The Cocaine Crisis: How the Drug Trade Is Ruining West Africa

24 oct 2012 per

By Alex Perry / Bissau and Bamako 
— with reporting by Jessica Hatcher / Bissau, Bruce Crumley and Vivienne Walt / Paris and Nate Rawlings / Washington – Photo MARCO VERNASCHI / PULITZER CENTER – TIME – Monday, Oct. 22, 2012

Tiny Guinea-Bissau has become a base for cocaine trafficking between Latin America and Europe, and officials seem helpless to stop it

The first indication that the men cutting down cashew trees and filling in the ditch outside Quinta’s house in central Guinea-Bissau were not, as they told her, evangelicals making a clearing for a Christmas Day parade came at 9 p.m. on Dec. 18, when they returned in several cars accompanied by four white men and with a truck loaded with drums of aviation fuel. At 11 p.m., 20 soldiers arrived on a second truck and divided themselves into two groups. After setting up two checkpoints 2 km apart in Quinta’s village, Amedalae, the soldiers began unloading hundreds of large aluminum cooking bowls and placing them between the roadblocks, down both sides of the road. Then they filled the bowls with paraffin and lit them. “The light was amazing,” says Quinta, 62, who asked that her last name be withheld for her safety. “You’d have thought you were in Europe.”

At midnight Quinta heard a plane approaching. The twin prop touched down on the road, taxied up to Quinta’s house, then turned side-on, its nose and tail just fitting inside the clearing. The pilot cut the engines and threw open the cargo door. Pulling up in the two trucks, the civilians pumped fuel into the plane’s tanks while the soldiers formed a human chain to unload the plane. “The plane was full of big, white sacks — the kind you take to sell secondhand clothes at market,” says Quinta. “They filled one truck, then the other, then covered both trucks with tarpaulins.” The entire operation — landing, refueling and off-loading perhaps two tons of cocaine — took 30 minutes. As soon as it was done, the pilot started his engines, took off and banked away. The soldiers and civilians left immediately afterward.

The tiny nation of Guinea-Bissau today is the most brazen example of what happens when Latin America’s cocaine traffickers notice that halfway to Europe and just a four-hour flight across the Atlantic are a series of small, corruptible West African countries with scant airport security and no air forces or navies to speak of. In the time since smugglers moved in eight years ago, cocaine shipments to Europe have quintupled, to 350 tons a year — and the effect on West Africa has been disastrous. Since 2008, even as much of the continent has exploded economically, West Africa has seen five coups (Guinea-Bissau, Guinea-Conakry, Mali, Mauritania and Niger), two attempted coups (Gambia and Guinea-Conakry), two civil wars (Ivory Coast and Mali) and several assassinations. “Because many of these countries are emerging from serious civil wars and conflicts, they have no capacity to protect themselves against illicit drug traffic,” says Yuri Fedotov, executive director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). “[Then cocaine becomes] another factor for destabilization [and an] impediment to their development.”

The impact is felt far beyond Africa, however. While the harm to Europe’s health from drugs is obvious, the real danger may be to global security. In early 2011 the U.S. Treasury accused the Lebanese Shi’ite militants Hizballah — a U.S.-designated terrorist group — of financing itself via West African cocaine smuggling. This year cocaine cash helped Mali’s Islamist militants, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the group’s North African franchise, buy up large parts of Muammar Gaddafi’s arsenal after the former Libyan dictator was deposed. They then seized the entire north of Mali, establishing a de facto al-Qaeda state just a three-hour flight south of Europe. The Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in the Libyan city of Benghazi — in which local militants with ideological and personal links to Mali’s Islamists killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens — underscored just how unstable the region has become and highlighted the threat posed by North Africa’s suddenly well-armed and well-financed Islamists.

In our globalized world, the idea of a part of the map so off the grid as to allow cocaine, Islamists and Gaddafi’s weapons to meet and fuse may come as a shock. But this is the surreal reality now confronting the West. “This is not a small game,” says a Western diplomat in Guinea-Bissau who requested anonymity because he is concerned for his own safety. “This is about financing terrorism on Europe’s southern border, about drug money from Guinea-Bissau and Mali being used for a bomb in London.” Adds another diplomat based in Mali’s capital of Bamako: “The mission for the international community is to keep this from moving from where it is now, a really bad dream, to a total nightmare.”

Outgunned in Guinea-Bissau

In his sweltering office on a Bissau city backstreet, Joao Biague contemplates his career as the country’s lead anti-narcotics officer. “I am so tired,” says the 44-year-old national director of the judicial police — the equivalent of the FBI. “I studied law in Italy, and when I came back I was so confident about changing the country. But we’ve achieved nothing.”

Biague’s despair stems from a realization made a decade ago by smugglers from Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil. They had saturated the North American cocaine market, so like any business seeking growth, they began targeting an alternative: Europe. The usual transatlantic smuggling route was via the Caribbean and the Azores. But because the price of failure for traffickers is so much higher than for legitimate entrepreneurs, drug smugglers try to spread risk by constantly changing routes and methods. Opening a new passage from Venezuela or Suriname or Brazil to West Africa, less than 3,000 km away, offered the diversification they sought. “A few years ago, the European cocaine market was four times less than the American one,” says Fedotov. “Now they’re almost equal.”

After arriving in Africa through gateways like Guinea-Bissau, cocaine can make its way to Europe via many routes. The smugglers may be Latin American, African, European or Middle Eastern. They can contract local partners to smooth the way: ministers, diplomats, customs officials, soldiers, policemen, baggage handlers, aircrews, fishermen, even rebels or Saharan tribesmen. Accordingly, cocaine violence and narco-corruption has spread to all 14 countries in West Africa while Kenya, Mozambique and South Africa have also emerged as trafficking hubs.

The first Guinea-Bissau heard of cocaine was in 2005, when farmers on the coast outside Bissau telephoned a radio show to warn about sacks of a white fertilizer-like substance they had found washed up on the beach, which were killing their crops. Today the U.S. estimates that 30 tons of cocaine passes through Guinea-Bissau every year — a tenth of annual European consumption and, with a street value of $3 billion, more than three times the country’s GDP. The transit of such wealth across a small, poor country is difficult to hide, and Guinea-Bissau now hosts what may be the most open narco-trafficking industry in the world. Biague says several cocaine planes land a year; a week after the drop at Amedalae, there was a second on the same road. Other giveaways include an abandoned smugglers’ jet at Bissau airport, the new Bentleys and BMW SUVs plying the country’s dirt tracks and the menacing foreign men in sunglasses crowding Bissau’s paella restaurants. “Cocaine,” says a European resident, “is the only business in town.”

Just how big a business, Biague can’t even say. To fight smuggling in a territory that boasts 88 islands and endless mangrove swamps, Biague has but a few dozen agents, a handful of mobile phones for informers (though no budget for rewards) and five cars (but no cash for gas). “[All I know is] when the Hummers move, something’s happening,” he says. This year his men have seized just 2 kg of cocaine.

Just as problematic, Biague works — albeit indirectly — for the man accused of being Guinea-Bissau’s biggest cocaine smuggler. On April 12, Guinea-Bissau’s army chief, General Antonio Indjai, overthrew the government. While Indjai installed a replacement, there is little doubt where the power lies. Biague acknowledges the military plays a central role in trafficking but declines to name names, not least because he already receives death threats. Westerners are less coy. With the coup, says the Western diplomat in Guinea-Bissau, Indjai established himself not just as “chief of staff but also chief of drug trafficking.” “Guinea-Bissau is a narcostate, and the links between the military and cocaine are manifest,” he says. “Nothing can happen without Antonio Indjai.” But asked about accusations that he is involved in cocaine trafficking, Indjai tells TIME, “Show me the proof. All the people who are providing this information are crooks.”

Indjai’s coup made life more difficult for Guinea-Bissau in several ways. Foreign aid to the state was drying up over the previous government’s stalled economic and political reforms. Indjai’s takeover in April ensured it was suspended altogether. That may be high-minded in principle, but it has been counter-productive in practice. Reducing the state’s ability to pay the army is particularly dangerous, says Guinea-Bissau Prime Minister Rui Duarte Barros. “The only thing they know is how to pick up a gun. If they feel they have no alternative, they will revolt again.” Similarly crippled is the fight against trafficking. “I don’t have a penny for any operation,” says Biague. No surprise then that, according to the Western diplomat, the trafficking has doubled to 30 tons in the six months since the coup. Asked about the increase, Indjai requests a UNODC mission to investigate “whether it really has increased or not.” A second diplomat in Bissau says the international community shares the blame for any rise in smuggling. “Do I see anybody doing anything to fight drugs? No. People pulled out. And if you isolate Guinea-Bissau, they do what they have to to survive. You create the environment for more failure.”

The Narcostate

On Nov. 2, 2009, an ancient Boeing 727 was found burned out and lying on its side in the Sahara in northeastern Mali. That December, then UNODC chief Antonio Maria Costa told the U.N. Security Council that the plane showed West African drug trafficking was “taking on a whole new dimension.” UNODC investigators discovered that the smugglers had flown the large Bissau-registered jet from Venezuela across the Atlantic to Mali, unloaded several tons of cocaine, then, after finding the landing gear damaged in the rocky touchdown, torched the plane. Even more worrying than this new “larger, faster, more high-tech” smuggling or the revelation that traffickers could afford to burn planes, said Costa, was how “Air Cocaine” was “an example of the links between drugs, crime and terrorism.”

The area where the 727 was found, Sinkrebaka, sits in Azawad, the desert Tuareg homeland that includes parts of Mali, Mauritania, Algeria, Libya, Niger and Burkina Faso. Tuaregs are Berber nomads, legends in the Sahara for their ability to survive the desert and to thrive on trans-Sahara caravan trade routes. Tuaregs have staged intermittent separatist rebellions throughout history. A decade ago they were joined in northern Mali by several hundred Algerian Islamist militants fleeing defeat in that country’s bloody civil war. The militants ensured their acceptance by paying the Tuaregs to supply food and water. They remade themselves as Sahelian Salafi guerrillas, and in 2007 they took the moniker al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

In January a new Tuareg rebel group, the Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad, launched a fresh rebellion in Mali. They were aided by two other Islamist groups led by AQIM members: the Tuareg-dominated Ansar Eddine and the more Arab-accented Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa. For two months, the uprising achieved little. But in March a group of Malian army officers staged a mutiny in the capital, Bamako, which a fatigued President Amadou Toumani Touré elevated to a coup by vacating his palace. The rebels pounced. In three days in April, they took northern Mali’s three main cities of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal — essentially annexing the entire northern half of the country. The Islamists then turned on their Tuareg allies, pushing them into neighboring Burkina Faso and Mauritania.

How to explain the sudden fall of one of the most outwardly stable governments in West Africa — and the Islamists’ equally instant success? The same way you explain most successful revolutions: money and weapons. When cocaine traffickers arrived in West Africa, ethnic Arab traders in northern Mali started to take the drug in 4x4s across the same lawless void that was such a haven for the Islamists. Planes began making airdrops deep in the Sahara, says a 32-year-old driver who worked for a man called Oumar, whom he describes as the biggest trafficker in the city of Gao. Moving in teams as small as two pickups or as large as 45 trucks, the Arabs would drive the drug along old trans-Sahara trade routes through Algeria, Mauritania and Morocco to the Mediterranean. Soon Gao had a small industry of cocaine transporters: scores of young men with souped-up 4x4s. Oumar even built 25 villas in Gao to house them, an enclave city residents nicknamed Cocaine City.

Interaction between the smugglers and the Tuaregs is limited to purchasing safe passage. The precise relationship between the Arab traffickers and the Arab Islamists is disputed. Speaking by phone from northern Mali, the Islamists’ military chief Omar Hamaha says that while he currently has other priorities, “as Muslims, we would be the first to fight cocaine.” Few believe him. Journalists, analysts and politicians in Mali say that at the very least, militants escort the traffickers. Many describe some of the Islamists as a mafia in league with corrupt members of the Algerian army, moving drugs, money, weapons and illegal immigrants to Europe. A central figure in this industry, says a Malian military intelligence officer, is Hamaha. “Hamaha was just a poor guy from Timbuktu,” he says. “He built a network of traffickers, then turned them into the Islamists. Today they come to the cities, leave their pickups and weapons outside, put on turbans, preach in the mosques, slaughter sheep and invite everyone to eat. That’s how they earn support. The whole foundation is drugs.” Though the Islamists once earned millions from ransoming foreign hostages, that dried up as tourist numbers plunged, the intelligence officer says. “Today, the traffickers and the Islamists — it’s the same people.”

There is no contesting the links between drug trafficking and Mali’s deposed government. Oumar Mariko, a Malian opposition leader, says former President Touré’s government would buy off northern rebel leaders with proceeds from the trade. “The problem of the north became a business,” he says. The intelligence officer confirms official complicity. “We never stopped anything or arrested anyone,” he says. “When something big was going on, we were told not to go out.”

Such corruption ate away at the state. Judges sold verdicts. MPs auctioned legislation. The rot, says Mariko, destroyed the army’s command-and-control system. Disgusted with their predatory state, Malians began to express increasing approval for the stringent penalties of Islamist Shari’a. The knockout blow for Touré came when Tuaregs who fought for Gaddafi in Libya fled defeat with their weapons and created one of the world’s biggest, cheapest arms bazaars — offering everything from AK-47s to surface-to-air missiles — in Mali and Niger. Flush with drug money, the Islamists splurged. And when they took their new arsenal to war this year, the Malian army — armed with 50-year-old AK-47s and barely paid or fed — ran.

Drugs, Guns and Militants

The complexities of West Africa and the fluidity of the global cocaine trade make it impossible to draw a straight line between Latin America and the killings in Benghazi. At the same time, though, there is no doubt cocaine helps create the instability that impoverishes Guinea-Bissau and finances the radicalism that produces a leader like Hamaha.

There is also little chance of improvement, at least in the short term. Asked to predict Guinea-Bissau’s future, Biague says he can only predict his own — he’s looking to quit — while a West African UNODC officer throws up his hands. “I’m not Superman,” the officer says. “I can’t save the world.” In Mali, when asked about the gathering global consensus for military action against his forces, Hamaha replies, “We are ready. The moment anyone attacks us, we’ll go beyond Africa to their capitals. You’ll see 9/11 times 10.” It’s not an idle threat. A French antiterrorism official says now that they have a base, Mali’s Islamists will want to go global, just as al-Qaeda groups in Afghanistan and Yemen did before them, possibly through European radicals who have joined them in Mali. Hamaha only partly refutes the accusation aired earlier by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that his group took part in the Benghazi attacks, saying he has relations with militants there and ambitions to mount attacks but is “not yet” involved. U.S. sources now insist that AQIM militants were not involved in the Benghazi attacks, but Rami el-Obeidi, former head of intelligence for the Libyan National Transitional Council, believes the strike was al-Qaeda’s revenge for the killing of a Libyan al-Qaeda leader by a U.S. drone in Pakistan in June. “It’s not what I think,” he says. “It’s what I know.”

It doesn’t help that in both Guinea-Bissau and Mali, the international response to crisis is led by West Africa’s notoriously indecisive regional authority, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). In Guinea-Bissau, ECOWAS is crippled by an internal split over whether or not to engage the post-coup regime; in Mali an ECOWAS plan to send 3,000 troops to fight the Islamists is stalled by debates over the detail.

Lost in the disarray is any meaningful effort to tackle the common cause underlying both crises: cocaine. West Africa is hardly alone in its snow blindness, however. Even combining the U.N., the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and Europe’s various antinarcotics agencies, there are just a handful of Western drug agents operating in West Africa. As a result, a short skip from Europe, the future seems set for a vast empty space where, as the Bamako-based diplomat says, “nobody knows what the heck is flying over or has any idea of what is coming in or coming out.” For a cocaine trafficker, could there be a better place to set up shop?

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