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Last Updated: Friday, 7 December 2007, 05:58 GMT
Drug trade threatens Guinea Bissau
By Grant Ferrett
BBC Global Account

Street in Bissau
Most Guinea Bissau residents live on less than $1 a day
Guinea Bissau is one of the poorest countries in the world, but visit a local nightclub and you soon discover that some people there are making a lot of money.

Top-of-the-range four-wheel drive vehicles can be seen parked outside and whisky seems to be the favoured drink. Each glass costs several times the average daily income of less than $1 a day.

This money is not coming from the country's traditional mainstay, cashew nuts. It is coming from cocaine.

"We can see these people walking in complete freedom; they are parading their wealth," says Jamel Handem, the head of a coalition of civic groups known as Platform GB.

"They're showing it completely openly."

No prison

Mr Handem says that everyone knows someone who has been cashing in on the drugs trade.

The traffickers, mainly Colombians trying to get their produce to Europe, have been drawn to this tiny country of just one-and-half million people by a number of factors.

The geography of the country is crucial, according to university rector and social commentator Fafali Kudawo.

"This is a country that has a mainland, and a group of islands - an archipelago - and the maritime part of the country is bigger than the mainland," he says.

"And the country doesn't have a navy to control all that space. It's an open border for whoever wants to bring drugs into the country."

The near-total absence of the rule of law also makes Guinea Bissau attractive to drugs.

Lucinda Aukarie
Lucinda Aukarie: Tonnes of cocaine pass through Guinea Bissau each week
"Law enforcement has literally no control for two reasons: there is no capacity and there is no equipment," says Amado Philip de Andres, the deputy regional head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

"It's a country where there's not even a prison... it's an easy country to actually be active if you're mafia, an organised crime lord."

Even by the standards of Guinea Bissau's desperately under-funded state institutions, the judicial police are hard-up.

While criminal gangs use satellite phones, aircraft, and speedboats, the judicial police struggle on without so much as a computer.

The head of the judicial police, Lucinda Aukarie, knows she is confronting a massive problem.

"We not sure exactly how much cocaine is moving through the country, but we think each week there are tonnes," she says.

"At the moment, we believe that the drug traffickers are making more use of ports and the branches of rivers."

Army suspects

But it is not just a lack of resources hampering the police. There are also indications that members of the armed forces are involved in the trade.

In April, two military personnel were arrested in a vehicle carrying 635kg of cocaine. They were soon released from detention and have yet to stand trial.

Colonel Balde
Where is the evidence? Just please, bring the evidence. That's what we're asking for
Colonel Arsenio Balde, on allegations the military are involved in drug trafficking
But army spokesman Colonel Arsenio Balde says they were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"They were on the road waiting for a ride and they saw this car driving by," he explains.

"They asked for a ride and then this guy stopped, and later on this car was arrested, the car and everybody."

And he rejects the UN's suggestion that senior military personnel are involved.

"Where is the evidence? Just please, bring the evidence. That's what we're asking for."

But there are also well-founded suspicions that parts of the government are protecting the traffickers.

Last year, two-thirds of a tonne of cocaine went missing from the treasury, where it had been deposited for safe-keeping after being seized by the police.

Asked if the government was involved in the illegal trade, its spokesman, Pedro da Costa, told me that he had no information on the subject.

He did, though, acknowledge that he shared the concerns of some observers that drug trafficking could push the country back into a repeat of civil war of the late 1990s.

Call for action

The UNODC has drawn up a detailed plan to help Guinea Bissau reform its security services, boost the judicial police, and build a jail.

Guinea Bissau navy officer
The navy is ill-equipped to cover all of Guinea Bissau's islands
The estimated cost is $20m, but funding has only been secured for 1% of the budget.

Mr de Andres, says the world must take immediate action.

"This is now actually the last wake-up call that the international community can receive," he says.

"Please act now, we have to act now. If we don't the situation will explode.

"Drug traffickers know that they can move freely in Bissau, they will do it, they will take control of the region, they will coordinate and we'll all be the losers - meaning the international community and West African countries."

A donor conference to be held in Portugal on 19 December may signal a change of attitude.

If not, Guinea Bissau faces the prospect of becoming a unique type of failed state - a "narco-state" - run mainly for the benefit of drugs gangs.


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