The Colombian Connection to Guinea-Bissau

Guinea-Bissau is a former Portuguese colony and one of the poorest countries in the world. Last week, Batista Tagme Na Waie, the Army Chief of Staff in the small West African country, was killed in a bomb blast. The next day, João Bernardo Vieira, the President of Guinea-Bissau, was shot and killed by members of the country's armed forces in a gangland execution style even as the Angolan Ambassador attempted to ferry the President and his family to the relative safety of the Angolan embassy.  While the country has long been unstable suffering numerous coup attempts (they have rarely been successful) and a civil war just a decade ago, the country has in the past few years become the first African narco-state.

Guinea-Bissau enjoys a strategic position on the west coast of Africa but not much else. On my visits to the country, they have forever been trying to master the art of plumbing without much success. The country has a 400-mile Atlantic coast dotted with mangrove swamps and inlets as well as a 90 island archipelago just off-shore. Its chronic instability, its Latin background (Portuguese is the official tongue), its obscurity and its topography make it an ideal transit point for cocaine shipments moving from Colombia to Europe.

Just two years ago, The Independent reported that Western intelligence sources describe the drug trade in Guinea-Bissau as "the worst drugs trafficking problem we've ever encountered on the [African] continent", and admit they have been blind-sided by the sheer scale of it. "The more we learn, the more we're shocked by the numbers involved. We've all been slow off the mark," said one top US Drug Enforcement Agency official in Europe.

Conservative estimates suggest monthly cocaine trans-shipments through this tiny former Portuguese colony on the West African coast are worth more than 10 times its gross annual national earnings, which mostly come from the export of unprocessed cashew nuts. The World Bank ranks Guinea-Bissau as the fifth poorest country in the world, yet flash cars with no plates brazenly cruise the streets of the crumbling capital, Bissau.

Western narcotics and intelligence agencies believe that up to two small twin-engine aircraft carrying up to 800kg of cocaine are landing on airstrips in Guinea- Bissau every night, having crossed the Atlantic from South America.

The drug trade has a pernicious effect on governance even in strong and stable countries. In a country with effectively no civil society to speak of, it can have devastating effects. A recent report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime clearly explains that “this is more than a drug problem. It is a threat to security”. And it goes on: “Drug money is perverting the weak economies in the region” and “they (the states) risk becoming shell-states: sovereign in name, but hollowed out from the inside by criminals in collusion with corrupt officials in the government and the security services”. It now appears that this double assassination is the result of an internal power struggle fueled by corruption that drug trade engenders. From the Christian Science Monitor:

While the bad blood between Army chief Gen. Tagme na Waie and President Joao Bernando Vieira goes back decades, tensions increased during the country's November 2008 elections, after General Waie accused President Vieira of involvement in the drug trade.

After a narrow escape from an assassination attempt in November, Waie publicly stated that the president wanted to get rid of him and was using his personal armed militia of 400 men to hunt him down.

"This recent set of killings can be explained [as] the action of the drug traffickers, who would not allow anything to get in the way or to obstruct their links with Europe," says David Zounmenou, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Tshwane, formerly known as Pretoria.

"Africans are very reluctant to call for external interventions," Dr. Zounmenou adds, noting that many African countries are still suspicious of Western countries, some of which were colonial rulers less than 50 years ago. "But drug trafficking is not a domestic matter anymore. It affects the stability of many countries, it affects systems of governance, and it allows groups to acquire weapons."

Guinea Bissau has few tools to tackle much less stop drug trafficking. The country has one rusting vessel that it calls a navy. It has no air force. Roads outside the capital are non-existent. Travel is largely by motor launch through mosquito infested mangrove swamps. The country's lack of a water and sanitation infrastructure turns deadly every year, as the rainy season brings cholera to Guinea-Bissau. Only some 20 percent of residents of the capital city, Bissau, have irregular access to tap water, according to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF). More than half the rural population get their water from rivers or unprotected wells. Even electricity is fleeting at best. Infant mortality stands at 119 per 1,000 live births, and malaria, acute respiratory infections, diarrhea and malnutrition remain the major killers of children. Life expectancy in 2006 was 46 years. It's a brutal place forgotten by all but now discovered by Colombian drug cartels.

In an op-ed last week in the Wall Street Journal, John Walters, the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George W. Bush, talked of the consequences of the drug trade and if we dared to legalize it we would be making the situation worse. I fail to see how the current prohibition stance does anything but cause chronic destabilization of country after country where the drug trade ensnares political and civil society. Guinea-Bissau is far off, remote and sparsely populated with endemically poor people. To American policy makers, Guinea-Bissau matters little.

However on our southern border is another country that has become a major transit point for Colombian drugs. And that problem began to really rear its ugly head in 2008 to the tune of over 6,000 drug-related murders and increasing corruption. Corruption in Mexico is nothing new and American policy makers accusing Mexico of not tackling corruption seriously is also nothing new. What is new the President of Mexico, Felipe Calderon, hitting back in an interview with Agence France Press.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon hit back at accusations his government is failing in the fight against violent drug cartels, saying that corruption in the United States is also to blame.

With murders among feuding Mexican drug cartels on the rise and continued ravenous demand for cocaine and other illegal drugs north of the border, Calderon said the United States should take a hard look at itself before pointing the finger at anyone else.

"The main cause of the problems associated with organized crime is having the world's biggest consumer next to us," Calderon said in an interview with AFP.

"Drug trafficking in the United States is fueled by the phenomenon of corruption on the part of the American authorities," he said, calling on US President Barack Obama to step up the fight against drugs in his own country.

Calderon admitted some Mexican officials had helped cartels, but urged the United States to consider how many of its officials have been implicated.

"I want to know how many American officials have been prosecuted for this," he said, listing a string of prosecutions made against Mexican police officers and government officials during his administration.

"It is not an exclusively Mexican problem, it is a common problem between Mexico and the United States," he said.

Although cocaine is largely produced in South America, Mexican cartels control much of the multi-billion-dollar trade, transporting the drug to consumers in the United States.

Since taking office in late 2006, Calderon has launched a wide-ranging crackdown on drug cartels, often with bloody repercussions, as cartels hit back with ever-higher levels of violence and intimidation.

Mexican cities on the US border have suffered the brunt of the violence, prompting concerns in Washington that the killings and attacks could spill over the border.

Some 5,300 people were murdered in drug violence across Mexico in 2008. Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, Texas, was worst hit, with more than 1,600 drug-related deaths reported.

Top US military official Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is due in Mexico later this week as Washington prepares to step up military and other assistance to tackle the heavily armed cartels.

"One of the things he expects to talk to his counterparts in Mexico and other officials about is the growing violence and growing threat with regard to narco-trafficking and the drug cartels," Captain John Kirby, spokesman for Mullen, also told AFP on Wednesday.

Mexico's ill-equipped police and security forces are often out-gunned by the well-armed gangs.

Latin American leaders are proposing a review of the American strategy of prohibition, eradication and interdiction that has not worked. At the very least, the President should hear them out.

[Update] From Colombia's Semana:
Colombian citizens have not only established themselves in West Africa. They have also started to get involved with close relatives of leaders of those states. According to the French newspaper Journal du Dimanche, the son of Lansana Conté, the president of Guinea (Conakry) who died in December, admitted belonging to a drug network “directly linked with Colombia”. Many Colombians have also begun to appear in the criminal records of countries across West Africa. In 2006, three were captured in Guinea-Bissau. Three more were stopped in Sierra Leone when the local police found 600 kilos of drugs in an aeroplane. Four were detained in Togo, among them Jorge Cortés Solano, whose extradition to the US was recently authorized by the Togolese government. The reason behind the presence of Colombians and Latin Americans in West Africa is clear: that part of the world has become a major transit hub for drugs that are transported from Latin America to fill the European markets. Colombia produces 80 percent of cocaine worldwide (about 600 tonnes) and around 240 of those tonnes are sent to Europe, which has a growing demand of cocaine and a strong currency, two elements that attract drug dealers. And since police patrolling in the Caribbean, in Central America and in the Pacific Ocean has become increasingly stronger, gangs willing to smuggle cocaine from countries like Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil have had to make the most of different routes. That is why West Africa, a region with low governance, a lot of corruption, many tiny isles in the Gulf of Guinea (ideal for hiding the shipments) and relatively close to Europe, has become an ideal stopping point for smugglers who travel from South America across the Atlantic Ocean, which is ultimately the shortest geographical crossing over the ocean. One fact shows how immense the problem is: 99 percent of all drugs found in Africa since 2003 appeared in the Western part of the continent.

Drugs always take the path of least resistance.

[Update] The story in today's UK Guardian.
The seizure of West Africa by Colombian and other drug cartels has happened with lightning speed. Since 2003, 99 per cent of all drugs seized in Africa have been found in West Africa. Between 1998 and 2003, the total quantity of cocaine seized each year in Africa was around 600kg. But by 2006, the figure had risen five-fold and during the first nine months of last year had already reached 5.6 tonnes. The latest seizure, from a Liberian ship - Blue Atlantic - intercepted by the French navy last month, was 2.4 tonnes of pure cocaine. But while seizure rates globally are estimated to be 46 per cent of total traffic, the amounts found in West Africa are 'the tip of the iceberg', says UNODC. Even though one recent raid in Guinea-Bissau netted 635kg of cocaine, the traffickers were thought to have still made off with a further two tonnes. The street value of the drugs trafficked far exceeds gross national product. A quarter of all cocaine consumed in Western Europe is trafficked through West Africa, according to UNOCD, for a local wholesale value of $1.8bn and a retail value of 10 times that in Europe. Nigerian drug gangs have always been an energetic presence on the global trafficking scene, but the target of the South American traffickers have been the 'failed states' along the Gold Coast, where poverty is extreme, where society has been ravaged by war and the institutions of state can be easily bought off - so that instead of enforcement, there is collusion. And no more so than Guinea-Bissau, whose weakness makes it a trafficker's dream prey. In Guinea-Bissau, says the UNODC, the value of the drugs trade is greater than the national income. 'The fact of the matter,' says the Consultancy Africa Intelligence agency, is that without assistance, Guinea-Bissau is at the mercy of wealthy, well-armed and technologically advanced narcotics traffickers.'
I must admit that my compatriots do get around.
Estimates vary as to the cogency of the Colombian presence, but one observer suggests there are as many as 60 Colombian drugs traffickers in Guinea-Bissau. Colombians have bought local businesses, including factories and warehouses, and built themselves large homes protected by armed guards. They and their local hired help flaunt their liberty to operate - and the money they make from doing so. 'We can see these people walking in complete freedom. They are parading their wealth. They're showing it completely openly,' says Jamel Handem, of a coalition of civic groups called Platform GB. Guinea-Bissau's armed forces and some politicians are thought to be deeply involved in the drugs trade. Last year, two military personnel were detained along with a civilian in a vehicle carrying 635kg of cocaine. The army secured the soldiers' release and so far there is no sign that they will face charges.
A ton of cocaine a day moves through Guinea-Bissau. And yet the police there have few cars, no gasoline, no radios, handcuffs or phones. T-I-A. This is Africa.

Tags: Drug Trade, Mexico, US Africa Policy, US-Latin American Relations (all tags)


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