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

Lacking boats, planes, or for a while even handcuffs, Guinea-Bissau can do little against the flow of cocaine that moves in from South America and out to Europe


People gather around a speedboat of a type believed to be used by drug traffickers, as it unloads cargo at a quay in Bissau/AP

BISSAU, Guinea-Bissau -- It's hard to say which is more sorely lacking in Guinea-Bissau, the Portuguese-speaking nation on Africa's Atlantic coast: Information -- reliable information -- or the roof on the country's presidential mansion. A hilltop six-column colonial villa overlooking the cobblestone capital, O Palácio Presidencial was bombed hollow in the 1999 civil war that drubbed government buildings, gutted the economy by 27 percent, littered behind enough landmines for every tenth citizen to step on one, and reduced Bissau's democracy to a hostage of the bloated, 4,500-soldier army unafraid of staging afternoon coups. There is a saying: Roof is the first casualty of war. Truth was Bissau's second.

This marshland, according to a growing body of research, serves as crossroads of Africa's drug trade, an unsurprising charge against a government that lacks the capacity or care to lay down shingles, let alone the law. The trade, a four-continent-crossing caravan of cocaine and weaponry, is frightening for the hush with which unregistered planes and boats swap contraband in such impenetrable landscapes as Bissau's bayou before disappearing into the Sahara. It is even more distressing for the amount of cocaine analysts say increasingly sticks around as locally-sold crack.

Still, the specifics of the trade are largely guesswork -- rumors. Depending on who you ask (or when), the amount of cocaine that transits this poorly policed region has either doubled, flatlined, or fallen by half in recent years. A country like Bissau is either the last border Afghanistan's heroin crosses before it flies to America -- or has never seen the stuff.

The United Nations, yesterday, announced that 35 tons of cocaine from Latin America arrived to West Africa in 2009, a drop from the 47 tons that came through in 2008. But Alexandre Schmidt, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Representative who announced those figures, said the amount hasn't actually dropped: drug cartels are just likely using submarines, and it's hard to guess the amounts that cross beneath the sea. Whatever the amount, the UN estimates that the value of cocaine that crossed through Bissau in 2007 was "much greater" than the government's entire national income: a paltry $304 million, or about the sum Warner Bros. will spend to produce "Green Lantern." It's little wonder, then, how completely drug trafficking has come to dominate Guinea-Bissau.

The country's penchant for conflicting narratives and suspiciously unsolved crime goes beyond drugs. In 2009, somebody murdered the president, João Bernardo Vieira, either by bullets, a machete, or magic. The suspected culprits are army generals who also work for drug cartels, yet none have faced justice, either because the FBI stopped helping Bissau with the case, because the attorney general is too scared to proceed, because the crime scene was compromised, or because it remains taboo to exhume and autopsy a corpse in this somewhat animist nation. The admired police chief retired last month -- either because of death threats, or because it was time for someone new. And the roof? It's to be rebuilt -- either by the Chinese or the Portuguese.

However brackish the mix of rumor and reportage that drowns this country, this much is sure about Africa and her place in the world: Just as the world's second-largest continent is increasingly important to Wall Street, China, Google, and investment banks, so it is to globalization's shadier acts, the drug cartels, weapons smugglers, sex slave traffickers, and al-Qaeda. There is money to be scooped up by the planeload out here. Consider the math: Europe's demand for South American cocaine doubled in the past ten years, according to the United Nations. You don't have to be Alfred Wegener to figure out which continent floats between the two.

Nor, on an afternoon in Bissau, do you need be a narc to pinpoint who in this subsistence economy of 1.7 million mostly poor people wades necklace-deep in the drug trade. Remove the smog-coughing buses -- minivans painted like yellow submarines -- and the city streets are a parade of brand news Benzes with no license plates skirting around NGO 4x4s. Then there's the nightlife. Last year, a local discothèque threw a multi-day party it advertised as "Weekend for the Drug Traffickers."

"They closed down the streets, et cetera, brought out all the big cars that you see in the movies," the nation's Attorney General Amine Michel Saad told me. "We sent in the police."

The police, however, are neither this country's solution nor its problem. Bissau's open secret is that its drug traffickers and generals wear the same berets, drive the same big cars. The U.S. Treasury, in its formal documentation, actually used the word "kingpin" to describe Bissau's navy and air force leaders when it sanctioned both last year for trafficking cocaine by boat and plane.

"We know that it's happening," Manuel de Almeida Pereira, the local Legal Officer for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime said. "There was a seizure in 2007 of 634 kilos that was seized by the judiciary police, and taken on request of the general prosecutor's office into the safes of the public treasury."

"The next day," he added, "it disappeared."

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."