Tiny African Nation, Helpless to Fight Back, Is Overtaken by Drug Trade

It can be daunting to calculate what cocaine could cost Bissau and West Africa. Already, paradoxically, crack sells at $28 per gram here, eight dollars more than it might bring in Atlanta. That is the cruelty of drug economics: the stuff flourishes in communities too poor to buy, say, malarial medications. It is easy to imagine how drug trafficking could continue to spread here, given West Africa's unemployment, its urbanization, and its massive numbers of young people -- half the population here is under twenty. Bissau in particular appears breathtakingly vulnerable. Its only rehab center is run by an elderly priest.

Its police form no phalanx in the war on drugs, either. The country's border patrol wear t-shirts for want of uniforms. Its coast guard doesn't have ships.

"We can't even get to our own islands," Saad said of the country's 80 islands, 60 of which are uninhabited. "Go to the interior of this country and look at the commissariat of police. They don't even have a bicycle. You are in a country that doesn't have a plane, doesn't have a boat that can fight this battle.

"We organized an operation, one time," he added. "We did not even have the money to go buy the gas to go arrest the suspects."

Even if they'd nabbed their suspects -- no small task, as for a while they lacked handcuffs -- there is a second problem: where to detain them. Until last year, Guinea-Bissau had no prisons, just homes and police stations converted to detention centers. The two it received purpose-built by the UN last year can only jail 90 convicts.

"I'm sure they will put more in there," Pereira said.

That's already the pattern. Two years ago, Pereira added, a detention center received a prisoner it had no place to put: a woman. Cops jailed her in a spare office. She was perhaps lucky she stood out in a jail system whose wardens, until recently, didn't bother to take records.

"They had no registry, they didn't know why the prisoners were in there, how long, or even their names," Pereira said.

Still, there is something more fundamental lacking in this country than bicycles and jails: like electricity. The Dallas Cowboys' stadium sucks four times as much electricity as this entire Maryland-size nation musters. The country's legitimate economy is based on cashews, a crummy cash crop. Even cell phones -- so much in abundance in Africa -- have yet to reach the percent of Bissau's population they have elsewhere.

It almost goes without saying that this cocaine paradise could be rich by other means. Its continental shelf, the size of Massachusetts, remains one of the few that still offers a full catch in our overfished world and is the only one where saltwater hippos frolic. Bissau's soil is fertile and under-farmed. Its southern half sits on a streak of bauxite so flush that Angolans are constructing what they claim will be West Africa's deepest port in return for the mining rights. And Bissau's northern flank has been surveyed for decades on hints that it holds some commercially viable pool of oil -- although the oil remains unproven, as much a rumor as a resource.

"That's another thing Bissau is rich in," Pereira said. "Rumors."

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Drew Hinshaw is a reporter based in Dakar. He writes about West Africa. His writing has appeared in Bloomberg News and the Christian Science Monitor.

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