At the beginning of the week, when the President of the Western African country of Guinea-Bissau, Joao Bernardo Vieira, and the army chief, Batista Tagmé Na Wai, were killed in a gangland style, two questions quickly arose: Do the murders in this failed state have any relationship with the fact that
Guinea-Bissau has become the first narco-state in the world? And second: Are the Colombian drug cartels, very present in Guinea-Bissau, related in any way to the assassinations?
The answer to the first question seems, at first glance, clear: Yes. The tiny African country, a former Portuguese colony, is permeated to such an extent by the drug traffickers and their organizations that it is facing a crisis of enormous proportions. Whereas the country, the world’s fifth poorest nation, has a bad infrastructure, a massive foreign debt and people struggling to earn a decent living, the Spanish-speaking drug traffickers use Mercedes and Porsche cars or four-wheel drive vehicles and live in fancy estates on the outskirts of the main cities. A recent report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime clearly explains that “this is more than a drugs problem. It is a threat to security”. And it goes on: “Drug money is perverting the weak economies in the region” and “they (the states) risk becoming shell-states: sovereign in name, but hollowed out from the inside by criminals in collusion with corrupt officials in the government and the security services”. There is one fact that indicates how delicate this issue is: the value of the drug trade is bigger than Guinea-Bissau’s national income.
What is not all that clear is the answer to the second query. There is no confirmation of whether Colombian citizens had any direct involvement in the murders of Mr. Vieira and Mr. Na Wai, although the two victims had both been accused of complicity in cocaine smuggling. Nevertheless, what is common knowledge is that Colombians have been traveling to that country, among others in Western Africa, to make the most of the drug trade. The Guardian reported that “estimates vary as to the cogency of the Colombian presence, but one observer suggests that there are as many as 60 Colombian drugs traffickers in Guinea-Bissau. Colombians have bought local businesses, including factories and warehouses, and built themselves large homes protected by armed guards.” Most of the big shipments which go through Africa are controlled by Colombian traffickers until the drugs reach their final destination in European countries like Spain and the UK, the two largest cocaine markets in the continent.
Colombian citizens have not only established themselves in West Africa. They have also started to get involved with close relatives of leaders of those states. According to the French newspaper Journal du Dimanche, the son of Lansana Conté, the president of Guinea (Conakry) who died in December, admitted belonging to a drug network “directly linked with Colombia”.
Many Colombians have also begun to appear in the criminal records of countries across West Africa. In 2006, three were captured in Guinea-Bissau. Three more were stopped in Sierra Leone when the local police found 600 kilos of drugs in an aeroplane. Four were detained in Togo, among them Jorge Cortés Solano, whose extradition to the US was recently authorized by the Togolese government.
The reason behind the presence of Colombians and Latin Americans in West Africa is clear: that part of the world has become a major transit hub for drugs that are transported from Latin America for European markets. Colombia produces 80 percent of cocaine worldwide (about 600 tonnes) and around 240 of those tonnes are sent to Europe, which has a growing demand for cocaine and a strong currency, two elements that attract drug dealers.
And since police patrolling in the Caribbean, in Central America and in the Pacific Ocean has become increasingly stronger, gangs willing to smuggle cocaine from countries like Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil have had to make the most of different routes. That is why West Africa, a region with low governance, a lot of corruption, many tiny islands in the Gulf of Guinea (ideal for hiding the shipments) and relatively close to Europe, has become an ideal stopping point for smugglers who travel from South America across the Atlantic, which is ultimately the shortest geographical crossing over the ocean. One fact shows how immense the problem is: 99 per cent of all drugs found in Africa since 2003 appeared in the Western part of the continent.
To tackle the problem, both South American and African countries have tried to strengthen teamwork. In February, with the help of the United Nations, officials of six African states (Cape Verde, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Senegal and Togo) arrived in Bogotá to learn how Colombia has fought the drug gangs. They admitted that today, one out of every three 3 kilos of Colombian cocaine is transported to Europe via the African route. That is why the head of the Colombian police, general Óscar Naranjo, announced he would send ten anti-narcotics policemen to Africa, based in Sierra Leone. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) also admitted at the beginning of the year that it is planning to boost its presence in West Africa.
Furthermore, the United Nations is also trying to control the problem, by reinforcing institutions in Guinea-Bissau, which is one of the two main hubs in Western Africa (the other one is Ghana; from there, the drugs are transported over land or on commercial flights to other destinations). The international organization has also stated many times that “to address this threat, West Africa is dependent on international cooperation to strengthen its law enforcement agencies”.
It is a fact that the West African route has not so far been as big as the Asian, Central American or Caribbean ones. But it is also true that it is growing very fast and that it has become an industry which has destabilized many countries worldwide. As the UN says, alarm bells have started to ring…