Torrent of cocaine threatens to destabilize country

Officials worry that an influx of drug traffic would swamp the economy of tiny Guinea-Bissau.

Associated Press
Published November 4, 2007

DAKAR, Senegal - Amid growing demand in Europe, South American traffickers are moving billions of dollars worth of cocaine through the tiny West African nation of Guinea-Bissau, an amount so large it dwarfs all other economic sectors combined and could destabilize the coup-prone country, a top U.N. official said.

Guinea-Bissau's minuscule economy has traditionally been driven by cashew, fish and peanut exports that only total around $100-million annually. Though the country of 1.5-million people suffered a 1998-1999 civil war, rivals there - unlike nearby resource-rich Nigeria, Liberia and Sierra Leone - have had little to fight over. At least until now.

"The fear is that the influx of drug money can easily generate a situation of instability, because the appetite among different local partners to get involved is getting bigger and bigger," said Antonio Mazzitelli, West Africa director of the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime, during an interview Thursday. "It's no different than other wars and conflicts in West Africa in which diamonds or oil have created instability. It's a dangerous situation."

Officials in Guinea-Bissau could not immediately be reached for comment.

South American drug traffickers began arriving in Guinea-Bissau several years ago to exploit West Africa's little-policed coastline, using it as a transshipment point to smuggle cocaine to Europe, where it fetches two to three times its value on U.S. streets.

The government estimates as much as 1,750 pounds of cocaine transit the country's borders each week.

With wholesale prices for the drug worth more than $18,000 per pound in Spain and almost $32,000 per pound in Norway, the business in Guinea-Bissau alone is worth at least $1.6-billion per year - more than five times the nation's gross domestic product.

Nobody knows exactly how much of that money stays behind in Guinea-Bissau for bribes, logistic support and aid.

"The flow of money can't be compared to any other sector. It's money falling from the sky," Mazzitelli said. "Drug trafficking has the potential to be the largest financial revenue in the country."

Guinea-Bissau is poorly equipped to fight a drug war.

The country has just a few small boats to patrol its Bijagos archipelago, an array of dozens of remote islands off its eastern shore. On land, judicial police - responsible for drug arrests and investigations - number in the dozens and have no firearms, no handcuffs, one crumbling jail and vehicles so scarce they sometimes have to borrow them to make arrests.

Drug traffickers, by contrast, have a seemingly endless arsenal of boats, planes, technology and weapons at their disposal - and plenty of cash to bribe poorly paid officials.

Though international narcotics experts and diplomats suspect officials in the highest levels of Guinea-Bissau's government and military are involved in facilitating the trade, there has been scant evidence to prove it.

Since independence in 1974, Guinea-Bissau has suffered two coups and one civil war. The leader of the last coup in 2003 was killed a year later by disgruntled army officers, but the nation has been relatively stable since.

The traffickers "may paradoxically be an element of stability in the short term because they will pay in order to preserve the status quo, which is a country unable to face them," Mazzitelli said.

"They have no interest in violence, which would hurt their business and further attract international attention. But how long can it last and at what price for the country and the region?"