My investigation in the Guardian:
Guinea-Bissau’s Bijagós islands look like a tourists’ paradise – the 88 mostly uninhabited islets are filled with palm trees and white, sandy beaches. But the archipelago has been best known as a smugglers’ paradise.
Described by the UN as a narco state, Guinea-Bissau has long been a drug trafficking hub for South American cocaine cartels. And although this illegal trade appears to be declining thanks to US and UN counter-narcotic policies, the country still bears the scars and remains dogged by the same poverty and institutional weaknesses that allowed the drugs industry to take hold in the first place.
On Bubaque, the main inhabited island, there are no roads, just dirt tracks. People live in mud-brick homes, and pigs and dogs meander in the streets. Most of the small guesthouses are empty; despite nascent efforts to promote the islands’ rich biodiversity, tourism has yet to take off. At Bubaque’s airstrip on a November day, the small terminal was empty and men on bikes rode along the “runway”, hacked out of the grass and scrub.
This isolation was one of the elements that attracted drug traffickers to this area in the heyday of west African drug trafficking in the first decade of the millennium.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says it became clear around 2005 that drugs worth billions of dollars were being shipped through west Africa. Between 2005 and 2007 (pdf), more than 20 major seizures were made in the region, most at sea but some on land. Hundreds of commercial air couriers were detected carrying cocaine from west Africa to Europe.
The UNODC noted that the same period saw coups, attempted coups and even the assassination of a president in Guinea-Bissau. “While the conflict appears to have occurred along well established political faultlines, competition for cocaine profits raised the stakes and augmented tensions between rival groups,” it said.
After the US Drug Enforcement Administration arrested Guinea-Bissau’s former navy chief, José Américo Bubo Na Tchuto, in 2013 for trafficking cocaine into the US, smuggling briefly slowed.
The ambassador of a European country in Bissau, who did not want to be named, said drug smuggling had declined since Na Tchuto was arrested. “Before this, local smugglers were brazen, driving around in expensive cars,” he said. “But after the arrest of Na Tchuto, people became scared. They thought US drones were flying above the country.” There is no evidence that US drones came anywhere near Guinea-Bissau.
The former justice minister Carmelita Pires denied Guinea-Bissau was a narco state but acknowledged that smuggling occurred. “We don’t produce drugs and people here don’t have enough money to consume drugs,” she said. During her last period in government in 2014 and 2015, only 15 locals and foreigners were in jail for drug trafficking and 13.5kg of cocaine was intercepted. She realised this made only a small dent, but added: “We don’t have money and drug smugglers have so much of it.”
In November, UNODC told a press conference in Bissau that about 34,000kg of cocaine and 22,000kg of marijuana had been seized in Guinea-Bissau since 2011, with 58 traffickers prosecuted. However, limited resources meant constant monitoring was impossible, and drugs inevitably got through.
One factor behind the drop in trade is the West African Coast Initiative, a joint project between UN agencies, Interpol and the regional bloc Ecowas, which began in 2009 to fight drug smuggling, organised crime and drug use in Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast.
But the defence minister, Adiato Djaló Nandigna, said in December that the Bijagós islands were still the “most vulnerable” region in terms of drug smuggling. Portugal recently gave Guinea-Bissau two boats to plug surveillance gaps. According to multiple defence sources in Bissau, the country has no operational boats to fight the trade and no reliable police outposts outside the capital.
Fernando Jorge Barreto Costa, the deputy director of judicial police, said: “We have a lack of means to fight drug smugglers. Drugs are arriving more by sea than by plane and it’s very hard for us to investigate it. We don’t have the capability to intercept boats. If we receive news about drugs at sea, it takes two to three days to get an answer from authorities for action. This is too slow, and by then the drugs and people may have moved on.”
Guinea-Bissau is one of the world’s poorest countries, ranking 178 out of 188 in the UN’s human development index. Political instability has blighted the lives of its 1.8 million people; since independence in 1974, no leader has served a full term, and the nation is still recovering from a 2012 coup. In August, President José Mário Vaz sacked his government.
In March, international donors pledged more than €1bn (£726m) to support a 10-year development plan meant to attract tourists and investors, according to Reuters.
“Every effort must be deployed so that Guinea-Bissau will no longer be a burden on the international community but will instead become an example to be followed,” President Vaz said. Growth is expected to have risen to 4.7% in 2015, compared with 2.6% a year earlier, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Mario José Maia Moreira, UNODC’s representative in Guinea-Bissau, is leading a programme to support a transnational crime unit and the state’s first drug-testing lab. “Stability is the greatest issue facing Guinea-Bissau,” he said. “All the evidence shows that there’s a large quantity of drugs [still entering the nation], and whenever a political crisis comes you see [more].”