Pubdate: Mon, 22 Sep 2008
Source: National, The (New Guinea)
Copyright: 2008, The National
Author: Jared Ferrie


BISSAU // Now the epicentre of an expanding West African cocaine 
trade, Guinea-Bissau is confronting an entirely new problem that 
threatens disaster for its fragile health, law enforcement and 
justice systems - a burgeoning population of home-grown crack addicts.

Unheard of until recently in this tiny former Portuguese colony, use 
of crack cocaine is a spillover effect of the transnational cocaine trade.

During the past few years, traffickers have increasingly been using 
Guinea-Bissau as a transit point to move drugs from South America 
into Europe. Large cocaine shipments arrive here to be broken down 
into smaller quantities before being smuggled onwards.

But some of the drug remains in the country, where it is refined into 
cheap crack cocaine that feeds a growing number of addictions. The 
phenomenon is so new that no statistics on the domestic market exist, 
and officials seem unaware of the problem.

"The Guinea-Bissau population is out of this story, fortunately," 
said Carmelita Pires, the country's justice minister. "People from 
Guinea-Bissau are nice people and fortunately they don't have 
problems with drugs."

Luis Cabral, the attorney general, echoed her remarks, emphasising 
Guinea-Bissau's role as solely a transshipment point.

Although the vast majority of cocaine arriving in the country ends up 
on the streets of European cities, The National was able to document 
use of crack cocaine in poor areas of the capital city, Bissau.

In one neighbourhood a local drug lord conspires with police and some 
residents to hide the problem - indicating one reason that crack use 
has rarely been exposed to the public.

In a dusty cul-de-sac at the end of a labyrinthine network of rutted 
dirt roads, a group of young men stood lounging in the midafternoon 
sun. One of them entered the dingy, walled-in porch of a ramshackle 
house. In his hand he held a pebble-sized rock of crack cocaine.

The addict fashioned a pipe out of a broken section of car antenna 
and a piece of tinfoil. He began to smoke with single-minded 
determination, ignoring the click of the camera and questions being 
asked through a translator.

His reverie was broken suddenly by a large man wearing a gold chain 
who entered the veranda. The man - later identified as a dealer - 
became irate because he suspected that drug use was being documented 
by agents for Interpol, the international police agency, which is 
active in the country.

As the drug dealer continued his tirade, residents gathered around, 
forming a group of about 70 people. Many shouted in Creole and 
attempted to grab photography and recording equipment. About 20 
minutes later, the scene calmed with the arrival of a pickup lorry 
filled with armed police officers.

At the police station, the drug dealer and police officers colluded 
to make sure evidence of drug use was erased.

Given their poor training and meagre pay, it is perhaps not 
surprising that members of the security forces and judiciary have 
been corrupted by drug money.

The United Nations estimates that US$1.8 billion (Dh6.6bn) worth of 
cocaine transits West Africa each year. The drug is worth up to 10 
times that amount on the streets of Europe. Much of it passes through 
Guinea-Bissau, which the United Nations ranks as the third-least 
developed country in the world.

"I don't think we can avoid talking of corruption, of permeability, 
of both of the law enforcement apparatus and of the judicial system," 
said Antonio Mazzitelli, the West Africa representative for the UN 
Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Drug cartels looking for a base of operations found a welcoming 
environment in Guinea-Bissau, where the security and justice sectors 
are notoriously corrupt and ineffective.

"Even if somebody is arrested he has a very good likelihood of 
escaping prosecution, through corruption or [some other] break in the 
prosecutorial chain," Mr Mazzitelli said.

Given their fragile state, the police and justice systems are 
ill-equipped to deal with the rise of crime that will inevitably 
follow an epidemic of crack use, as it has in cities throughout the world.

The cocaine trade is relatively new to Guinea-Bissau, arriving around 
2004, according to UNODC. So far, the country has been spared the 
bloodshed that plagues such countries as Colombia or Mexico, where 
drug cartels are powerful.

But the violence may be starting already. Ms Pires, the justice 
minister, said Guinea-Bissau recently had its first drug-related homicide.

While rival gangs battle over profits from the drug trade, thefts are 
likely to become commonplace as a growing number of crack addicts in 
poor neighbourhoods struggle to feed their addictions.

"You don't sleep, you don't eat, you don't have nice clothes, you 
don't have shoes. All you want is to steal something and smoke," said 
one recovering crack addict who requested anonymity.

An epidemic of drug use would also overwhelm the country's crumbling 
health system. It covers only 40 per cent of the population, 
according to the World Health Organization, and offers no drug 
treatment programmes. The closest Guinea-Bissau has to a drug 
rehabilitation centre is a mental health facility started by Domingos 
Te, an evangelical pastor.

Mr Te raised money to build the facility in 2002 to house people with 
mental health problems. But over the past couple of years more crack 
addicts have been turning up, he said. Families often turn addicted 
relatives who steal from them over to the police, who bring them to the centre.

But the facility is not able to offer proper accommodation to its 
patients. Many are chained outside to prevent them from wandering 
off. The centre also lacks trained staff, and relies mainly on 
religious instruction as a substitute for treatment.

"We work in the spiritual area to know God's word," Mr Te said. "God 
judges the person who does bad - that's what we teach them."

Guinea-Bissau's domestic drug-abuse problem is still in its early 
stages, and is small enough that government officials deny its 
existence. But some predict that West Africa could soon face a crack 
epidemic similar to those that have ravaged the streets in western cities.

In developed countries, hotly contested theories abound about how 
best to fight and treat drug abuse. But the debate has hardly 
penetrated West African countries, many of which are struggling to 
recover from war, as well as poverty and corruption.

Mr Mazzitelli of the UNODC said a crack epidemic will only add to the 
region's woes.

"If the issue is not addressed in the short term - in the mid-run 
certainly - together with its already important health problems, they 
will have to face the problems of drug dependency and of the violence 
that drug dependency generates."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom