On the tarmac of Osvaldo Vieira, the international airport of the West African coastal country of Guinea-Bissau, sits a once-elegant Gulfstream jet, which in the normal course of events would have no reason to land in a country with no business opportunities and virtually no economy. In recent years, however, Guinea-Bissau has emerged as a nodal point in three-way cocaine-trafficking operations linking producers in South America with users in Europe; the value of the cocaine that transits this small and heartbreakingly impoverished country dwarfs its gross national product. The Gulfstream arrived unexpectedly from Venezuela on July 12, 2008, and taxied to a hangar at the adjacent military airbase — where soldiers formed a line and unloaded its contents. The contents, reportedly more than a half-ton of cocaine, vanished. The crew was arrested and released. The army permitted the government to impound the plane only after several days. Since then, the plane has sat in the harsh sun, a reminder of Guinea-Bissau’s helplessness before forces far more powerful than itself.
The most evident of those forces are South American crime syndicates with billions of dollars at their disposal and new markets to explore. But the dynamic before which Guinea-Bissau and its neighbors along the West African coast are truly helpless is globalization, which ensures that producers will find a way to deliver all things insatiably desired, whether good or bad. West Africa, which neither produces nor consumes significant quantities of cocaine, is a victim of changes in global supply and demand. Partly because of heightened American and South American efforts in recent years, the flow of cocaine to the United States diminished. Traffickers increasingly turned to Europe, where cocaine use grew significantly over the last decade. European law-enforcement officials responded by cracking down on air and maritime routes from South America. And the traffickers in turn adapted by establishing the West Africa connection.
Just as the efficient marketplaces of the world’s financial capitals serve as the nexus for global trade, so ungoverned or remote places offer an indispensable service for global criminals. And West Africa includes 10 of the 20 lowest scorers on the United Nations’ index of development; governments are correspondingly brittle and corrupt. Guinea-Bissau furnished grim proof of the region’s political frailty a week and a half ago, when mutinous soldiers overthrew the army chief of staff, whom Western officials had viewed as a bulwark in the fight against drug trafficking. Guinea-Bissau and its neighbors offer to South American drug traffickers what the impenetrable terrain of the Hindu Kush offers to Al Qaeda and the Taliban — a place beyond the reach of law. The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime estimated that 40 tons of cocaine, with a street value of $1.8 billion, crossed West Africa on the way to Europe in 2006. The number has now dropped significantly, but many law-enforcement officials view this as a pause before further adaptation.
In the last few years, West African states began to wake up to the dangers of the drug trade, which is swamping their tiny economies and corrupting — or further corrupting — their politics. American and European leaders have, if belatedly, become equally alarmed: the U.N. Security Council has recognized drug trafficking as a threat to international peace and security. Last summer, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held hearings on the subject. Douglas Farah, a former investigative journalist who now studies crime and terrorism at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, a research institution in Alexandria, Va., testified that criminal organizations and terrorists “use the same pipelines, the same illicit structures and exploit the same state weaknesses.” Such organizations are increasingly converging and even forming “hybrid” bodies like the FARC in Colombia. Farah predicted the emergence of such groupings in West Africa “in the very near future”; they may, he added, already exist. So far, however, the international community has found it as frustrating to stem the flow of cocaine through West Africa as it has to root out jihadists in North Waziristan.
According to U.N. reports, as well as American law-enforcement and intelligence officials, cocaine crosses the Atlantic from South America either in small planes, including Cessna turboprops outfitted with an extra bladder of fuel, or in commercial fishing vessels or cargo ships. The drugs are then transported in bulk along one of several routes. Some are taken to the international airports in Dakar, Senegal and Accra, Ghana or elsewhere, where they are generally swallowed in relatively small amounts by couriers and flown to European cities. Other shipments are transported northward by truck or carried overland across ancient smuggling routes before crossing the Mediterranean into southern Europe. The African couriers and crime syndicates are often paid in “product,” which has the additional effect of creating a local market for cocaine.
Alexandre Schmidt, head of the U.N. drug office in West Africa, says he was struck by the astonishing nimbleness of the traffickers, who seem to pick up and discard routes and countries spontaneously. Nigerian gangs have begun to assert more control over the front end of the process and also increasingly dominate — and profit from — the delivery of the drugs to Europe, whether by sea or air. Schmidt says that while the traffickers route drugs through the weakest states, they take advantage of the stronger ones, like Senegal and Ivory Coast, for logistics and money laundering.
Trafficking patterns have begun to evolve in frightening directions. Last summer, authorities in Guinea, a country neighboring Guinea-Bissau that is widely viewed as a virtual narco state, alerted the U.N. drug office to elaborate laboratories and a vast cache of “precursor” chemicals, which could have been used to manufacture as much as $170 million worth of the drug Ecstasy, as well as to refine cocaine. In November, an old Boeing 727, which had taken off in Colombia, crossed West African airspace and touched down on an airstrip controlled by terrorist groups in the desert of Mali. The plane was almost certainly carrying cocaine and perhaps guns as well; no one knows, since the cargo was unloaded before the plane was burned. Late last year, in a separate case, federal prosecutors in New York indicted three Malian men who they say had promised to transport drugs across the desert in league with Al Qaeda, which would serve as the security arm of the operation; officials said one of the men is caught on tape claiming that he regularly supplied extremist forces with gasoline and food.
Bissau, the capital of Guinea-Bissau, is among the most pitiful of African capitals. On my first morning in town, I walked over to the harbor, where the elegant Portuguese villas along the water had turned black with mold. Back in the center of town — a distance of three blocks — I peeked into the Mercado Central, which looked like an archaeological ruin, with concrete pillars standing in a wasteland; it burned down years before. Scarcely anything has been built since the independence movement finished forcing out the Portuguese in 1974 (not that the Portuguese did much to develop the country, any more than they did in Angola or Mozambique). Vendors selling fruit and palm oil and cheap hardware lined the streets, as they would in any provincial African town. Swarms of children in filthy T-shirts thrust forward empty tin cans, crying “esmola” — alms. Everyone seemed to be hungry.
Guinea-Bissau has fertile soil, and it enjoys the intrinsic advantage of an Atlantic coastline. But generations of colonial neglect have been followed by decades of sovereign neglect. Coups and attempted coups are a regular feature of its brief history. President João Bernardo Vieira, ousted in 1999, was permitted to return in 2005, a period that coincided with the first stirrings of the three-cornered drug trade. Vieira and elements of the military swiftly established links with the traffickers. Geography conspired as well, for the roughly 90 islands of the Bijagós of Guinea-Bissau provided the perfect drop-off point for drug shipments. Antonio Mazzitelli, Schmidt’s predecessor at the U.N. drug office, says Guinea-Bissau sold narcotraffickers access to several islands in the Bijagós; the country’s minister of justice at that time suggested to him that the international community secure islands of its own as a counterstrategy.
Guinea-Bissau offered proximity to Europe, a purchasable state structure, a desperate citizenry and a hopelessly overmatched police force. The Judiciary Police numbered a few dozen and had no vehicles and few weapons, handcuffs, flashlights — a serious problem in a capital with no streetlights — or even shoes. Their prison consisted of a few locked rooms with barred windows in their headquarters on the road leading out of the capital. Corruption was rife. And yet they made some spectacular arrests. Jorge Djata, the deputy chief of the drug squad, told me that in September 2006, he received word of a shipment of drugs coming into Bissau from a town to the northwest. He and several colleagues jumped into one of the rattletrap Mercedes taxis that ply the city’s streets, followed the car to a house rented by Colombians and took them by surprise. The haul was 674 kilograms, or nearly 1,500 pounds, of cocaine with a street value of about $50 million.
What happened next, however, defines the problems of law enforcement in countries like Guinea-Bissau even more than does the lack of shoes and guns and cars. Djata and his colleagues took the three Colombians and the drugs to their headquarters. Then, Djata says: “We got a call from the prime minister’s office saying that we must yield up the drugs to the civil authorities. They said the drugs would not be secure in police headquarters, and they must be taken to the public treasury.” A squad of heavily armed Interior Ministry police surrounded the building. Djata said his boss replied, “We will bring the drugs ourselves, and then we will burn them.” Government officials refused. Djata and his men relented, and the drugs were taken to the public treasury. And soon, of course, they disappeared — as did the Colombians.
The high-ranking military officials who coordinated the arrival and unloading of the Gulfstream in 2008 were never charged, and the case was closed for lack of evidence. Ansumane Sanhá, who served until recently as one of three magistrates investigating drug cases, told me that South American dealers were frequently issued Guinea-Bissau passports. They drove around the dusty, pitted streets of Bissau in Hummers and Jaguars. The parliamentary elections of November 2008, though generally deemed fair by international observers, were viewed by the Bissau-Guineans themselves as a raucous bidding war. “The streets were full of 4-by-4 cars,” recalls Luís Vaz Martins, the president of a local nongovernmental organization, the Human Rights League of Guinea-Bissau. “The parties would give cars to any influential man. I’ve never seen so many members of Parliament who were drug dealers.” Vaz Martins says the dealers scrambled for cabinet posts, above all the ministries of interior and fisheries. Why fisheries? “This is the most important,” Vaz Martins explains. “The drugs come by plane, and they’re dropped into the sea, and if you’re the minister of fisheries, you can send boats to pick them up.” The navy had a few boats as well, used for the same purpose. The police, of course, had no boats.
Guinea-Bissau seems hopelessly afflicted with bad government. On the evening of March 1, 2009, the army chief of staff, Gen. Batista Thagme Na Waie, was assassinated in an explosion. Hours later, President Vieira was hacked to death. Vieira may have had Thagme killed; or the murder may have been carried out by drug dealers who felt double-crossed. Soldiers loyal to Thagme appear to have killed the president in revenge, though some speculate that forces in the military were responsible for both assassinations. Neither murder has been solved or is likely to be. The killings eliminated at a stroke two of Guinea-Bissau’s founding fathers as well as two of its most notorious figures. Trafficking dropped in the aftermath, possibly because drug lords no longer knew who could guarantee their security. Thagme was replaced by Gen. José Zamora Induta, an intellectual respected for his integrity. In July, Malam Bacai Sanhá, another figure then believed to have no known ties to trafficking, was elected president. But the recent coup may have dashed all hopes for reform. Not only was Induta deposed, but mutinous soldiers also liberated from a U.N. office a notorious naval official who had once been forced to flee the country after allegations of drug corruption. That figure, Adm. José Américo Bubo na Tchuto, is now the new deputy chief of staff.
During my visit — before the coup, of course — senior government officials assured me that all the bad things were in the past. The justice minister, Mamadou Saliu Djalo Pires, whom international enforcement officials view as one of their key allies, said, “The new cabinet is very conscious of the problem of impunity.” He said prosecutors were working on indictments in the Gulfstream case; high-ranking military officials would be brought to justice. In fact, the military still essentially controls Guinea-Bissau, and few believe that General Induta exercised real control over senior officers. Nevertheless, the international community felt at the time that it finally had partners it could work with and had been lining up with offers of equipment and training. While I was in town, the French ambassador held a ceremony to hand over to the police three new 4-by-4 vehicles, worth about $70,000. The United Nations drug office held a daylong workshop with officials representing Portugal, Spain, the European Union and other countries, as well as key domestic enforcement figures.
The police have a new headquarters in a converted colonial-era structure with pillared galleries. They have computers, courtesy of the U.N. drug office. Stacks of filing cabinets from a company in Muscatine, Iowa, still in their shrink wrap, were sitting next to the driveway when I arrived. Sixty new recruits were recently trained in Brazil, bringing the total force to about 180; one member of the force told me that they were now being paid about $100 a month — and, more important, actually receiving their wages. The U.N. drug office had agreed to pay for fuel for the new fleet of cars and motorbikes. Still, the day I visited, the computer terminals, like the filing cabinets, were sitting in plastic covers, and I had the strong impression they hadn’t been used. It was 3 in the afternoon on Friday, and most of the squad had knocked off for the weekend.
The advent of a seemingly more progressive administration didn’t appear to have changed much. Jorge Djata of the drug squad told me that the police often had to ask for fuel, money or a boat before going out on an operation. “And if we ask, sometimes we have to wait for 48 hours,” he said. “In the meantime, the plane has landed and flown away.” Lucinda Eucarie, the widely respected new director of the Judiciary Police, confirmed that the Ministry of Fisheries often refuses to supply boats, though she diplomatically declined to give a direct answer to my question of whether the ministry was controlled by drug traffickers. Even before the coup, Alexandre Schmidt said he often felt vexed at the Bissau-Guineans. The demands for help and the accompanying sense of dependency seem bottomless. Still, he said that he believed in Madame Lucinda, as she is universally known, and in other senior officials, and he was more hopeful about Guinea-Bissau than about a number of other countries in the region.
Of course, that was then. When I reached Schmidt in France in the hours after the soldiers’ mutiny, he sounded distraught — in no small part because of tanks that had surrounded the office of his U.N. colleagues in Bissau. “The situation is extremely weird,” he said. “With the U.N.’s presence in doubt with the return of this new regime, where do we stand with narcotics efforts?” And President Sanhá, whom he had viewed as an ally, has apparently endorsed the coup.
Everybody wants to help West Africa with its drug problem: the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime and other U.N. bodies, Interpol, the European Union, the West African regional organization known as Ecowas, individual European states and the United States. The United Nations, Interpol and Ecowas are spending $50 million in four countries partly to build “transnational crime units,” interagency bodies that will gather information, conduct investigations and turn over their findings to prosecutorial authorities. An agency of Ecowas monitors money laundering throughout the region. A group of European countries deploys ships and narcotics officers to interdict boats carrying drugs from West Africa to Europe. A multitude of U.S. government agencies, coordinated by the new African Command, provide equipment to law-enforcement groups, as well as training for those groups and naval and coastal officers. But those who know the problems best tend to be the least confident. Flemming Quist, the senior law-enforcement adviser at the U.N. drug office in Dakar, says that he feels hopeful about programs like the transnational crime units, but adds, “We can keep on pumping in training and equipment, but if we don’t solve corruption, it’s not going to achieve the full affect.” Can outsiders solve corruption? Quist doesn’t think so.
Schmidt has an idea about what to do with the Gulfstream jet: Sell it and invest the proceeds in social programs. Converting drug contraband into clinics would send just the right message. Unfortunately, other officials told me that the plane has been sitting in the tropical sun so long that it might have to be sold off in pieces.
By James Traub, a contributing writer for the magazine, is the author, most recently, of “The Freedom Agenda.”