Because of the rise of drug trafficking the small West-African country of Guinea-Bissau has earned its reputation of a narco-state. The country represents a connection point for drug smugglers transporting narcotics from Latin America to Europe. No more than six years ago, members of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) were arrested in Bogota as they were using Guinea-Bissau as a hub for illegal exchanges, mainly narcotics for weapons.
Almost 800 kg of cocaine were seized by the governmental forces in Guinea Bissau on 9th of March 2019. The capture represents a result of the operation called “CARAPAU” led by the Transnational Crime Unit (TCU) and the Judicial Police of Guinea-Bissau. The large amounts of cocaine were found in a false bottom of a truck loaded with frozen fish locally known as “carapau”. On first of September this year, the local police seized another 1.8 tons of cocaine shipments disguised as flour bags. Following the operation, eight people were arrested, including three Colombians. In six months, Guinea-Bissau broke its own record for the largest haul of cocaine in its history twice.
The authorities suspect that the smuggled narcotics were aimed at being transported to Europe, where they would have been sold for a street value of between $65 million and $90 million. Moreover, police stated that the last captured shipment was destined for Al Qaeda branches operating in Maghreb. Guinea Bissau as many other West African states participates with military troops in MINUSMA. For this reason, the state could easily become a target of the ISGS and other extremist militants who seek for revenge. However, the lawlessness, the high-level corruption, the poverty of the population and the strategic geolocation of Guinea-Bissau are making the country a safe haven for drug trafficking and war lords smuggling weaponry or hiding from their country’s authorities.
Guinea-Bissau gained its independence from Portugal in 1974, and since then it was confronted with ineffective and corrupted leadership, as well as a lack of resources and infrastructure. Beginning with the 2000s, the population has witnessed three coups, a civil war, and the assassinations of an in-office president as well as an army chief. These murders were linked to a secret feud between drug lords for smuggling profits. So far, no elected president has managed to end a full term, tensions among parties and factions taking over the political landscape continuously.
Due to its reputation of a “narco-state” as stated by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, several efforts have been made to tackle the drug trafficking problem in the country. Funds were raised internationally for sponsoring operations, while the UNODC offered additional aids and sent personnel to assist the local forces. Yet these actions failed to contain the use of the Guinea-Bissau’s ports and territory as a transit hub for substantial shipments of cocaine from Latin America to Europe. Former president José Mário Vaz complained to the United Nations representatives about the lack of essential equipment for countering drug trafficking, such as airplanes, radars and boats.
Vaz was elected president following democratic elections which gave hope to the country’s population and to the international community that Guinea-Bissau was about to see improvements in the fight against drug lords. However, Vaz’s decision to oust from power officials charged for corruption caused a great deal of animosity from the opposition party, as well as from members of its own. A fierce political competition stalled Vaz’s efforts against the local narcotic affairs and in June 2019, the parliament voted to remove him from office.
There are two main factors causing instability national-level instability in Guinea-Bissau and thus, facilitating drug trafficking. On one hand, the country has a long history of dealing with political instability, corruption across all levels of the society, as well as poverty. The country is dependent on cashew nuts exports but apart from this, there are the drug smuggling networks that keep the national economy afloat. Several statements coming from diplomatic personnel in the country’s capital city reveal that the police narcotics brigade severely lack funding due to poor leadership.
For now, the brigade proved to be non-operational, and while being supposed to collaborate with the local Transnational Crime Unit, set up by UN agencies and INTERPOL to fight traffickers under the UN’s West African Coast Initiative, the drug trafficking networks are still highly effective. On the other hand, the dysfunctionality of the state attracts smugglers as well as extremist to organize their cells and networks in the region, knowing that the local government lacks the ability to initiate effective countermeasures. Furthermore, The UNODC has reduced its personnel in the country due to a lack of funds, therefore giving the drug lords an opportunity to expand their businesses.
Some other complaints regarding the efficiency of the security forces talk about a diversion from the real trade. Despite local and international investigations and operation to seize the shipments transiting the country, an estimated amount of 30 tons of cocaine crosses the country yearly. According to Transparency International, Guinea-Bissau is ranked 178th out of 180 countries in corruption. The country’s score is 16 out of 100, with 0 meaning highly corrupt and 100 meaning very clean. There are no signs that the political unrest or the overall poverty will end soon.
This takes the problem to a new level, where concerns about cooperation between drug lords and terrorist organizations arise. It has already been discovered that local traffickers are linked to regional extremist militants such as the Islamic State in Greater Sahara and al-Qaeda. The Islamists are buying narcotics from drug cartels in Latin America to fund their causes and therefore use the Guinea-Bissau smugglers to ship the cargos to the Maghreb or Northern Mali. Local politicians are also believed to be part of the business. Some of them have already been arrested for direct involvement in drug trafficking, including a former three-times president of Guinea-Bissau, João Bernardo “Nino” Vieira, who ended up being assassinated by his former business partners.
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