Pubdate: Sun, 11 Apr 2010
Source: New York Times Magazine (NY)
Page: MM42
Copyright: 2010 The New York Times Company
Note: The New York Times Magazine is a section of the Sunday edition 
of the New York Times
Author: James Traub


On the tarmac of Osvaldo Vieira, the international airport of the 
West African coastal country of Guinea-Bissau, sits a once-elegant 
Gulfstream jet, which in the normal course of events would have no 
reason to land in a country with no business opportunities and 
virtually no economy.

In recent years, however, Guinea-Bissau has emerged as a nodal point 
in three-way cocaine-trafficking operations linking producers in 
South America with users in Europe; the value of the cocaine that 
transits this small and heartbreakingly impoverished country dwarfs 
its gross national product.

The Gulfstream arrived unexpectedly from Venezuela on July 12, 2008, 
and taxied to a hangar at the adjacent military airbase - where 
soldiers formed a line and unloaded its contents.

The contents, reportedly more than a half-ton of cocaine, vanished.

The crew was arrested and released.

The army permitted the government to impound the plane only after 
several days. Since then, the plane has sat in the harsh sun, a 
reminder of Guinea-Bissau's helplessness before forces far more 
powerful than itself.

The most evident of those forces are South American crime syndicates 
with billions of dollars at their disposal and new markets to 
explore. But the dynamic before which Guinea-Bissau and its neighbors 
along the West African coast are truly helpless is globalization, 
which ensures that producers will find a way to deliver all things 
insatiably desired, whether good or bad. West Africa, which neither 
produces nor consumes significant quantities of cocaine, is a victim 
of changes in global supply and demand.

Partly because of heightened American and South American efforts in 
recent years, the flow of cocaine to the United States diminished. 
Traffickers increasingly turned to Europe, where cocaine use grew 
significantly over the last decade. European law-enforcement 
officials responded by cracking down on air and maritime routes from 
South America. And the traffickers in turn adapted by establishing 
the West Africa connection.

Just as the efficient marketplaces of the world's financial capitals 
serve as the nexus for global trade, so ungoverned or remote places 
offer an indispensable service for global criminals.

And West Africa includes 10 of the 20 lowest scorers on the United 
Nations' index of development; governments are correspondingly 
brittle and corrupt. Guinea-Bissau furnished grim proof of the 
region's political frailty a week and a half ago, when mutinous 
soldiers overthrew the army chief of staff, whom Western officials 
had viewed as a bulwark in the fight against drug trafficking. 
Guinea-Bissau and its neighbors offer to South American drug 
traffickers what the impenetrable terrain of the Hindu Kush offers to 
Al Qaeda and the Taliban - a place beyond the reach of law. The U.N. 
Office on Drugs and Crime estimated that 40 tons of cocaine, with a 
street value of $1.8 billion, crossed West Africa on the way to 
Europe in 2006. The number has now dropped significantly, but many 
law-enforcement officials view this as a pause before further adaptation.

In the last few years, West African states began to wake up to the 
dangers of the drug trade, which is swamping their tiny economies and 
corrupting - or further corrupting - their politics.

American and European leaders have, if belatedly, become equally 
alarmed: the U.N. Security Council has recognized drug trafficking as 
a threat to international peace and security.

Last summer, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held hearings on 
the subject.

Douglas Farah, a former investigative journalist who now studies 
crime and terrorism at the International Assessment and Strategy 
Center, a research institution in Alexandria, Va., testified that 
criminal organizations and terrorists "use the same pipelines, the 
same illicit structures and exploit the same state weaknesses." Such 
organizations are increasingly converging and even forming "hybrid" 
bodies like the FARC in Colombia. Farah predicted the emergence of 
such groupings in West Africa "in the very near future"; they may, he 
added, already exist. So far, however, the international community 
has found it as frustrating to stem the flow of cocaine through West 
Africa as it has to root out jihadists in North Waziristan.

According to U.N. reports, as well as American law-enforcement and 
intelligence officials, cocaine crosses the Atlantic from South 
America either in small planes, including Cessna turboprops outfitted 
with an extra bladder of fuel, or in commercial fishing vessels or cargo ships.

The drugs are then transported in bulk along one of several routes.

Some are taken to the international airports in Dakar, Senegal and 
Accra, Ghana or elsewhere, where they are generally swallowed in 
relatively small amounts by couriers and flown to European cities.

Other shipments are transported northward by truck or carried 
overland across ancient smuggling routes before crossing the 
Mediterranean into southern Europe. The African couriers and crime 
syndicates are often paid in "product," which has the additional 
effect of creating a local market for cocaine.

Alexandre Schmidt, head of the U.N. drug office in West Africa, says 
he was struck by the astonishing nimbleness of the traffickers, who 
seem to pick up and discard routes and countries spontaneously. 
Nigerian gangs have begun to assert more control over the front end 
of the process and also increasingly dominate - and profit from - the 
delivery of the drugs to Europe, whether by sea or air. Schmidt says 
that while the traffickers route drugs through the weakest states, 
they take advantage of the stronger ones, like Senegal and Ivory 
Coast, for logistics and money laundering.

Trafficking patterns have begun to evolve in frightening directions. 
Last summer, authorities in Guinea, a country neighboring 
Guinea-Bissau that is widely viewed as a virtual narco-state, alerted 
the U.N. drug office to elaborate laboratories and a vast cache of 
"precursor" chemicals, which could have been used to manufacture as 
much as $170 million worth of the drug Ecstasy, as well as to refine 
cocaine. In November, an old Boeing 727, which had taken off in 
Colombia, crossed West African airspace and touched down on an 
airstrip controlled by terrorist groups in the desert of Mali. The 
plane was almost certainly carrying cocaine and perhaps guns as well; 
no one knows, since the cargo was unloaded before the plane was 
burned. Late last year, in a separate case, federal prosecutors in 
New York indicted three Malian men who they say had promised to 
transport drugs across the desert in league with Al Qaeda, which 
would serve as the security arm of the operation; officials said one 
of the men is caught on tape claiming that he regularly supplied 
extremist forces with gasoline and food.

Bissau, the capital of Guinea-Bissau, is among the most pitiful of 
African capitals.

On my first morning in town, I walked over to the harbor, where the 
elegant Portuguese villas along the water had turned black with mold. 
Back in the center of town - a distance of three blocks - I peeked 
into the Mercado Central, which looked like an archaeological ruin, 
with concrete pillars standing in a wasteland; it burned down years before.

Scarcely anything has been built since the independence movement 
finished forcing out the Portuguese in 1974 (not that the Portuguese 
did much to develop the country, any more than they did in Angola or 
Mozambique). Vendors selling fruit and palm oil and cheap hardware 
lined the streets, as they would in any provincial African town. 
Swarms of children in filthy T-shirts thrust forward empty tin cans, 
crying "esmola" - alms. Everyone seemed to be hungry.

Guinea-Bissau has fertile soil, and it enjoys the intrinsic advantage 
of an Atlantic coastline.

But generations of colonial neglect have been followed by decades of 
sovereign neglect.

Coups and attempted coups are a regular feature of its brief history.

President Joao Bernardo Vieira, ousted in 1999, was permitted to 
return in 2005, a period that coincided with the first stirrings of 
the three-cornered drug trade.

Vieira and elements of the military swiftly established links with 
the traffickers. Geography conspired as well, for the roughly 90 
islands of the Bijagos of Guinea-Bissau provided the perfect drop-off 
point for drug shipments.

Antonio Mazzitelli, Schmidt's predecessor at the U.N. drug office, 
says Guinea-Bissau sold narcotraffickers access to several islands in 
the Bijagos; the country's minister of justice at that time suggested 
to him that the international community secure islands of its own as 
a counterstrategy.

Guinea-Bissau offered proximity to Europe, a purchasable state 
structure, a desperate citizenry and a hopelessly overmatched police 
force. The Judiciary Police numbered a few dozen and had no vehicles 
and few weapons, handcuffs, flashlights - a serious problem in a 
capital with no streetlights - or even shoes.

Their prison consisted of a few locked rooms with barred windows in 
their headquarters on the road leading out of the capital.

Corruption was rife. And yet they made some spectacular arrests.

Jorge Djata, the deputy chief of the drug squad, told me that in 
September 2006, he received word of a shipment of drugs coming into 
Bissau from a town to the northwest.

He and several colleagues jumped into one of the rattletrap Mercedes 
taxis that ply the city's streets, followed the car to a house rented 
by Colombians and took them by surprise.

The haul was 674 kilograms, or nearly 1,500 pounds, of cocaine with a 
street value of about $50 million.

What happened next, however, defines the problems of law enforcement 
in countries like Guinea-Bissau even more than does the lack of shoes 
and guns and cars. Djata and his colleagues took the three Colombians 
and the drugs to their headquarters. Then, Djata says: "We got a call 
from the prime minister's office saying that we must yield up the 
drugs to the civil authorities. They said the drugs would not be 
secure in police headquarters, and they must be taken to the public 
treasury." A squad of heavily armed Interior Ministry police 
surrounded the building.

Djata said his boss replied, "We will bring the drugs ourselves, and 
then we will burn them." Government officials refused.

Djata and his men relented, and the drugs were taken to the public treasury.

And soon, of course, they disappeared - as did the Colombians.

The high-ranking military officials who coordinated the arrival and 
unloading of the Gulfstream in 2008 were never charged, and the case 
was closed for lack of evidence.

Ansumane Sanha, who served until recently as one of three magistrates 
investigating drug cases, told me that South American dealers were 
frequently issued Guinea-Bissau passports. They drove around the 
dusty, pitted streets of Bissau in Hummers and Jaguars. The 
parliamentary elections of November 2008, though generally deemed 
fair by international observers, were viewed by the Bissau-Guineans 
themselves as a raucous bidding war. "The streets were full of 4-by-4 
cars," recalls Luis Vaz Martins, the president of a local 
nongovernmental organization, the Human Rights League of 
Guinea-Bissau. "The parties would give cars to any influential man. 
I've never seen so many members of Parliament who were drug dealers." 
Vaz Martins says the dealers scrambled for cabinet posts, above all 
the ministries of interior and fisheries. Why fisheries? "This is the 
most important," Vaz Martins explains. "The drugs come by plane, and 
they're dropped into the sea, and if you're the minister of 
fisheries, you can send boats to pick them up." The navy had a few 
boats as well, used for the same purpose.

The police, of course, had no boats.

Guinea-Bissau seems hopelessly afflicted with bad government. On the 
evening of March 1, 2009, the army chief of staff, Gen. Batista 
Thagme Na Waie, was assassinated in an explosion.

Hours later, President Vieira was hacked to death.

Vieira may have had Thagme killed; or the murder may have been 
carried out by drug dealers who felt double-crossed. Soldiers loyal 
to Thagme appear to have killed the president in revenge, though some 
speculate that forces in the military were responsible for both 
assassinations. Neither murder has been solved or is likely to be. 
The killings eliminated at a stroke two of Guinea-Bissau's founding 
fathers as well as two of its most notorious figures.

Trafficking dropped in the aftermath, possibly because drug lords no 
longer knew who could guarantee their security. Thagme was replaced 
by Gen. Jose Zamora Induta, an intellectual respected for his integrity.

In July, Malam Bacai Sanha, another figure then believed to have no 
known ties to trafficking, was elected president.

But the recent coup may have dashed all hopes for reform. Not only 
was Induta deposed, but mutinous soldiers also liberated from a U.N. 
office a notorious naval official who had once been forced to flee 
the country after allegations of drug corruption. That figure, Adm. 
Jose Americo Bubo na Tchuto, is now the new deputy chief of staff.

During my visit - before the coup, of course - senior government 
officials assured me that all the bad things were in the past. The 
justice minister, Mamadou Saliu Djalo Pires, whom international 
enforcement officials view as one of their key allies, said, "The new 
cabinet is very conscious of the problem of impunity." He said 
prosecutors were working on indictments in the Gulfstream case; 
high-ranking military officials would be brought to justice.

In fact, the military still essentially controls Guinea-Bissau, and 
few believe that General Induta exercised real control over senior 
officers. Nevertheless, the international community felt at the time 
that it finally had partners it could work with and had been lining 
up with offers of equipment and training.

While I was in town, the French ambassador held a ceremony to hand 
over to the police three new 4-by-4 vehicles, worth about $70,000. 
The United Nations drug office held a daylong workshop with officials 
representing Portugal, Spain, the European Union and other countries, 
as well as key domestic enforcement figures.

The police have a new headquarters in a converted colonial-era 
structure with pillared galleries.

They have computers, courtesy of the U.N. drug office.

Stacks of filing cabinets from a company in Muscatine, Iowa, still in 
their shrink wrap, were sitting next to the driveway when I arrived.

Sixty new recruits were recently trained in Brazil, bringing the 
total force to about 180; one member of the force told me that they 
were now being paid about $100 a month - and, more important, 
actually receiving their wages.

The U.N. drug office had agreed to pay for fuel for the new fleet of 
cars and motorbikes. Still, the day I visited, the computer 
terminals, like the filing cabinets, were sitting in plastic covers, 
and I had the strong impression they hadn't been used. It was 3 in 
the afternoon on Friday, and most of the squad had knocked off for the weekend.

The advent of a seemingly more progressive administration didn't 
appear to have changed much. Jorge Djata of the drug squad told me 
that the police often had to ask for fuel, money or a boat before 
going out on an operation. "And if we ask, sometimes we have to wait 
for 48 hours," he said. "In the meantime, the plane has landed and 
flown away." Lucinda Eucarie, the widely respected new director of 
the Judiciary Police, confirmed that the Ministry of Fisheries often 
refuses to supply boats, though she diplomatically declined to give a 
direct answer to my question of whether the ministry was controlled 
by drug traffickers. Even before the coup, Alexandre Schmidt said he 
often felt vexed at the Bissau-Guineans. The demands for help and the 
accompanying sense of dependency seem bottomless. Still, he said that 
he believed in Madame Lucinda, as she is universally known, and in 
other senior officials, and he was more hopeful about Guinea-Bissau 
than about a number of other countries in the region.

Of course, that was then. When I reached Schmidt in France in the 
hours after the soldiers' mutiny, he sounded distraught - in no small 
part because of tanks that had surrounded the office of his U.N. 
colleagues in Bissau. "The situation is extremely weird," he said. 
"With the U.N.'s presence in doubt with the return of this new 
regime, where do we stand with narcotics efforts?" And President 
Sanha, whom he had viewed as an ally, has apparently endorsed the coup.

Everybody wants to help West Africa with its drug problem: the U.N. 
Office on Drugs and Crime and other U.N. bodies, Interpol, the 
European Union, the West African regional organization known as 
Ecowas, individual European states and the United States. The United 
Nations, Interpol and Ecowas are spending $50 million in four 
countries partly to build "transnational crime units," interagency 
bodies that will gather information, conduct investigations and turn 
over their findings to prosecutorial authorities. An agency of Ecowas 
monitors money laundering throughout the region.

A group of European countries deploys ships and narcotics officers to 
interdict boats carrying drugs from West Africa to Europe. A 
multitude of U.S. government agencies, coordinated by the new African 
Command, provide equipment to law-enforcement groups, as well as 
training for those groups and naval and coastal officers.

But those who know the problems best tend to be the least confident.

Flemming Quist, the senior law-enforcement adviser at the U.N. drug 
office in Dakar, says that he feels hopeful about programs like the 
transnational crime units, but adds, "We can keep on pumping in 
training and equipment, but if we don't solve corruption, it's not 
going to achieve the full affect." Can outsiders solve corruption? 
Quist doesn't think so.

Schmidt has an idea about what to do with the Gulfstream jet: Sell it 
and invest the proceeds in social programs.

Converting drug contraband into clinics would send just the right 
message. Unfortunately, other officials told me that the plane has 
been sitting in the tropical sun so long that it might have to be 
sold off in pieces.

James Traub, a contributing writer for the magazine, is the author, 
most recently, of "The Freedom Agenda." 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake