulfstream jet from Venezuela swooped low over a sodden landscape marbled with chocolate-colored rivers and muddy roads, and landed at the forlorn little airport in Bissau.

No customs officers or immigration agents appeared because no flights were expected. The plane’s contents were unloaded into a convoy of Guinea-Bissau army vehicles as it was refueled. It took off again, but a problem with the landing gear forced the pilot to turn back. Three days later, a plane arrived with parts and a mechanic from Senegal. But the plane couldn’t be fixed.


Five days passed before the judicial police learned of the plane’s existence. By then, the plane was empty; even the flight recorder was gone. The army contended it had been carrying medicine for troops. International drug investigators, using dogs, concluded otherwise: The missing cargo was cocaine, 1,300 pounds, by the U.N.’s estimate.

The Gulfstream remains at the airport, parked next to the control tower. Its owner is listed as a holding company in Delaware, and a few months before it landed in Bissau it was photographed in Florida. The government may put it on the auction block.

As for the cocaine, it long ago disappeared into the countryside.