By Joseph Winter
How can you hope to battle organised, rich and ruthless international drugs gangs when there is not even a proper prison in the country? This is the problem faced by the authorities in Guinea-Bissau, which some fear could be on its way to becoming Africa’s first “narco-state”.
Guinea-Bissau is the most glaring example of the increasing use of West Africa by Latin American cocaine traffickers to get their wares into Europe.
The country is wracked by poverty, coups, political unrest and has a coastline full of uninhabited islands, creeks and swamps, providing the perfect cover for smugglers.
The problems are illustrated by three incidents which would be hilarious, if they did not reveal how vulnerable poor states are to the quick hit of drug money.
In April, an estimated 2.5 metric tons of cocaine was flown into a military air-strip in Guinea-Bissau.
Two soldiers were arrested in cars packed with 635kg of the drug but the rest of the shipment got through, officials from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) believe, because the police did not have enough petrol in their cars to pursue the other traffickers.
Nevertheless, UNODC West Africa head Antonio Mazzitelli says the police officers involved were “heroes”.
“They risked their lives, even though they had not been paid for three months at the time,” he told the BBC News website.
Some senior officials, especially in the military, however, seem to have become involved in trafficking drugs.
For safe-keeping, it was put in the treasury vaults, where it “disappeared”.
The then Prime Minister Aristides Gomes recently sought to allay fears it had returned to drugs gangs, by saying that he had ordered it to be burnt.
But Mr Mazzitelli points out that there is no evidence that it was actually destroyed.
The third incident took place in 2005.
If Africa is not allowed to export legitimate produce, it will export drugs, prostitutes and illegal migrants
Local fishermen in Quinhamel, 30km west of Bissau, discovered strange packets of white powder floating in the sea.
With no idea of what the powder was, some used it to provide more flavour to their daily diet of rice and fish, while others thought it might help their crops grow and used it as fertiliser.
Eventually, word got out to the traffickers, who turned up in the village to buy back what was left of their cargo after their boat had sunk.
In the past two weeks, almost 2.5 tons of cocaine has been found in neighbouring Senegal – half on board a deserted sailing boat, along with plane tickets from Brazil to Bissau.
Officials battling to stem the flow of drugs from Latin America to Europe say they have managed to reduce both direct shipments and smuggling via the Caribbean, which had been one of the main routes.
Half the Senegal haul was hidden under a villa, half on a boat
So now the smugglers have switched their operations to West Africa.
Interpol estimates that more than a third of the cocaine arriving in Europe is trafficked through West Africa.
“We’ve been fighting the drugs war for 30 years – now a new front has opened up,” a veteran international police official says.
He warns, however, that a successful way of reducing supply has not yet been found, while there is such strong demand in the West
Interpol will this week discuss doing more to help African authorities battle drug smugglers – but they are playing catch-up, while the trafficking networks are already well entrenched.
Portugal also says it will raise the issue during its six-month presidency of the European Union, which has just begun.
Large shipments – 2.5 tons seems to be a common amount – are either flown or shipped across the Atlantic Ocean.
Bags are sometimes dropped from the air onto some of Guinea-Bissau’s 70-odd uninhabited islands, where they are picked up by local smugglers on speed boats.
We have been lucky in the past six months
The large shipments are then either broken into smaller quantities and taken to Europe by plane or boat, or sailed in bulk straight up the coast to Portugal and Spain.
The boat found in Senegal contained 1.2 tons of cocaine, divided into 50 bags, each containing 24kg.
After years of chronic instability and extreme poverty, some West African states hardly function.
Judges in Guinea-Bissau complain that even if a drugs smuggler is captured, taken to court and convicted – already three rare events – they are often walking the streets again within days.
After the only prison was destroyed in a civil war, there is nowhere to hold convicts.
If a cell is found somewhere, top military officials often turn up and insist they are freed, judges say.
“There is total impunity,” Nelson Moreira, head of Guinea-Bissau’s inter-ministerial commission to fight drugs, told the BBC’s Portuguese for Africa service.
Mr Mazzitelli says that the profit on trafficking a single 600kg shipment of cocaine from Africa to Europe was about $15m in 2005.
He notes that this is about 20% of all foreign aid to the country in 2006, 14% of annual export revenues and three times the amount of foreign investment.
“This shows how vulnerable African states are,” he says.
Although there has been a dramatic increase in cocaine seizures in the region, Mr Mazzitelli points out most have been “accidents” – mostly after a plane or boat has broken down and its cargo has then been discovered.
“We have been lucky in the past six months,” he says.
The UK has tried to take preventative action by stationing anti-drugs officers and equipment in the main airport in Ghana’s capital, Accra.
Eight would-be smugglers were caught within the first six weeks of the operation at the end of last year.
As they were arrested and imprisoned in Ghana, rather than the UK, where prison care is far more expensive, the equipment paid for itself in that time, UK customs officials say.
Mr Mazzitelli says most West African countries are still reacting to events, rather than taking any pro-active measures.
But he points out that most cocaine is shipped to Africa for re-export, not for local consumption.
“Drugs are not a priority for Africa – and never will be – unless the international community makes it one,” he says.
He warns, however, that the inflow of the drugs money has a hugely corrupting influence on already weak states, which could end up as empty shells – cover for officials seeking to become rich.
He says if European countries want to stop cocaine reaching their streets via Africa, they must provide more funds to the police and judiciary – so police officers and judges are paid, they have enough petrol in their cars and prisons to lock up those convicted.
“Otherwise it is a lost battle,” he warns.