Africa, Development & Aid, Europe, Headlines, Population

GUINEA-BISSAU: One Step from Becoming First African “Narco-State”

Mario de Queiroz

LISBON, Feb 1 2008 (IPS) - Guinea-Bissau is an ideal African springboard for Latin American mafias to smuggle large quantities of cocaine into the wealthy European Union market.

Conditions in this small former Portuguese colony in West Africa are optimal. There is minimal surveillance, not a single prison worthy of the name, a weak state and officials susceptible to bribery and corruption.

Guinea-Bissau is on the list of the world’s 20 poorest countries, with a per capita gross domestic product (GDP) of 700 dollars. The vast majority of its people are extremely poor and depend on subsistence farming and fishing.

The country unilaterally declared independence from Portugal in 1973, and was recognised as independent by Lisbon in 1974. It has an area of 36,000 square kilometres and a population of 1.5 million, and is plagued by frequent droughts and floods, as well as the ravages of infectious diseases.

Portuguese navigator Don Nuno Tristao anchored off its coast in 1446, and for centuries its people were preyed on by slave traders. Now it has become a paradise for drug traffickers who are drawn by its poverty, as well as its language.

Although the predominant native languages are Kriol, Fula, Manjaco and Mandinka, the lingua franca and official language is Portuguese, also spoken by Brazilian criminals and very similar to Spanish, spoken by Colombians.

According to the United Nations Office for West Africa, based in Senegal, Guinea-Bissau is about to become “the first African narco-state,” run by drug cartels as a transit country for a large proportion of the drugs heading from South America to the EU.

Most of the drugs are bound for Spain, the main receiver country for cocaine in Europe, according to a recent report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

At a donor conference in Lisbon in December, 6.8 million dollars were raised for preventive measures against drug trafficking in 2008, to be added to a UNODC programme worth 19.1 million dollars which is to run until 2010.

These amounts were considered “sufficient” by the Guinean Prime Minister Martinho Ndafa Cabi and Justice Minister Carmelita Pires, who assured the meeting in Portugal that the funds would be managed “properly.”

According to the UNODC representative in Senegal, Antonio Mazzitelli, at present over one ton a month of cocaine is seized in West African countries, whereas a few years ago there were no drug confiscations or arrests on record.

UNODC experts calculate that one-quarter of the cocaine consumed in Europe as a whole is trafficked through West Africa, especially Guinea-Bissau. The trade in cocaine is estimated at nearly two billion dollars, that is to say, nearly twice the country’s GDP of just over one billion dollars a year.

However, in the streets of the richest capital cities in Europe its value could be as high as 20 billion dollars, or 10 times as much.

Mazzitelli has repeatedly warned that the drug trafficking situation in Guinea-Bissau is critical, and that the country is on the verge of collapse. At the donor conference he said that the state “is incapable of ensuring sovereignty over the national territory in the face of drug trafficking and organised crime.”

“Today, Guinea-Bissau is literally fenced in. We must entertain no illusions: the state could collapse,” said Antonio María Costa, the head of UNODC, at the same time alleging that armed forces officers were suspected of collusion “and even involvement in drug trafficking.”

Costa maintains that South American traffickers chose Guinea-Bissau partly because of its “convenient” location in West Africa, but mainly because its authorities are incapable of combating organised crime.

He said it was “symptomatic” that nearly all drug seizures have been carried out in international waters by European naval vessels, not by Guinean forces, which are not equipped to patrol the seas and airspace.

However, nothing justifies Guinea-Bissau “suffering because of European vices,” said Costa, who called for “long term aid from the international community” because the government needs help to “recover sovereignty and the control of its borders.”

To this effect, Guinean Deputy Foreign Minister Roberto Cacheu and Spain’s Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos, who made a brief visit to Guinea Bissau on Jan. 27, signed a cooperation agreement on migration between the two countries with the aim of combating trafficking of persons.

The agreement includes security, border control and economic development. “It’s a historic agreement, which changes the shape of the fight against illegal immigration,” said Moratinos, at the end of his four-hour visit to the country.

Last month Candida Pinto, deputy editor of the Lisbon weekly Expresso, decided to take a hand in the matter of drug trafficking in Guinea-Bissau, returning to her former activity as a celebrated reporter and special envoy to conflict zones, which earned her great prestige over the last decade.

In the course of her detailed investigative work in the former Portuguese colony, she “found no Brazilians, but did run across several Colombians,” Pinto told IPS.

One of the Colombians was Juan Pablo Camacho, ostensible owner of a silver Jaguar and a black BMW, presumably armour-plated. He has a Spanish partner, Pedro Ortega, with whom he salvaged SOMEC, a cement importing and sales company ruined in 1998 by the civil war.

Camacho says that his wife and five children, who are still in Bogotá, will soon be arriving in Guinea Bissau, where he expects to live for the next few years. Meanwhile the Colombian businessman drives his BMW with a “Special Free Transit” sticker on the windshield, courtesy of the Guinean Interior Ministry.

Luis and Mauricio Mejía are two other Colombians identified by the reporter, and they also have management positions in SOMEC. Arms, ammunition and paralysing sprays were found on the company premises during a police raid.

Pinto pointed out that “Guinea-Bissau does not boast a single prison, Judicial Police resources are almost nil, the state is too weak, the population too poor, and the drug traffickers know all that.”

According to the Expresso deputy editor, the conclusion is clear: “Bissau became part of the new route for cocaine originating from Latin America and bound for Europe, when police surveillance in the North Atlantic increased.”

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