BISSAU // Carmelita Pires watched with growing alarm as South American drug cartels invaded her country, a tiny former Portuguese colony on the West African coast that seems in a perpetual state of political crisis.
When she became justice minister, Ms Pires resolved to fight the cocaine trade, which has exploded in recent years, undermining Guinea-Bissau's tentative steps towards stability. But she has discovered that her position offers little protection from traffickers who have infiltrated government ministries, the judiciary and security forces. "I was receiving night calls," said Ms Pires, speaking through a translator. "It was somebody who speaks in Creole. He said, 'It's enough. You're talking too much. You are killing yourself and don't say we didn't warn you'."
The death threats began after police arrested two Venezuelans, a Colombian and a Guinean after an aircraft was found carrying 500 kilograms of cocaine. Authorities said the plane originated in Venezuela and landed at Guinea-Bissau's international airport on July 19. Carmelo Antonio Vasquez, the pilot, was already wanted on an international warrant. He is alleged to have smuggled five tonnes of cocaine into Mexico. Mexican officials were preparing an extradition request, and local prosecutors filed a formal application for continued detention.
But a judge, Gabrielle Djedju, granted Vasquez and the other suspects a conditional release. Mr Djedju claimed afterwards that he was unaware of the international warrant, despite the fact the information had been widely published in the local press. He also said prosecutors did not present him with enough evidence to hold the men. The threatening phone calls stopped after the suspects were freed, but that gave little comfort to Ms Pires, who suspended the judge and ordered an investigation.
Mr Vasquez has since vanished. "It was unforgivable," Lucinda Aukarie, head of the judicial police, said of the judge's decision. She said police had pictures of men unloading cocaine from the Gulfstream jet, which was parked in a restricted military section of the airport. The cargo was never recovered and police investigators were prevented for days from searching the aircraft. When they did, drug sniffing dogs found traces of cocaine. It took eight weeks for the army to officially hand the plane over to police.
Both Ms Aukarie and Ms Pires said they suspect members of the army were involved. Military officials have repeatedly denied any role in the cocaine trade. The incident points to one reason why West Africa has become a drug smugglers' paradise - traffickers have little fear of arrest or prosecution. "Drug trafficking is subject to a very simple equation - maximise your profits and reduce your risk," said Antonio Mazzitelli, regional representative for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
Impoverished west African countries offer the perfect business environment, he said in an interview at his office in the Senegalese capital, Dakar. There is effectively no surveillance of air space or coastal areas, borders are porous and corruption is rampant. The United Nations estimates that at least 27 per cent of the cocaine consumed in Europe is now shipped through West Africa, with a wholesale value of US$1.8 billion (Dh6.6bn) and a retail value of up to 10 times that amount. Traffickers bring planes or boats full of cocaine from South America, but then they must break it into small amounts to evade European law enforcement agencies. The packages are carried into Europe by "mules" - passengers on commercial airline flights - or by small boats.
"UNODC reached a very conservative figure of 40 tonnes transiting West Africa," Mr Mazzitelli said. "But other specialised operators talk about several hundred tonnes. It's extremely difficult to work out the figures." The UNODC says the amount of cocaine coming through the region has skyrocketed in recent years. In a report in December, the organisation noted that 30 tonnes of cocaine bound for Europe through West Africa were seized between 2005 and 2007. Previously, authorities rarely seized more than one tonne per year in the entire continent.
"Something has shifted, recently and dramatically," the report said. Part of that shift has to do with an expanding appetite for cocaine in Europe and a shrinking one in the United States. Global currency markets, as well as territorial disputes between rival drug gangs also figure into the equation, Mr Mazzitelli said. "Mexican cartels have basically taken over what was once the role of Colombians, who have accordingly looked for new business opportunities elsewhere," he said. "In this context, certainly the European market is an increasingly interesting one, both for very strong demands and for very strong currency, which make investments in this new market attractive compared to the one linked to the US dollar." West Africa's proximity to both South America and Europe made it a geographical shoo-in for drug smugglers looking for a transshipment point.
Most cocaine destined for Europe is shipped from Brazil or Venezuela. The shortest distances from there to West Africa are to countries that lie near 10 degrees latitude north, including Guinea-Bissau. In fact, the British and Spanish navies have seized so much cocaine along this route that European law enforcement agencies refer to it as "Highway 10". The cartels could hardly have found a better base than Guinea-Bissau, which has become the epicentre of the cocaine coast. The country is one of the poorest in the world, ranking 175 out of 177 on the UN's human development index. Politically, the state barely functions and is unable to supply such basic services as education or health care.
The rest of the country operates entirely without power and the capital city receives only a sporadic supply. At night, Bissau is shrouded in almost complete darkness; the faded pastels of its crumbling colonial buildings are visible only in scattered pools of light powered by privately owned generators. Guinea-Bissau's entire national budget is equal to the wholesale value of two tonnes of cocaine, according to the UN. In a country where state employees frequently go months without being paid their meagre salaries, the lure of drug money is hard to resist.
Quirino Spencer, a former commander of the navy, said Colombian drug dealers approached him before he was fired from his post in 2004 for his connection to an attempted coup. The traffickers offered bribes for fishing licences that would allow them to operate in Guinean waters. "I knew right away it wasn't to fish, but to bring in drugs," he said. He refused the offer, but claimed the navy had now become complicit in the drug trade.
"Nowadays everybody in the marines has a big house and a big car," Mr Spencer said. "I was their boss and I don't even own a house." While some public officials cash in on the drug trade, those determined to fight trafficking struggle with a lack of resources. The country has no prison, for example, just a detention centre with two cells - one for men and one for women - that hold 20 people each. "Can you imagine a country that doesn't have a prison? What does it mean, justice?" said Mr Mazzitelli. "Some judges in the past told me they had to face the dilemma of sentencing violent criminals, but risking their own life knowing the criminals would be freed because there was no prison."
Guinea-Bissau is increasingly referred to in the international media as a "narco-state" - a term firmly rejected by officials like Luis Cabral, the attorney general. Mr Cabral, who was also threatened after the July arrests, conceded that some in the government and security forces collaborate with cartels. But he said the government is serious about fighting drug trafficking. "We are not a narco-state," said Ms Pires, the justice minister. "There a few people who work with the drug traffickers. Fortunately, they are people, they are not the state."
Some are concerned that the label could soon prove accurate if drug traffickers are able to influence the political process. Parliamentary elections are due in November. "A couple of million US dollars might be enough to stage a coup d'état in a country like Guinea-Bissau," Mr Mazzitelli said. "Several million might certainly influence an electoral ballot in countries of recent democracy like many countries of West Africa."
The drug trade is already contributing to political instability. In early August, government and military officials accused Adm Americo Bubo Na Tchuto, the head of the navy, of attempting a coup. Adm Na Tchuko subsequently escaped house arrest and fled to Gambia. "Everything points to the fact that the failed coup was linked to drugs trafficking," Joao Bernardo Vieira, a spokesman for Guinea-Bissau's president, told Radio France International.
Drug money could influence the outcome of the November elections, according to Luis Martins, president of the Human Rights League of Guinea-Bissau, the country's leading civil society group. He claimed to have information from reliable sources inside the ruling Partido Africano da Independencia Guiné e Cabo Verde that drug money financed a candidate vying for a position within the party. "Even though this person lost his campaign, the money he used was drug money," Mr Martins said. "That was a minor thing, but now the elections are coming. The drug lords are trying to use their money to buy those people, to finance their campaigns."
Worried about the increasing power of the cartels, the European Union recently dispatched a team to help Guinea-Bissau reform the military and police. It is a monumental and painstakingly slow undertaking, said Gen Juan Esteban Verastegui, who heads the mission. "I have absolutely not any trust in the army," he said, adding that many military and government officials are on the take. "Of course it's clear that they get money from the dealers. They can buy this country many times over."
In 2006, UNODC presented an extensive plan to fight drug trafficking in Guinea-Bissau. But donors rejected its price tag of several hundred million dollars, and UNODC returned with a $19-million emergency plan focused on security and justice sector reform. Donors have so far pledged only $6.5m. In the meantime, even death threats have not put a damper on the justice minister's commitment to fighting the cartels.
"We were scared, definitely we were scared, but we are not stopping," Ms Pires said. "We will work to put an end to this story and change the image of our country." It is a tall order. Traffickers with access to hundreds of millions of dollars, executive jets and military-grade weapons are up against a government that cannot afford to build a prison to hold them. email@example.com