Africa's Cocaine Coast

Dateline invites you inside west Africa's Guinea Bissau, an impoverished nation fighting a dangerous underground cocaine trade.


Latin America's feared drug cartels have established a new pipeline for their lucrative trade and Guinea Bissau is caught in the middle.

Your Say: What are your thoughts on Africa's illegal drug trade?

The country's army spokesman tells Video Journalist Amos Roberts he knows he's fighting an uphill battle against the cartels and the widespread corruption the trade has spawned.

These days, however, there are serious allegations of criminal involvement by senior military and government figures, and luxury homes – funded by drug money – continue to multiply in the deeply impoverished capital, Bissau.

More stories from Amos Roberts:

* India's Free Lunch

* Flight To Nowhere

* Treasures of Timbuktu

* Gujarat – Getting Away With Murder


It is no secret that, for years now, Latin America's cocaine barons have been covertly moving huge amounts of their lucrative white powder around the world. But what happens when those same cartels decide to use a tiny impoverished African nation as a stop-over en route to their gullible markets in Europe? Here's Amos Roberts.

REPORTER: Amos Roberts

This is the story of what happened when a mysterious white powder washed up on the shores of Africa. Three years ago, a small boat sank not far from here. The crew fled, leaving dozens of small packages floating in the water.

FISHERMAN (Translation): When people came here to fish, they saw something they thought was flour. Others thought it was fertilizer to put on t heir tomato plants, others thought it was something we put in dried fish. People collected it without knowing what it was, then just abandoned it or tore the bags.

The strange powder was cocaine. One man painted his boat with it. Another used it to mark out a football pitch. The fishermen had stumbled upon some of the first evidence of a major shift in international drug trafficking.

Latin American drug cartels are finding it harder to send their goods directly to Europe without being intercepted. So the cartels are plotting a new course, straight across to Africa.

ANTONIO MARIA COSTA, UN OFFICE ON DRUGS AND CRIME: The cocaine is then repackaged, is blended with traditional exports of cashew nuts and frozen shrimps and textile and whatever else is available, and then exported into Europe.

According to the United Nations, more than a quarter of cocaine seized in Europe comes from West Africa.

ANTONIO MARIA COSTA: The bad habits of rich countries are having an impact on the living conditions and the prospects for development of poor countries.

There's no country more vulnerable than Guinea Bissau. This former Portuguese colony is the world's fifth-poorest country, cursed by civil war, several coups and cholera. But from a drug trafficker's point of view, this country's been blessed with a weak government, an unpatrolled coastline and dozens of tiny islands just offshore. Lucinda Barbosa Aukarie is on the front line of Guinea Bissau's war on drugs. She's director of the Judicial Police – the only law enforcement agency that's trying to fight the traffickers.

LUCINDA BARBOSA AUKARIE, DIRECTOR OF JUDICIAL POLICE (Translation): Most of the Guinean population don’t know about drugs, they don’t live off drugs. Most of the Guinean population don’t deserve this reputation – that the country they live in is a revolving door for drug traffickers.

The police director shows me a bag containing small packets of cocaine meant to be swallowed by drug mules…

REPORTER: Where did you find this?

LUCINDA BARBOSA AUKARIE (Translation): It came from Nigerians.

..and these are waterproofed bricks of solid cocaine.

REPORTER: Why does it have a picture of Shrek on it?

LUCINDA BARBOSA AUKARIE (Translation): Who knows? The traffickers know..

REPORTER: Is it a sign of a particular cartel or something?

LUCINDA BARBOSA AUKARIE (Translation): It is possible.

MAN: This is the house of the – how can you say? – one of the big smuggling guys.

A local who knows some of the drug traffickers has offered to show me around, as long as I don't reveal his identity.

MAN: There's a bunker where he can store his car. There's a basketball field, swimming pool, everything, tennis courts. Can you take a look at this house? The one over there, it's a fucking castle.

These lavish new homes are being built like the haciendas favoured by Latin American drug barons.

MAN: This is from the guy living in my area who suddenly get rich.

The country has virtually no electricity or running water and even in the capital you need a 4-wheel drive to use many of the roads. So these flashy signs of drug wealth stand out here. The United Nations now estimates the cocaine passing through Guinea Bissau is worth more than the country's GDP.

ANTONIO MARIA COSTA: The amount of money we are talking is enormous given the small size of the economies of West Africa. Just to give the order of magnitude, relative magnitude, in Afghanistan, where the problem is very serious, the opium economy may be 50%, 60% of the national income, in a country like Guinea Bissau it may be 200% of the national income.

The judicial police are pitted against some of the wealthiest criminals in the world, but they work, often literally, in the 'dark age’. They can't even turn on the lights if they run out of fuel for the generator. Officers can only dream of the resources enjoyed by police in the West.

JORGE, ANTI DRUG UNIT (Translation): I saw it on film and I saw it physically, I have had training overseas, but really – I wish we were like the people over there. But unfortunately….maybe we’ll get there.

Despite the desperate lack of resources, the judicial police are responsible for a couple of extraordinary drug seizures. A member of its elite anti-drugs unit offers to show me where one raid took place as long as I don't reveal his identity. Instead, a local journalist, Alberto Dabo, translates for him.


REPORTER: We can't drive right in front of it? It's too dangerous?

ALBERTO DADO: He say it's dangerous. He says the owner of the house will say, “Why you are filming the house?”

Following a tip-off from Interpol, the judicial police raided this property in September 2006. They found 674kg of cocaine.

REPORTER: This was the first really big seizure, yeah?

ALBERTO DADO: Yeah, it was the first really big seizure.

But the triumph was short-lived because it seems that drug trafficking in Guinea Bissau enjoys official protection at the highest levels. I was told that a few hours after the raid the Attorney-General and other senior officials turned up at the judicial police and demanded the seized cocaine. Jorge is a member of the anti-drugs unit.

JORGE (Translation): They took it to the Finance Ministry, after that it was not under police custody so the police had no more information.

A United Nations report confirms the incredible disappearance of 674kg of cocaine.

REPORT: ‘Military officers transferred the seized drugs from the facilities of the Judicial Police to a safe in the Ministry of Finance, from which they subsequently disappeared.’

It's an allegation the army strongly denies.

ARSENIO BALDE, ARMY SPOKESMAN: Excuse me, but this is not true. This is completely false information. The military never went there to take any drugs. We do not know the whereabouts of these drugs and the military was not involved in this operation. Excuse me, that's a very false information. Whoever said this, tell him I said, “You are lying, this is not true.”

But in April last year, more evidence emerged of military involvement in drug trafficking. Two army officers were found with 635 kilograms of cocaine. This time the drugs were burned in public but, according to the UN, the soldiers remain unpunished.

REPORT: ‘As army personnel, the two officers came under military jurisdiction. To this day, there is no information available regarding their prosecution’.

ARSENIO BALDE: I've been in the military more than 30 years. I've never received an order from any commander in the armed forces to go to sell drugs or help any drug trafficker or drug dealers or whatever. I've never seen such an order in the military. So if someone is doing this, it's their own personal interest, it's not the institution. Military institution doesn't have that mission.

Despite the denials, many people in Bissau, including an international law enforcement agent, told me the military and political establishment are deeply involved in drug trafficking. But people are afraid of openly criticising the army. Alberto Dabo is one of several local journalists who keep reporting, despite the dangers.

ALBERTO DADO: We put our lives in risk when we are investigating on drug trafficking. I can give many examples.

One of Alberto's colleagues fled to France last year after his home was burgled and his life threatened. And Dabo himself was charged with libel and colluding with foreign

ALBERTO DADO: Even last February, I met the chief of the navy on the street, he stop his car, pound his fist and start threatening me of death, you know?

REPORTER: The chief of the navy?

ALBERTO DADO: The chief of the navy, whose name is Americo Buba Na Tchute.

REPORTER: He was threatening you with death?

ALBERTO DADO: Yeah, on the street!

This is the navy chief who threatened Alberto's life. Just a few weeks ago, he himself was forced to flee Guinea Bissau after allegedly attempting to overthrow the government. Even the judicial police are afraid of confronting the army.

POLICEMAN (Translation): When it comes to dealing with the army and so on, don’t act alone, involve people at the top. If you notice a flight hasn’t been scheduled, you immediately call the director or me and I will contact her. At least we can get to the runway here. Before it reaches the military, we can do the search. We can’t be at war with them, the international community can. I won’t stick my neck out for it, I could get shot, and here no one would intervene.

At a meeting of the anti-drugs unit, officers say they're worried about cocaine arriving at the airport and being taken into military hangars. One policeman says he's forced to stand back and watch as people are waved through immigration and customs.

POLICEMAN 2 (Translation): You have no access to X-ray, no access to the luggage, that thing where the customs officers stand, I had trouble with this guy from customs, I said to him ‘Are all these people diplomats?’ “No way”.

LUCINDA BARBOSA AUKARIE (Translation): It’s true this is risky work, but if we start looking how big this really is, we will do nothing at all.

Supporters of Guinea Bissau's largest political party are celebrating the end of their congress. Democracy here is fragile and

ANTONIO MARIA COSTA: A few tens of millions of dollars of revenue generated by the drug traffickers can buy power, can affect the elections – especially forthcoming elections in Guinea Bissau, we are very concerned about that.

When the judicial police arrested two Colombian drug traffickers last year, they found weapons, cash and detailed lists of local politicians. It's something that preys on the mind of the country's Justice Minister, Carmelita Pires.

CARMELITA PIRES, JUSTICE MINISTER (Translation): It is important to know that we are talking about huge sums of money and these people have every means to corrupt our institutions.

Shortly after their arrest, the two Colombian traffickers were released by a judge.

REPORTER: Tell me, do you sometimes wonder what is the point in fighting drug trafficking if the people you arrest just get released?

JORGE (Translation): There’s a question mark over all of us because really this is not right, you fight but you achieve nothing. We do our jobs but others don’t do theirs and we can’t control that.

Even if Guinea Bissau was able to convict the drug traffickers who've set up shop here, there'd be nowhere to put them. This is all that's left of the country's only jail. It was destroyed during the civil war almost 10 years ago. The government says it's hard to crack down on crime without anywhere secure to put the criminals. An official from the Justice Ministry takes me to see a run-down house that now serves as a prison. About 20 men live here in cramped, filthy conditions, sharing a single toilet. The house is in the centre of Bissau, with very little security, so escapes are common.

OFFICIAL (Translation): So the prison conditions speak for themselves, the images speak for themselves, no comments are necessary.

REPORTER: Are there any prisoners here who've been convicted of drug trafficking?

OFFICIAL (Translation): No one’s here for drug trafficking, no one here in the prison. By the way, the big drug traffickers rarely end up in prison given the impunity they enjoy and the protection they have in this country.

Although Guinea Bissau is just a transit point for cocaine, a small amount stays here and is starting to do terrible damage. Local journalist Alberto Dabo is taking me to meet some of the victims.

REPORTER: Why is this woman chained?

ALBERTO DADO: It's because if you don't chain her she will run away.

These are the country's first crack addicts and this is Guinea Bissau’s only drug rehabilitation centre.

ALBERTO DADO: This is called cashimbo. In this cashimbo they put the crack here and, you know, smoke.

WOMAN (Translation): Give me medicine.

Conditions here are even more primitive than the city jail.

ALBERTO DADO: Come and have a look to the isolated room.

REPORTER: This where they keep the people who have just arrived, the addicts when they arrive?

ALBERTO DADO: Yeah, in order to cool them down.

Five years ago no-one here knew what crack was. According to a former addict who works at this rehab centre, the country's youth are easy pickings.

YOUTH (Translation): The traffickers get into Guinea-Bissau and because there are no jobs many young people with nothing to do start taking drugs.

ALBERTO DADO: It makes me angry because our civil and military authorities are responsible for this situation because themselves they are involved in drug trafficking.

Today the United Nations is donating some badly needed equipment to the judicial police, including computers and photocopiers. Although parts of the government have been implicated in the drugs trade, the UN is hoping its support for the judicial police will pay a dividend.

CARMELITA PIRES (Translation): What we would like to say as a final analysis is that we need to motivate our police force, they are the ones who are in the field.

In 2006 the UN came up with a plan to help Guinea Bissau fight drug trafficking, requiring several hundred million dollars. So far, it's only managed to raise about $8 million. It's not enough for Justice Minister Carmelita Pires.

CARMELITA PIRES (Translation): It is important to say in this context that the international community has to do its duty – we neither produce nor consume the drug. The drug has entered our country and eventually, as you people insist, you journalists, it corrupts our institutions. And our elections are coming up so the international community must adopt a major role.

Unfortunately, the gifts have proved practically useless. To this day, they're still in their boxes. The judicial police can't afford the generator fuel to power its brand-new equipment. Journalist Alberto Dabo and police chief Lucinda Aukarie – sporting a new hairstyle – are both devout churchgoers. Every Sunday they call on a higher power to help save their failing state.

LUCINDA BARBOSA AUKARIE (Translation): We have faith that we’ll manage to do something, we can not say eradicate but at least reduce Guinea–Bissau’s reputation as a revolving door for drug traffickers. That is why we must do it, it’s a challenge.

ALBERTO DABO: I am very pessimistic because there is no political will in Guinea Bissau in order to, in order to stop drug trafficking. Because even if Lucinda, you understand, who is the chief of the judicial police, even if she want to stop drug trafficking, she will not be able to do it. She will investigate until she arrive at those who are deeply involved in drug trafficking, they will tell her, “Please, madam, you have to stop here.”















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