Africa’s Cocaine Hub: Guinea-Bissau a ‘Drug Trafficker’s Dream’
By Alexander Smoltczyk via Der Spiegel
João Biague says he only has one way to lose his job: “success.” As soon as he manages to seize a shipment of drugs, he admits, “I’ll be fired.” But “success” is not actually part of the job description of the director general of Guinea-Bissau’s judicial police.
Biague has his office in a colonial building slowly turning black from the moisture and humidity. It’s located on a dirt street near an athletic field. The potholes are filled with plastic refuse and seashells. A woman is crouching under a ceiba tree and roasting a scrawny ear of corn over a smoldering fire.
His agency corresponds to the headquarters of Germany’s Federal Office of Criminal Investigation (BKA) in Wiesbaden — or the FBI in Washington, DC.
Biague has the build and slightly swollen eyes of a heavyweight boxer. He’s wearing a well-tailored suit, as if to protect himself from the inadequacies of his law enforcement agency. The 45-year-old judge also has a side job teaching law at a local university.
In this country, Biague embodies justice — but not power. The title of his Ph.D. dissertation was “Coordination Problems in Public Administration, as Exemplified by Brazil, Portugal and Guinea-Bissau.” Today, Biague has to deal with other coordination problems: “I have to crack down on the cocaine smugglers — but without the military getting wind of it.”
And that just won’t do, as that would be “success.”
The World’s Only True ‘ Narco State ‘
Guinea-Bissau is sandwiched between Senegal and Guinea, where the African continent extends the farthest west toward South America. The fish market in Bissau, the capital, is just as far from eastern Brazil as from southern Spain, or nearly 3,000 kilometers (1,850 miles) as the crow flies. That’s an easy distance to cover with private medium-range jets — even if they are loaded with freight.
In order to run their trans-Atlantic trafficking operations, the cocaine barons of Latin America need countries with an ideal geographic location, under the radar of international interest and characterized by the highest possible corruption index. Guinea-Bissau comes very close to fulfilling this ideal.
The country has porous borders, inconspicuous airfields and a virtually powerless civilian government. Extradition agreements are practically unknown. One of the most sought-after American fugitives from justice, convicted murderer and hijacker George Wright, worked for years as a basketball coach in Bissau.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) sees Guinea-Bissau as the world’s only example of a narco state: “In Afghanistan and Colombia, individual provinces are in the hands of drug lords. Here, it’s the entire state,” says a high-ranking official at the agency’s headquarters in Vienna. In Colombia, the drug lords take advantage of the chaos. In Bissau, they benefit from the secure environment.
For a narco state, Guinea-Bissau seems rather peaceful, even sleepy at times. There are no junkies here and no beheaded traitors on the roadside. The daily drug trade is conducted virtually without violence.
“The situation is difficult,” says Biague, as he closes his office door. After the military coup in April, he explains, there has been an increase in smuggling. “The positions have been reshuffled, and the police and civil authorities have become even more cautious,” he says. One of his men was recently almost beaten to death — in an army barracks, he claims. Biague also says his predecessor fled because she couldn’t stand the threats anymore.
Biague has a habit of sketching mind maps as he speaks. He draws circles and arrows, followed by even more arrows, and finally thick lines that underscore his main point: “Everyone is simply afraid.”
Coups and Cocaine
There are few occasions to calmly observe the shadowy men behind the international cocaine trade. But one of these took place on Sept. 24, Guinea-Bissau’s Independence Day.
On that day, the Avenida Amilcar Cabral is cordoned off with red-and-white plastic tape with little hearts. The capital city is still steaming from an early morning tropical shower, and the clouds towering over the wooden stands are slowly retreating. The truncheons of the National Guard are gleaming in the sun.
At precisely 10 a.m., the crowd begins to clap. There is no cheering, just some applause to be on the safe side — the kind of accolades reserved for a military leader in a bulging uniform as he is slowly driven to the VIP stand on the back of a pick-up truck — applause to acknowledge power.
The man in the uniform embodies power, not justice. General António Indjai is in command in Guinea-Bissau. He has controlled the country ever since the last freely elected president, João “Nino” Vieira, tragically died in 2009 (in one of the few cases in which a governing head of state has been hacked to pieces) and, at the very latest, Indjai has ruled the land since the coup in April 2012, when he ousted the prime minister and all remaining rivals.
All of this wouldn’t matter much to the rest of the world if this hot and humid little African country merely supplied global markets with cashew nuts and timber — instead of an estimated annual 40 metric tons of a substance that doesn’t appear in any foreign trade statistics: cocaine. General Indjai, who has now seated himself among the other generals, guests of honor and first ladies, also allegedly controls the country’s drug trade. Everyone stands at attention for the national anthem: “Sun, sweat, verdure and sea … ”
An Increasingly Bloody History
In Sept. 1974, Guinea-Bissau gained its independence from Portugal. The guerrillas from those days are now sitting in the stands — veterans from an era in which the “fight for liberation” still had a good ring to it.
Since the liberation, the country’s elite has mainly been occupied with achieving some sort of balance between clans, political parties and military divisions — a process that involves coups, arrests, torture, death threats and assassinations. No democratically elected president in the history of independent Guinea-Bissau has ever completed his term in office.
The country ranks 176 out of 187 countries on the United Nations Human Development Index. Under the old president, there was a cooperation agreement with the European Union to improve the security apparatus. But this program was terminated in 2010, quite possibly because a rear admiral who was appointed commander of the navy is listed by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), as a kingpin of the cocaine trade in West Africa — along with the air force chief of staff.
Before João “Nino” Vieira was assassinated, the then-chief of staff of the country’s armed forces was killed in a bomb attack. A quarter of a year later, presidential candidate Baciro Dabó was shot by soldiers, as was the former defense minister. The perpetrators were never found, and perhaps never sought.
There is little doubt that the killings were linked to the struggle for lucrative shares of the country’s burgeoning drug trade. Drugs dominate political life in Guinea-Bissau, and the cocaine trade has made changes of government more brutal.
A Weigh Station for Drugs
“The military is currently the only power in the country,” says Biague. In front of him lies a mind map, and above him hangs the gallery of his predecessors. “You saw our airport when you arrived, I presume?” he asks. “Did you take a close look?”
Osvaldo Vieira International Airport is named after a national hero of the struggle for liberation. When an aircraft from Dakar or Lisbon arrives in Bissau, three older civilians sit in what look like booths for parking lot attendants and stamp passengers’ passports.
Sitting on the tarmac right next to the terminal is a Grumman Gulfstream II private jet registered in the eastern US state of Delaware to Lb Aviation Inc., a shell corporation. The aircraft had to make an emergency landing in Bissau on July 12, 2008 due to a faulty hydraulics system. “When the police tried to search the plane, a group of soldiers appeared,” says Biague. “They surrounded the machine and prevented anyone from boarding it.”
According to Spanish police, there was half a ton of cocaine on board — and three Venezuelans, including Carmelo Vásquez Guerra, who reportedly works for the Mexican Sinaloa cartel, headed by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, currently the world’s leading cocaine baron. Last year, the business magazine Forbes ranked Guzmán as the 63rd most powerful person on the planet.
Guzmán was unable to save the Gulfstream. The next day, a second, smaller aircraft arrived from Venezuela to repair the Gulfstream. This time, police were able to seize the machine. No trace of the cargo or the crew has ever been found. The two aircraft, though, can even be seen on Google Earth (11°53’9.58N; 15°39’14.25W).
The UNODC suspects that even old Boeing 727s are used for drug flights to West Africa. Such a jet can carry over 10 tons of cargo.
Waging War without Maps
Biague is sitting in his office with the door locked and the shades drawn. Given his description of the situation, it’s understandable that he would prefer not to set foot outside.
Tomorrow is the ninth birthday of Biague’s daughter. She lives in Verona in northern Italy — and he hasn’t seen her for five years. “I don’t want this job,” he says. “I just want to accomplish something — then it’s over. But it has to be some kind of success.” He dreams of a job with some international organization — and one as far away from Guinea-Bissau as possible.
“A trafficker’s dream” is what a US diplomat wrote to his superiors after spending four days sailing through the Bissagos Islands. This archipelago of 88 islands in the Atlantic lies two hours from Bissau by boat. With its beaches lined with palm trees and waters teeming with fish, the Bissagos Islands could be the Maldives of West Africa. But, so far, they have only been a dream destination for drug lords.
The state barely has a presence in the archipelago, in large part because Biague’s police force doesn’t own a boat. Aircraft not listed on any flight list land on unpaved airstrips dating back to the colonial period.
Once, a plane ran into mechanical difficulties, and over half a ton of cocaine was dumped into the sea. Some of the locals reportedly whitewashed their houses with the stuff. Others thought it was manioc flour. At least one person thought it was dried milk formula for infants.
The drugs are flown in shipments of between 600 and 1,200 kilograms (1,300 to 2,600 pounds) and stored in three warehouses, allowing wholesalers to ship 300 kilos to Europe within just a few days. International investigators know that at least one of these depots is located in a military zone. Biague knows all of this: “I even know that a flight will land this week in the south,” he says.
And where will this happen?
There doesn’t appear to be a single map in the headquarters of the national police of Guinea-Bissau. Biague has his secretary print out a map from MapQuest. Then the power cuts out.
It doesn’t help either that the UNODC reported the following at its fall conference on organized crime: “The real-time analytical intelligence database has been delivered to the judicial police.” Biague’s “real-time database” is the cousin of one of his chief officers — a farmer who calls whenever he hears aircraft engines.
Biague starts to draw circles and lines: “We could send three men disguised as farmers down there to take up positions. As soon as they hear a plane, we could dispatch a unit to the bridge near Mampatá, where every convoy has to slow down, and intercept the shipment there.”
It sounds like a good plan. Why doesn’t he do it?
“We don’t have any money.”
The 300 kilos of cocaine that could be seized during such an operation would have a street value in Germany of up to €120 million ($155 million). How much money does Biague have for the upcoming operation? “Just a second,” he says, as he takes his pencil and starts to calculate: The policemen could sleep with relatives. Mangoes grow everywhere, so food isn’t a problem. “Five days, three people, that’s 15,000. Plus fuel for the police squad, that’s three times 20,000 CFA, comes to a total of 75,000 CFA.”
That’s €115. And where will the money come from?
One of the principles of journalism is to never exert a decisive influence on events that are going to be described. Reporters are to remain observers on the sidelines. Sometimes it’s difficult to stick to this rule. SPIEGEL photographer Alessandro Scotti had already been on a research assignment in Guinea-Bissau in July 2008. At the time, 600 kilos of cocaine were seized. The then-chief of police only agreed to the operation under the condition that Scotti would be the only white person present. It was the first and only drug seizure of this magnitude. The head of the operation, one of Biague’s predecessors, was immediately fired. One of his men has been shot dead and another is in psychiatric care. The three arrested soldiers were subsequently released. Still, in reaction to the operation, the national police received massive aid from abroad, an Interpol office and training sessions from the EU. We decided to pay for Biague’s fuel.
A Failed Operation
The phone call came the very next day: “The plane has landed.” Biague says that his people heard engine noises early that morning. The smugglers must have landed on the island of Ilha de Melo, directly on the border with Guinea in the south.
Until a few years ago, the military airport at Cufar was the preferred landing field. But now that international observers are in the country, drug traffickers are primarily using illegal airstrips, mainly in the south. While some are hidden, others lie in plain sight for all to see.
Right outside Mansôa, roughly 50 kilometers from the capital, the road runs straight as an arrow for three kilometers. Just beyond the village of Missina, a long skid mark is still plainly visible. Local residents say that men wearing boots and stocking masks blocked the road and laid out party lights to outline an impromptu airstrip.
Rádio Sol Mansi, a station run by a Salesian priest, reported the incident. All other media kept quiet, although everyone knew about it. It’s also common knowledge who owns the poultry farm near the airfield in Missina — and who is currently expanding his estate there: António Indjai, the general on the back of the pick-up truck — Guinea-Bissau’s army chief of staff.
Biague is hunched over the coffee table in his office, surrounded by his senior officers, and drawing arrows on his MapQuest map. “They always immediately unload their cargo,” he says. “The question is whether they will directly pack the goods into speedboats or transport them by land.” They only have a chance to seize the shipment on land.
He tells his men to keep an eye out for pick-ups driving toward the coast. However, he doesn’t inform his superiors at the ministry about his plan, as that would be too dangerous.
Biague waits until that evening for a call with good news from his people — but in vain. “The shipment must have been offloaded and moved across the sea,” he says, adding that the Fiscalização has a shed nearby, where the goods can be stored. Biague means a small building owned by the customs administration. “I’m sorry,” he says, though it might be directed it toward himself.
Perhaps there wasn’t even a plane: “It’s a game with masks,” says a representative of the international community who prefers to remain anonymous. “You never know who is playing what role, and why, even if it’s the role of the good guys. You only know that four out of five officials are corrupt. Or are they all four-fifths corrupt?”
Cocaine’s Three Routes
In any case, Biague will get a second chance to lose his job faster than expected.
After it arrives in Guinea-Bissau, the cocaine is transported out of the country in one of three ways, on predominantly multipurpose routes where people and arms are also smuggled, sometimes even simultaneously.
First, the Venezuelans have speedboats that they can use to travel all the way to Cape Verde, and even as far up the coast as the Canary Islands. Fishermen are occasionally forced to take a few crates along with them. It’s easy to exert pressure on them when their families are alone on land.
The overland route north goes from Guinea-Bissau through Senegal, Mauritania, Western Sahara and on to Morocco. This is a zone filled with all the things that give Western intelligence agencies nightmares, from Tuareg tribes and smugglers, to radical Islamist groups and human traffickers. Nevertheless, given enough money, it is possible to establish a viable transit route. These are well-traveled trade routes that have been maintained since the days of the slave trade.
The cocaine’s third route is the intestines of the “swallowers.” These are usually Nigerians who, for the equivalent of some €800, swallow capsules — small balloons filled with up to a kilo of drugs — and then try to reach Lisbon or Cape Verde on commercial flights.
A contact with a nasty scar above his lip talked about a cousin with access to a middleman. He himself is now the owner of two Mercedes taxis, he says, after he brought two kilos from the barracks in the old fort to a “high-ranking individual.”
Following a meeting with a very nervous, very reluctant cousin, and a flurry of phone calls, the middleman agreed to allow one of his assistants to be photographed at work: “But just one,” he said, “and only for five minutes.” He wanted €100 in return.
Scotti, the photographer, is led on foot for half an hour through Santa Luzia, a neighborhood where no branco, no white, ever treads — and where half-naked children play with plastic refuse. Scotti remembers seeing a sign along the way that read “Nigerian Bissau Business Association.”
“I had no idea where I was,” Scotti says. “My escorts were extremely nervous. The cousin shoved me into a hut with a low ceiling. It was stifling hot. A thin guy with a rasta wool cap was sitting on a mattress and measuring out the powder. He didn’t say a word. I had suggested beforehand that he put on a stocking mask. But then he came with this cracked plastic carnival mask.”
Two dozen portions, wrapped in numerous layers of thin plastic and tape, were laid out on a low table like oversized party sausages. There was enough time to take three of four pictures. “Hurry up! Come on, get out now.”
A kilo of pure cocaine costs €12,000 in Bissau. A wholesaler in Europe pays €30,000 for that amount of coke. In some cases, military officials are paid with the actual goods for their help and their silence, yet they have to handle the marketing on their own. This has led to the development of an intermediary trade in Bissau. The cocaine being wrapped by the masked man most likely comes from these channels.
Not a single middleman, not to mention one of their employers, has ever been arrested. The small-time helpers, though, are occasionally sacrificed to bolster the country’s image abroad. Eleven swallowers from Nigeria are incarcerated in the national police’s prison in Bissau, a stinking inferno where 60 men, crammed into a cell of only 15 square meters (160 square feet), are yelling for food. As soon as they are caught, no one claims to know them anymore. The mobile phone numbers of their former employers are disconnected. These poor souls have been left here to rot.
Doomed to Failure
It is shortly before five in the afternoon. A tropical rainstorm is gathering outside the city, and night will soon fall like a final curtain. This time, Biague’s voice is tinged with panic: “Come quickly,” he says on the phone, “we’re starting.” Then he hangs up.
When we arrive, Biague’s room is empty. One of the officers says that his boss ordered everyone to come to the office, then jumped in a vehicle and headed toward Mansôa. “There has been an alarm,” he says. “A second aircraft was reportedly approaching.”
US intelligence only monitors the usual flight routes over the South Atlantic. Ever since West Africa became a transshipment point for the trans-Atlantic drug trade, however, two European countries have pointed their surveillance satellites at the region. One government agency noted a suspicious flight movement at noon, on course for Bissau, and notified a friendly embassy in Dakar, which then informed its contacts in Bissau.
Half an hour later, four agents forced their way through the crowd on the main street to get to the prison, where a single metal cabinet contains the complete arsenal of the national police of Guinea-Bissau. This consists of five AK-47s packed in a rice bag. The rifles date back to the war of independence. Some of them even have magazines.
At the sight of these antique weapons, the armed convoy, which is transporting drugs worth €1 million, would only stop out of an interest in collectibles. But this thought doesn’t seem to unsettle the police squad. They head off with headphones plugged into their ears, listening to music as if they were on a company picnic.
Before they even reach the city limits, the mobile phone rings. It’s Biague. His voice sounds weary and is hardly intelligible with all the signal noise. Just one word: fracassado. Failed. Failed again. No other word better summarizes the struggle against the cocaine transit in West Africa.
Michael Daniels is a Franciscan priest. The cleric attends to the Candelária Cathedral on the Avenida Amilcar Cabral. Generals, political activists and police officers on the run seek refuge with the priest. He has seen them all, and he is one of the few foreigners brave enough to speak openly. “The people in Bissau are too poor to afford cocaine or crack,” he says.
He says the military leaders are convinced that Guinea-Bissau is only a transit country for the drugs. They see the smuggling as merely a clever way of gaining a share of the global trade, he says, without getting dirty themselves. He speculates that some may even see it as a subtle form of revenge on the former colonial powers.
“But a market has emerged among the wealthy,” says Brother Michael. The sons of the ruling elite have long since learned to do a line of coke, he says, and this is developing into a generation of addicts — the children of the generals.
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen