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Tiny Guinea-Bissau has big role in drug smuggling, and seems likely to keep it

Last year, as children played on the beach of this tropical island, splashing in the ocean and kicking soccer balls through makeshift goals in the sand, a small turboprop plane flew overhead, drowning out conversations below with the steady hum of its engine.

Calvario Ahukharie, the head of Interpol in Guinea-Bissau, had been resting in the shade while sipping wine from a plastic cup. He looked up.

Another drug plane, Ahukharie recently recalled thinking. Another criminal turning my country into a cocaine warehouse.

Guinea-Bissau, on the west coast of Africa, is one of the smallest and poorest countries in the world, but it has a big claim to fame: It’s become a key hub for South American drug traffickers looking to make a few hundred million dollars a year shipping their goods to Europe via West Africa.

As a way station, it is ideal, just a four-hour flight from Brazil, with dozens of unpopulated islands for drug-bearing planes to land. And it is virtually risk free. Other than the underfunded Interpol office, Western police agencies, including the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, don’t have much of a presence. More importantly, the country’s military is known to be deeply involved in the drug trade, guaranteeing that even if a shipment is detected, police intervention is useless.

Indeed, protecting the drug trade is thought to have been one of the primary motives behind a military coup here last month that saw the army take control of the nation just two weeks ahead of a presidential runoff election. The target of the coup, former Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Jr., had been widely expected to win the presidency and had promised to approve internationally backed plans to downsize the bloated and unwieldy military and put an end to the drug traffickers’ payoffs that privates and officers alike have come to rely on.

Gomes, whose house was ransacked by soldiers, was arrested April 12 along with interim President Raimundo Pereira. They were held incommunicado for two weeks before an outraged international community pressured the military to release them.

Nonetheless, coup leaders still control the country, the government has ceased functioning, hundreds have fled the capital, and some Western organizations have pulled out their staffs. Food prices are increasing and gas stations are operating intermittently. The military says it wants to form a civilian transition government, but it doesn’t want Gomes or Pereira to participate.

Which means Guinea-Bissau’s role in the drug trade is unlikely to end anytime soon. Many politicians are suspected of being on the take.

“All the problems in Guinea-Bissau are because of drug trafficking,” Lucinda Gomes Barbosa, the former head of the country’s anti-narcotics police, said in her first interview since leaving the agency last year. “There are people in high positions in government who are benefiting from this. They only think about money. They fight each other so that the drug trafficking can continue and they don’t think about the problems that it creates in the country.”

Ahukharie, the Interpol official, said the plane he watched fly over while he was vacationing proved the point. When he sought to inspect it after it landed on a rugged island runway, the island’s governor refused him permission.

“It’s like open war,” Ahukharie said. "These kinds of things are frustrating because you have no strong will from the politicians.”

In a country where nearly seven out of 10 people live on less than $2 a day and 85 percent of the population survives mostly by farming, the spectacular wealth generated by the cocaine trade makes it easy for cartels to buy the loyalty of soldiers and public officials – who sometimes go for months without a government paycheck . Higher-level officials might demand more, but their cut is easily within the traffickers’ budget.

Analysts say soldiers have come to see drug money as a right – much like police officers here expect small bribes to subsidize their meager wages.

At one point, the United Nations estimated that 40 tons of cocaine valued at $1.8 billion was moving through West Africa each year – much of it through Guinea-Bissau. Others estimated it was 300 tons a year. By comparison, Guinea-Bissau’s annual economic output is less than $900 million.

Those taking drug money have proven they’ll stop at nothing to stay in power. Assassinations, political arrests, torture, death threats and mass bribery are all fair game. Some believe the nearly simultaneous killings of the country’s president and army chief in March 2009, crimes that have yet to solved, were linked to drug-trafficking disputes.

“The result is a political process intensely focused on self-interest and survival rather than political, social or economic development, making government and military officials particularly vulnerable to the temptation of narcotics-fueled corruption,” a U.S. diplomat reported to the State Department in 2009, according to a cable made public last year by the WikiLeaks Website.

The battle for control of the drug trade is continuous. In December, Adm. Jose Americo Bubo na Tchuto, a former navy chief whom the U.S. has labeled a drug kingpin, was arrested by his former ally, armed forces Chief of Staff Gen. Antonio Indjai. The charge was masterminding an earlier coup attempt that failed, but Guinean officials here say the arrest had more to do with a dispute between the two men over a recent drug drop. Now, Indjai is accused of orchestrating last month’s coup.

Before 2004, hardly any cocaine came through West Africa. But as authorities increasingly cracked down on direct shipments from Latin America to Europe – where the drug’s popularity was growing rapidly – cartels began looking for alternative routes.

Guinea-Bissau was the perfect transit point. The country had been unstable for decades: None of its elected presidents have completed a five-year term since the country gained independence from Portugal in 1974.

And with a sprinkling of 88 lush, forested islands dotting its coast – most of them uninhabited and perfect for stashing drugs – the country became “drug traffickers’ destination of choice,” according to the 2009 diplomatic cable. Many Latin American “businessmen” began migrating here, settling into gated villas with private security guards.

The cartels began shipping the cocaine across the Atlantic by boat or small planes equipped with extra fuel tanks. The boats unloaded the drugs before reaching shore, and smaller boats ferried the cargo to land; the planes landed on airstrips monitored only by the military. From Guinea-Bissau, the cocaine was smuggled north into Spain via well-established sea- and land-trafficking routes, or through human mules who ingest one or two kilograms of the drug in tiny packets before catching commercial flights into Europe.

For the first few years, traffickers operated in the open. They cruised the battered streets of the capital in shinny Hummers, weaving between dilapidated taxis held together by duct tape and “toka-toka” transport vans crammed full of passengers. One local disco reportedly threw a “Party for Drug Traffickers.” Inexplicably, foreign currency deposits increased nearly fivefold in just a few years, from about $2.3 million to about $11 million, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

From 2005 to 2007, authorities in West Africa seized at least 33 tons of cocaine bound for Europe. Prior to that, they usually intercepted less than 1 ton per year. Based solely on statistics, it appears that drug trafficking through West Africa peaked in 2007, when the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimated that 25 percent of Europe’s cocaine came through West Africa.

In the last few years, the amount of cocaine seized in Africa has decreased dramatically – from 5,535 kilograms in 2007 to 956 kilograms in 2009, according to the most recent United Nations report. Though there are many theories for what caused the decrease, the United Nations and several analysts say it may simply mean traffickers have found new ways to avoid detection.

Guinea-Bissau hardly has a functioning police and justice system, making anti-drug officers’ jobs nearly impossible. The few high-ranking officials who have fought corruption are often threatened. Judges and politicians constantly throw up roadblocks, either because they’ve been bribed or they fear the military themselves. Police lack basic resources like cars, fuel and steady paychecks.

Barbosa, the former head of Guinea-Bissau’s Judicial Police – something akin to the FBI and the DEA – left her job last May, saying she’d grown tired of the military harassing her and her agents.

She offered three examples of how she and her predecessor, who resigned for similar reasons in 2008, tried unsuccessfully to arrest drug traffickers.

In September 2006, the Judicial Police seized 674 kilograms of cocaine after arresting two Colombians in Bissau, the capital. But heavily armed soldiers demanded the police release the suspects and the drugs. The cocaine disappeared and the Colombians, released on bail, fled the country.

In April 2007, the Judicial Police seized 635 kilograms of cocaine and arrested two Colombians, as well as two military officers. The Colombians were released on bail. The officers, after being turned over to the military, were never punished.

In July 2008, a private jet from Venezuela landed in the capital’s airport with more than 500 kilograms of cocaine. The military unloaded the drugs before the Judicial Police could inspect the plane.

“The justice system has so far failed to finalize any investigation or trial against any of the serious drug traffickers,” said Vincent Foucher, a researcher based in Dakar with the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based organization that studies conflicts. “There have been a few convictions, but only small-time traffickers who swallowed some drugs – none of the big ones. They were all released and vanished into thin air.”

There isn’t much optimism that the drug influence will soon disappear here. With few economic opportunities for the country’s 1.6 million people, there’s little hope for earning a legitimate living.

“The country is not stable because of poverty,” Ahukharie said. “That’s why people are easily manipulated and led astray.”