Cocaine & Cashew: Status Quo in Africa’s First Narco-State

Since its independence from Portugal in 1974, Guinea-Bissau has been plagued with corruption and instability. No elected leader has finished their full term of five years while the corruption rate in the country is ranked as the 8th worst in the world. Some detractors have dubbed Guinea-Bissau Africa’s first Narco-State due to the narcotics fuelled corruption problem.

Its GDP per capita is one of the lowest in the world with two-thirds of the population of about 1,8 million under the poverty line with as many as 1 million people in extreme poverty. Most people survive on the bare minimum by working with fishing or agriculture, particularly growing cashew nuts, which makes up 80% of the country’s total export making it the primary source of income and employment. The lack of economic prosperity coupled with political instability has made it prone to criminal rings, notably the cartels.

Today, narcotics continue to flow through Guinea-Bissau’s porous borders supported by the weak institutions and bribe-able officials stemming from the political instability, while the lack of means to stop the flow of narcotics on-the-ground is rooted in the weak cashew-based economy.

European Routes to Africa’s First Narco-State

Guinea-Bissau was labelled Africa’s first narco-state due to the massive quantities of drugs that transited through the country heading for Europe. While the American cocaine market became increasingly saturated in the early 2000s, the Western European market doubled and even tripled in some areas. As cocaine production was, and still is, centred in close proximity to the Andes, particularly in Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia, meeting the growing European demand would need new a route that could handle the volume.

Western Africa rapidly posed a prime solution as a transit location that could replace the direct Venezuela-EU flights which were no longer able to bring the required quantities. Whereas routes from South- to North America had to circumvent heavily guarded water and airspaces by several agencies equipped with cutting-edge technology. The West African transit route on the other hand barely had obstacles in comparison.

By 2008, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated that 50 tonnes of cocaine bound for Europe were shipped through Western Africa annually, much of which was believed to have passed through Guinea-Bissau at one point.

A Positive Outlook… For a Short Period

José Mário Vaz, known as ‘Jomav’, won the 2014 election after a fair democratic election, which in itself established the belief that change was underway. Prior to the election, in 2013, the former Navy Admiral of Guinea-Bissau, Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto, had been arrested by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Na Tchuto was a major player in the smuggling game and his arrest on a yacht in a sophisticated sting operation and subsequent extradition to the US was believed to deter other smugglers.

The momentum led to a round-table in 2015 involving organisations such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the European Union (EU), the World Bank, and the African Union (AU), as well as powerful bilateral partners such as the US, UK, Brazil, France, and China. The round-table ended up raising $1.5 billion to assist Guinea-Bissau and Jomav to take people out of poverty, strengthen institutions, improve overall conditions, and see the country rise on the UNDP rating (177 of 187 at the time).

Jomav reportedly sought to use parts of the funds on agricultural projects in his home village which the prime minister and head of the ruling party PAIGC, Domingos Simoes Pereira, refused to accept. Pereira was sacked a few months later on corruption charges which led the ruling party to turn on Jomav. Jomav was left with no support and no agreement for a replacement was found between the party and Jomav, leaving the parliament and the country paralysed since 2016. Responding to the events, donors quickly withdrew from their pledge.

Present Smuggling in Africa’s First Narco-State

Claims have been made that drugs no longer flow into Guinea-Bissau. The high number of law enforcement personnel now present on the islands of the Bijagos Archipelago which used to be a hotspot for cocaine arrivals is referred to as proof. However, the country still lacks radars and x-rays, meaning planes and shipping containers can enter without effective monitoring. Instead of seizures, law enforcement has focused on stopping mules which have been stated to be a diversion to camouflage their inability to handle the scope of the smuggling in the country. Some estimates state that as much as 30 tonnes of cocaine flow through the country every year, which is not far off from the 2008 estimate. In 2018, former prime minister Pereira claimed that Jomav turned a blind eye to the drug problem because he was connected to it.

In March 2019, police in Guinea-Bissau seized 789 kilos of cocaine hidden in a truck. It was the largest cocaine bust in the country’s history, made possible by a tip from the UK National Crime Agency. It was the first seizure of cocaine since 2007, though several big smugglers and mules have been stopped and arrested since then. However, the lack of seizures coupled with the arrests of big smugglers had initially led to the conclusion that Guinea-Bissau was no longer a prime spot for drug smuggling. Though, the 30 tonnes estimate by a UN official and the focus on mules might suggest that the lack of seizures might stem from negligence, whether purposely or not, rather than a reduction in narcotics entering the country.

Further, it has been claimed that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) cells in Mali are participating in the drug smuggling by collecting shipments in Guinea-Bissau and bringing it into Mali before setting it onto the path to Europe through the Sahel to the Mediterranean. What is certain is that smuggling routes that formerly were used for a specific type of narcotic are now being used to smuggle a variety of narcotics, meaning that existing routes likely are processing a higher volume.

Africa Narco-State

Unequipped and Overpowered

Prior to the legislative election in March 2019, Jomav stated that Guinea-Bissau continues to be a hub for narcotics. He further said that because they lack boats, radars, and planes, the country simply does control its economic zone. The data underpins the disproportionality that he is hinting at; Guinea-Bissau’s GDP in 2017 was $1.35 billion with military spending at 1.75% of GDP, around $236 million.

Meanwhile, the drugs passing through annually have been estimated to have a wholesale value at $1.8-2 billion, higher than Guinea-Bissau’s GDP, and with a potential retail value up to ten times to that of wholesale. Evidently, the cartels are far more resourceful, thus naturally better equipped than so-called Africa’s first narco-state state of Guinea-Bissau. In the simplest terms, a corrupt state with a cashew-based economy cannot compete with cocaine-pushing cartels, neither should it be expected to.

Image: Brookings / Reuters (link)

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