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GUINEA-BISSAU: African Paradise for South American Traffickers

Mario de Queiroz

LISBON, Aug 10 2007 (IPS) - Guinea-Bissau has become the first African narco-state, where South American traffickers have set up their headquarters and hideouts for large-scale cocaine smuggling operations into the European Union (EU).

The former Portuguese colony in West Africa is the fifth poorest country in the world, with a per capita income of just 856 dollars a year. Yet the country is awash with cash.

This flow of wealth is not benefiting the people, who have become used to seeing powerful and expensive vehicles in the streets of the capital, Bissau, and luxury mansions owned by people linked to the government, who mysteriously got rich overnight.

The basically unguarded coastline of this small country of 36,125 square kilometres and 1.5 million people has become the main stepping stone on cocaine’s long journey from Latin America’s Andean region to its destination in Portugal or Spain.

In response to allegations by activists and journalists of complicity between people in positions of power and the South American drug lords, President Joao Bernardo Vieira, Prime Minister Martinho Ndafa Cabi and Foreign Minister Maria da Conceiçao Nobre Cabral have only said that they are "prepared to fight the problem."

A report on the phenomenon by renowned Portuguese international analyst Ana Dias Cordeiro published by the Lisbon newspaper Público Thursday said the "shroud of silence" on drug trafficking in Guinea-Bissau has included threats and pressure on judges "not to investigate people involved in the drug trade."

"After two large seizures of cocaine in the country, in September 2006 and April 2007, all those apprehended, military and civilian, Guinean and foreigners, were released," wrote Dias Cordeiro.

She went on to point out that the chief of the judicial police, Orlando Antonio da Silva, who earned international praise for his efforts against the drug lords, was dismissed in June, and the 670 kilograms of cocaine captured in September 2006 vanished from the public building where it was stored for safe-keeping, after an "odd" episode in which the army intervened in the police operation.

In an interview with IPS, the president of the Guinean Social Solidarity Association, Fernando Ka, a former Socialist Party deputy in Portugal, said that the chronic violence that has afflicted Guinea-Bissau could resurface now, not because of a power struggle, "but as a result of the immense corruption of the political class, which is becoming ever wealthier."

The lawyer and activist, who holds dual Guinean and Portuguese nationality, said that "as long as there is no real development policy to generate wealth for a population that is inconceivably poor, it’s not surprising that international mafias with local accomplices proliferate, thus prolonging violence that seems to have no end."

In fact, since 1962 when armed rebellion against Portugal broke out, led by Guinean leader Amílcar Cabral, resulting in Guinea-Bissau’s independence in September 1973 (which was recognised by Portugal the following year), the country has enjoyed few moments of stability.

Dias Cordeiro said that exact quantities are unknown, but it is possible that some 800 kilograms of cocaine are arriving in Guinea-Bissau every night, brought by plane across the Atlantic Ocean. Interpol estimates that 300 tonnes of cocaine are trafficked through West Africa every year, most of it through Guinea-Bissau, en route to Portugal and Spain, the main entry points to the EU. According to Interpol, criminals from three continents participate in this vast operation: Africans, Latin Americans and Europeans

Guinea-Bissau is an ideal place for South American drug traffickers, many of whom are Colombian and Brazilian. They can operate at ease in a country where Portuguese is the official language, there is little infrastructure or properly functioning institutions, the coastline is mostly unguarded, and there are huge empty areas.

Document control is also perfunctory. The Latin Americans arrested in drug-related police operations in 2006 and 2007 were promptly freed because they were supposedly working for a (non-existent) fish processing company.

In Guinea-Bissau, traffickers land airplanes large enough to fly across the ocean and loaded with drugs, which continue on to Europe, the new big market for cocaine consumption.

Cocaine use has tripled in Europe in the last 10 years, in contrast to the diminishing consumption in the United States, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Guinean scientist and professor Aladje Baldé, head of the non-governmental organisation Plan International, said in an interview with a Portuguese newspaper that "drug traffickers found an ideal spot to transport drugs to Europe, using Guinea-Bissau as a springboard." These operations "involve many foreigners who live here; Latin Americans, especially Colombians, have a strong presence here, that has increased markedly over the past year," Baldé said.

At his swearing-in ceremony in April this year, Prime Minister Cabi promised to fight corruption and drug trafficking to try to restore his country’s damaged reputation.

But the problem "is continuing and even increasing," said Antonio Mazzitelli, the head of UNODC for West Africa, based in Dakar, Senegal, in an interview Thursday with Público.

"The available information appears to indicate that planes and ships continue to arrive and unload very significant cargoes (of drugs) in Guinea-Bissau," Mazzitelli said.

According to the UNODC official, drug seizures are only "the tip of the iceberg" of what is happening in Guinea-Bissau, because the drug trade puts "the very survival of the state at risk."

Mazzitelli said the situation is serious, "because more and more money is being generated by drugs, and as time goes by, the powerful mafias are infiltrating government mechanisms."

"We’re talking about a great deal of money, in a country lacking resources," he said.

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