x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Drug trade spilling over to addiction

Guinea-Bissau is confronting a new problem that threatens disaster - a burgeoning population of crack addicts.

A young man smokes crack cocaine in a ramshackle house.
A young man smokes crack cocaine in a ramshackle house.

BISSAU // Now the epicentre of an expanding West African cocaine trade, Guinea-Bissau is confronting an entirely new problem that threatens disaster for its fragile health, law enforcement and justice systems - a burgeoning population of home-grown crack addicts. Unheard of until recently in this tiny former Portuguese colony, use of crack cocaine is a spillover effect of the transnational cocaine trade. During the past few years, traffickers have increasingly been using Guinea-Bissau as a transit point to move drugs from South America into Europe. Large cocaine shipments arrive here to be broken down into smaller quantities before being smuggled onwards. But some of the drug remains in the country, where it is refined into cheap crack cocaine that feeds a growing number of addictions. The phenomenon is so new that no statistics on the domestic market exist, and officials seem unaware of the problem. "The Guinea-Bissau population is out of this story, fortunately," said Carmelita Pires, the country's justice minister. "People from Guinea-Bissau are nice people and fortunately they don't have problems with drugs." Luis Cabral, the attorney general, echoed her remarks, emphasising Guinea-Bissau's role as solely a transshipment point. Although the vast majority of cocaine arriving in the country ends up on the streets of European cities, The National was able to document use of crack cocaine in poor areas of the capital city, Bissau. In one neighbourhood a local drug lord conspires with police and some residents to hide the problem - indicating one reason that crack use has rarely been exposed to the public. In a dusty cul-de-sac at the end of a labyrinthine network of rutted dirt roads, a group of young men stood lounging in the midafternoon sun. One of them entered the dingy, walled-in porch of a ramshackle house. In his hand he held a pebble-sized rock of crack cocaine. The addict fashioned a pipe out of a broken section of car antenna and a piece of tinfoil. He began to smoke with single-minded determination, ignoring the click of the camera and questions being asked through a translator. His reverie was broken suddenly by a large man wearing a gold chain who entered the veranda. The man - later identified as a dealer - became irate because he suspected that drug use was being documented by agents for Interpol, the international police agency, which is active in the country. As the drug dealer continued his tirade, residents gathered around, forming a group of about 70 people. Many shouted in Creole and attempted to grab photography and recording equipment. About 20 minutes later, the scene calmed with the arrival of a pickup lorry filled with armed police officers. At the police station, the drug dealer and police officers colluded to make sure evidence of drug use was erased. Given their poor training and meagre pay, it is perhaps not surprising that members of the security forces and judiciary have been corrupted by drug money. The United Nations estimates that US$1.8 billion (Dh6.6bn) worth of cocaine transits West Africa each year. The drug is worth up to 10 times that amount on the streets of Europe. Much of it passes through Guinea-Bissau, which the United Nations ranks as the third-least developed country in the world. "I don't think we can avoid talking of corruption, of permeability, of both of the law enforcement apparatus and of the judicial system," said Antonio Mazzitelli, the West Africa representative for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Drug cartels looking for a base of operations found a welcoming environment in Guinea-Bissau, where the security and justice sectors are notoriously corrupt and ineffective. "Even if somebody is arrested he has a very good likelihood of escaping prosecution, through corruption or [some other] break in the prosecutorial chain," Mr Mazzitelli said. Given their fragile state, the police and justice systems are ill-equipped to deal with the rise of crime that will inevitably follow an epidemic of crack use, as it has in cities throughout the world. The cocaine trade is relatively new to Guinea-Bissau, arriving around 2004, according to UNODC. So far, the country has been spared the bloodshed that plagues such countries as Colombia or Mexico, where drug cartels are powerful. But the violence may be starting already. Ms Pires, the justice minister, said Guinea-Bissau recently had its first drug-related homicide. While rival gangs battle over profits from the drug trade, thefts are likely to become commonplace as a growing number of crack addicts in poor neighbourhoods struggle to feed their addictions. "You don't sleep, you don't eat, you don't have nice clothes, you don't have shoes. All you want is to steal something and smoke," said one recovering crack addict who requested anonymity. An epidemic of drug use would also overwhelm the country's crumbling health system. It covers only 40 per cent of the population, according to the World Health Organization, and offers no drug treatment programmes. The closest Guinea-Bissau has to a drug rehabilitation centre is a mental health facility started by Domingos Té, an evangelical pastor. Mr Té raised money to build the facility in 2002 to house people with mental health problems. But over the past couple of years more crack addicts have been turning up, he said. Families often turn addicted relatives who steal from them over to the police, who bring them to the centre. But the facility is not able to offer proper accommodation to its patients. Many are chained outside to prevent them from wandering off. The centre also lacks trained staff, and relies mainly on religious instruction as a substitute for treatment. "We work in the spiritual area to know God's word," Mr Té said. "God judges the person who does bad - that's what we teach them." Guinea-Bissau's domestic drug-abuse problem is still in its early stages, and is small enough that government officials deny its existence. But some predict that West Africa could soon face a crack epidemic similar to those that have ravaged the streets in western cities. In developed countries, hotly contested theories abound about how best to fight and treat drug abuse. But the debate has hardly penetrated West African countries, many of which are struggling to recover from war, as well as poverty and corruption. Mr Mazzitelli of the UNODC said a crack epidemic will only add to the region's woes. "If the issue is not addressed in the short term - in the mid-run certainly - together with its already important health problems, they will have to face the problems of drug dependency and of the violence that drug dependency generates." jferrie@thenational.ae