Posted by: Home Strange Home | June 16, 2010

The Spread of Drugs in West Africa

In The Gambia last week, twelve foreigners (including a Venezuelan, a Dutch national, and West Africans from other countries) were put on trial for drug trafficking. It is the biggest drug case in The Gambia to date and is symptomatic of the geographic spread of the drug trade in West Africa which has traditionally had its stronghold in Guinea-Bissau, the first entry point for most drug shipments from South America.

Over the past five years, Guinea-Bissau has become a global narcotics hub, and some would call it a “narco-state,” a failed state which is run at the behest of drug lords. It is estimated that the cocaine which passes through Guinea-Bissau each month is worth more than ten times the annual GNP of the country, which officailly exports cashew nuts. The country is small (population of 1.5 million) and very poor, ranking 173rd out of 182 countries on the UNDP’s 2009 Human Development Index.

Although the involvement of local people in the drug trade has increased drug use, historically West Africa has not been a user or producer of cocaine; rather it has served mostly as a transit point. The cocaine is produced in South America, but its lucrative users are in Europe, so Guinea-Bissau acts as the intermediate point in the cocaine trafficking, referred to as the “three-cornered” or “triangular” trade. Traffickers were motivated to start re-routing their wares through West Africa when policing efforts cracked down on traditional sea and air routes from Latin America and the Caribbean.

Guinea-Bissau is geographically well suited to drug trafficking because of its Atlantic coastline and in particular its archipelago called the Bijagos, which consists of 80 islands (of which only 20 are inhabited). Thus, there are many places for the drugs to quietly land, carried by small planes like Cessnas, or by commercial fishing boats and cargo ships which travel by night and cover themselves with blue tarpaulin during the day to avoid detection. The Guinean state and navy have little capacity to monitor the country’s large maritime space.

Planes carrying drugs also arrive directly in Osvaldo Vieria, the small airport of the capital Bissau, and sometimes not so discreetly – in July 2008 a large jet allegedly carrying more than a half ton of cocaine landed in Bissau and was unloaded by the military. Indeed, the armed forces and the state are accused of being directly involved in the drug trade. The government has issued Guinea-Bissau passports to South American drug dealers, and cocaine has “gone missing” from the government treasury where it was being held for “safe keeping” after being seized by the police. Because Guinea-Bissau is economically impoverished, because the government is weak and corrupt, and because there is little rule of law, it provides a sort of “no man’s land” for the drug traffickers to take free reign.

Cocaine is transported from Guinea-Bissau to Europe through a number of routes. Some drugs are hidden in ships, some are moved overland into southern Europe (working off the same organized crime networks that help smuggle illegal immigrants into Europe), some are flow into Europe on light aircraft, and some are imported the same way cocaine enters the US from Latin America—mules swallow it and fly to European cities, leaving from international airports like Dakar and Accra.

Of course, the drug trade has made a handful of people very rich, who drive through the ramshackle capital Bissau in expensive cars and live in the swank villas that are popping up around the city. Included among these elite few are Rear Adm. José Américo Bubo Na Tchuto, who is believed by the American government to be a drug lord and a major figure in the international narcotics trade. Some argue that he (and not the president) is the “real boss” in Bissau, the one with the money and the power. And no one doubts it is drug money.


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