Despite being named Africa’s first “narco-state” for over a decade now, Guinea-Bissau has failed to contain its role in the international drugs trade, and shipments of cocaine from Latin America are continuing to come across the Atlantic.
In early September, the country’s police seized 1.8 tons of cocaine hidden in flour bags and arrested eight people, including three Colombians. This was the second time in six months Guinea-Bissau broke its own record for the largest haul of cocaine in its history.
In March, the government’s criminal police stopped a truck carrying frozen fish and found almost 800 kilograms of cocaine hidden in the bottom. The previous record, of 650 kilograms, was set in 2007.
It is believed these drugs would have found their way to markets in Europe, with the most recent seizure having a street value of between $65 million and $90 million.
José Mário Vaz, the country’s president until he was removed from office in June, has said that Guinea-Bissau’s “big war” is against the drug trade. It is a war he admits is difficult to fight.
“We don’t have airplanes, we don’t have boats, we lack the radars that would give us control over our … economic zone,” he told United Nations representatives in March.
The connection between Colombia and Guinea-Bissau is not new. In 2013, emissaries from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia — FARC) were arrested in the West African country.
And Colombian traffickers were reportedly able to live in luxury around the capital, Bissau, with virtual impunity.
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The increased volume of cocaine passing through Guinea-Bissau reflects two tough realities. Firstly, despite an increase in political stability since a coup d’etat in 2012, the country’s establishment does not have the resources to deal with the drug crisis.
For example, alarming discrepancies have occurred between the quantity of drugs reportedly being seized by the government and the estimated volume moving through the country. According to interviews carried out by the Global Initiative Against Organized Crime, “no less than 30 tons” of cocaine moves through Guinea-Bissau each year, partly bound for Islamic terrorist networks.
Furthermore, links between political leaders, the army and drug traffickers remain controversial.
Following the 2012 coup, the New York Times reported that the military’s takeover might have happened in order to allow more drugs to come through the country. Planes and ships carrying cocaine soared in Guinea-Bissau in the months following the coup.
A former cabal of top politicians, including three-time former president João Bernardo “Nino” Vieira, was alleged to have been directly involved in the drug trade from Colombia. Vieira’s assassination in 2009 is thought to have been due to a dispute over drug trafficking.
The few arrests of top officials have also not been convincing. The most high-profile arrest to date came in 2013 when a former head of Guinea-Bissau’s navy, José Américo Bubo Na Tchuto, was arrested by US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents posing as members of Colombia’s FARC guerrilla movement. He had allegedly charged traffickers $1 million for each ton of cocaine passing through Guinea-Bissau. By 2016, despite being sentenced to four years in jail in the United States, Na Tchuto was free.
Secondly, a boom in cocaine production in Colombia has seen drug shipments increase around the world. Locations as far-flung such as the Pacific islands of Fiji and Tonga, once only blips on international cocaine routes, are now grappling with increasing quantities of the drug arriving on their shores.
Despite this bleak outlook, there may be some hope for progress in Guinea-Bissau. The most recent seizure in September has triggered a rapid international response. The government requested help from Interpol, which dispatched a team to assist in the investigation in Guinea-Bissau, while police officers also traveled from Brazil and Colombia.
The UN Security Council also recently extended its peacekeeping mandate in the country, with a specific focus on fighting drug trafficking.
This continued international support to a government which is at least willing to admit the scale of the problem is a step in the right direction.
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