Pubdate: Mon, 16 Nov 2009
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2009 Los Angeles Times
Page: Front Page, continued on pages A16 and A17
Author: Scott Kraft, Reporting from Bissau, Guinea-Bissau

Forgotten Countries


On the Route From South America to Europe, Unstable Guinea-Bissau Is 
the Ideal Stop for a Drug Smuggler.

The unstable nation, along with other West African countries, makes 
an ideal stop for cartels smuggling drugs from South America to Europe.

As a senior police official, Edmundo Mendes' job is to arrest the 
South American cocaine traffickers who use his troubled West African 
country, with its starry array of remote islands, as a transit point 
for drug shipments bound for Europe. It hasn't been easy.

To demonstrate, Mendes walked a few steps from his office into the 
gritty mix of smoke and car exhaust in downtown Bissau. He fished a 
ring of keys from his pocket and made quick work of a rusty padlock. 
The metal door groaned open to a small courtyard. Across the way was 
a room, about 10 by 15 feet, where four men looked out drowsily from 
behind a barred, glass-less window.

This holding cell is the only jail in a country of nearly 2 million.

"We live in paradise and hell at the same time," said Mendes, a 
baby-faced 35-year-old with master's and doctoral degrees from France 
and Portugal. "In paradise, there are no prisons. In hell, there are 
no prisons. Without a prison, all the work we do is for nothing. At 
the moment, this is a paradise for criminals."

That's just one reason Guinea- Bissau has been an easy mark for the 
world's drug cartels.

The country's navy has a single aging ship to search for smugglers, 
and the head of the navy fled the country amid accusations that he 
was involved in the drug trade. When a Gulfstream jet from Venezuela 
landed last year at the Bissau international airport, its 
$250-million cargo of cocaine was whisked away in army trucks before 
police arrived. A judge freed the three Venezuelan pilots, including 
one wanted on an arrest warrant from Mexico.

Then, in one 12-hour period this year, the army chief of staff was 
killed by a bomb in his office and his soldiers retaliated by hacking 
the president to death in his kitchen. Three months later, soldiers 
killed a presidential candidate and two former government ministers 
whom they accused of plotting a coup.

Disputes over the drug trade are believed to have played a role in 
the mayhem. But the investigation has stalled because the soldiers 
refuse to be questioned.

$70-Billion Market

West Africa is among the world's poorest, least developed and most 
politically unstable regions. This patchwork of coastal nation-states 
has long been exploited by international profiteers, from the slave 
traders who fed off it for centuries to the European colonizers who 
later tried to sculpt tropical replicas of France, England and Portugal.

Today it is buffeted by another outside force: the $70-billion global 
cocaine market. As much as a third of the cocaine that moves from 
South America to Europe every year goes through West Africa. Since 
2005, cocaine with a wholesale value of more than $7 billion has 
passed through this region, according to the United Nations Office on 
Drugs and Crime.

This new route reflects a shift in consumption. Cocaine exports to 
the United States have declined, but they have doubled and tripled to 
European countries, where the strength of the euro against the dollar 
has brought more revenue for traffickers.

Law enforcement efforts have made the direct route from South America 
to Europe riskier for traffickers, causing them to detour through 
this part of the world. Cocaine arrives here in large shipments, 
sometimes by air but more often by sea. It is broken into smaller 
parcels that come ashore -- where officials are paid off in cash or 
in kind -- or continue north by boat, truck or plane toward Europe.

"West Africa has everything criminals need: resources, a strategic 
location, weak governance, and an endless source of foot soldiers who 
see few viable alternatives to a life of crime," a recent U.N. report 

A day after the Gulfstream arrived in Guinea-Bissau in July 2008, a 
twin-engine Cessna landed about 300 miles south, at the international 
airport near Freetown, Sierra Leone. This one was met by local and 
international authorities, who seized $350 million worth of cocaine 
and arrested seven men from Colombia, Venezuela and the United States.

In Guinea, a nation on the coast between Guinea-Bissau and Sierra 
Leone, the death of a president and a military coup led to bloody 
confrontations with protesters in September -- and revelations that 
the late president's family was deeply involved in cocaine 
trafficking. The president's son, an army officer, has admitted 
clearing cocaine shipments that arrived in planes marked with the 
symbol of the Red Cross.

That same month, authorities in Ghana seized 350 pounds of cocaine, 
valued at $8 million, on a ship arriving from South America, the 
second major seizure there since May.

"Drug trafficking here evolves at a much faster rate than in places 
like Afghanistan and South America," said Alexandre Schmidt, the U.N. 
drug office's representative for West and Central Africa. "When we 
become aware of trafficking routes in West Africa, the drug 
traffickers are already one step ahead."

The U.N. launched a $50-million effort this year to train and outfit 
West African police, beginning with Sierra Leone.

"You're never going to stop the drug flow through West Africa," said 
Rudolfo Landeros, a former assistant police chief in Austin, Texas, 
who is senior police advisor to the U.N. in Sierra Leone. "But we 
have to take a stand somewhere and it might as well be here, so 
Sierra Leone doesn't become like Guinea-Bissau."

Stability First

Guinea-Bissau has been called Africa's only narco-state, a nation 
controlled and corrupted by drug cartels. In many ways, it is an 
ideal host for the parasitic drug trade. Since independence in 1974, 
the onetime Portuguese colony has suffered coups d'etat, 
dictatorships and civil wars.

The elegant facade of the presidential palace, on a traffic circle 
honoring the independence struggle, is a ghostly monument to that 
past: Its gutted interior is blackened by the bombs of civil war a 
decade ago. An American aid organization has unearthed 3,000 
anti-personnel mines in the capital and is still digging up 
unexploded ordnance in the countryside.

"I'm taking on a sick state in all aspects," said Guinea-Bissau's 
president, Malam Bacai Sanha, who took office in September.

"We have serious problems, and drugs is just one of them," Sanha 
said. He cited increasing deaths from malaria, a flood of counterfeit 
medicines, poor roads, rickety schools, and a lack of reliable 
electricity and clean water. "The first medicine the country needs is 
stability," he said.

Stability is a lofty goal. If the 62-year-old leader survives the 
next five years, he will be the first head of state to complete a 
term of office in 35 years of independence.

"I will pray to God every single day of those five years," he said 
with a chuckle.

Like other politicians in West Africa, Sanha doesn't put a high 
priority on drug interdiction.

"It's not just Guinea-Bissau's problem," he said. "These drugs don't 
come here to stay. Our people cannot afford drugs."

Allegations that government officials and military officers are 
involved in the drug trade "is just talk without proof," Sanha said. 
But he recognizes that foreign aid is linked to progress on the drug 
front. "We cannot ask the international community to help us if we 
allow drugs to be sent to their countries from here," he said.

One sign pointing to an influx of drug money is the flurry of 
activity in a seaside suburb known as the "ministers' quarter." 
Bissau has few wealthy businessmen, no industry and no foreign 
exports other than peanuts. The average income is less than $2 a day. 
Yet construction crews in that neighborhood are building 
pastel-colored two-story homes with ocean views. Workers at the sites 
declined to identify the owners.

Guinea-Bissau was an inviting target for traffickers primarily 
because of the Bijagos Archipelago, 70 beautiful islands that were 
once a stopping point for seafaring traders. Only about 20 of the 
islands are inhabited, but many have natural ports and abandoned 
airstrips built by Portugal during the war for independence.

"Our concern now is that the traffickers are changing their modus 
operandi," said Mendes, deputy director of the judicial police. "They 
used to bring drugs in by plane, but now it's ships at sea. This is a 
big problem for us. We don't have the means to control our coast."

Mendes leads a staff of three dozen officers, about a tenth of what 
he figures he needs to do his job. The judicial police, the only one 
of nine government police forces in the country responsible for drug 
interdiction, do make arrests, mostly of locals with small amounts of 
cocaine who are foot soldiers for the cartels.

Some are freed by corrupt judges, Mendes says, and the others get off 
with fines because there's no prison to hold them. International 
governments recently agreed to build a high-security prison in 
Bissau, but it won't be completed before the end of next year.

On the outskirts of the capital is the Municipal Cemetery, where the 
late president, Joao Bernardo Vieira, and the army chief of staff, 
Batista Tagme na Waie, are buried about 100 yards apart, beneath the 
shade of mango and acacia trees in a setting overgrown with stiff 
grass and weeds.

The motives for those assassinations remain a mystery. Tagme had 
reportedly told his officers that if anything happened to him, they 
should assume the president did it. Tagme's troops listened; they 
went to Vieira's home after the bombing and killed the president. But 
Mendes says his commission has concluded that the president was not 
behind the general's killing.

Some believe it was a battle over power in a country where the 
defense force -- 4,500 troops, with three officers to every private 
- -- has long held sway. Others suspect that the cause was either a 
dispute over the missing cocaine from the Gulfstream or a battle for 
control of the drug trade.

What is clear is that moving cocaine through a small country like 
Guinea-Bissau requires help from the government or the military, or both.

"You must have the approval of someone in authority," the U.N.'s Schmidt said.

An Empty Plane

The private Gulfstream jet from Venezuela swooped low over a sodden 
landscape marbled with chocolate-colored rivers and muddy roads, and 
landed at the forlorn little airport in Bissau.

No customs officers or immigration agents appeared because no flights 
were expected. The plane's contents were unloaded into a convoy of 
Guinea-Bissau army vehicles as it was refueled. It took off again, 
but a problem with the landing gear forced the pilot to turn back. 
Three days later, a plane arrived with parts and a mechanic from 
Senegal. But the plane couldn't be fixed.

Five days passed before the judicial police learned of the plane's 
existence. By then, the plane was empty; even the flight recorder was 
gone. The army contended it had been carrying medicine for troops. 
International drug investigators, using dogs, concluded otherwise: 
The missing cargo was cocaine, 1,300 pounds, by the U.N.'s estimate.

The Gulfstream remains at the airport, parked next to the control 
tower. Its owner is listed as a holding company in Delaware, and a 
few months before it landed in Bissau it was photographed in Florida. 
The government may put it on the auction block.

As for the cocaine, it long ago disappeared into the countryside. 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake