Guinea-Bissau has long been labelled a narco-state. Today it is likely that the West African country continues to be a major hub for cocaine. The losers in the drug deals are its citizens.


Guinea-Bissau, dubbed by the global media as Africa’s first narco-state, has slipped out of the news. The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime has covered the development of drug trafficking, organized crime and political protection in the small West African state over the past few years. That is because events in Guinea-Bissau are likely to be a barometer of wider developments in the West African drug-trafficking political economy. Yet what is perhaps most concerning is how little is known about current developments in the region’s illegal drug economy. As always, Guinea-Bissau is a good place to start.  In this guest blog, independent journalist Lorraine Mallinder writes about her recent trip to Bissau.

It’s the bar with no name. Located in the heart of Bissau, it’s a discreet meeting place, painted beige, with plastic chairs and tables on the patio. We’re in West Africa, but the atmosphere has a distinctly Latino flavour, with salsa beats wafting out from the bar’s interior. Sitting outside in the rapidly falling dusk, a couple of Cuban regulars sip their beer watchfully.

The bar, I’m told, is a drop-off point for locally traded bundles of cocaine. A car pulls up near my table. Out gets a glamorous woman, the former wife of José Américo Bubo Na Tchuto, an ex-navy chief who was arrested in a US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) undercover operation in 2013. US agents posing as members of Colombian rebel group FARC captured the drug kingpin in a dramatic cocaine-for-arms sting on board a luxury yacht.

Today, to the puzzlement of many locals, Na Tchuto is free, released in 2016 after serving the bulk of his four-year prison sentence. Na Tchuto, who used his high-ranking status to wrangle a deal that would net him $1 million per tonne of cocaine brought into the country, received a hero’s welcome on his return. Business as usual, some might say, in a country labelled as Africa’s first narco-state.

It’s been a decade since Guinea-Bissau earned that ignominious tag. Back then, for Latin American drug lords seeking alternative routes to the heavily policed waters around Spain and Morocco, lawless Guinea-Bissau had it all: porous borders, chronically unstable politics, weak institutions and easily bribable officials, like Na Tchuto – and many other public servants. Today, with the country mired in yet another political crisis, there are big question marks over the volume of cocaine still transiting through its borders.

Since independence from Portugal in 1974, Guinea-Bissau has struggled with a lack of effective leadership. The past two decades have seen three coups, a civil war, and the assassinations of a sitting president and an army chief, in what was thought to be a tit-for-tat double murder linked to drug profits. No elected president has managed to see out a full term in the tiny West African country.

In recent years, however, many believed Guinea-Bissau was turning the page. This sense of optimism seems to have been linked to two events. The DEA’s arrest of Na Tchuto was thought to have spooked drug lords, diverting cocaine flows to neighbouring countries. And, in 2014, President José Mário Vaz, known as Jomav, came to power in peaceful elections that seemed to herald a new dawn. International donors were certainly convinced, pledging $1.5 billion at a fund-raising conference in Brussels.

But squabbles over the money ensued. In the months after the Brussels fund-raiser, Jomav fell out with the then prime minister, Domingos Simões Pereira, also the leader of the ruling party, the PAIGC. Insiders report that Jomav wanted to wrest control of the pledged cash from Pereira for private agricultural projects in his home village, but Pereira resisted. A few months later, Jomav sacked his prime minister on corruption allegations, but most of the party rallied around Pereira.

Jomav is now at war with his own party, surrounded by a cabal of 15 dissident PAIGC MPs. With the two sides unable to agree on a replacement prime minister, the country’s parliament has been paralyzed for over two years. In early 2018, regional West African economic bloc ECOWAS slapped sanctions on Jomav’s entourage for blocking peacebuilding efforts. It is now feared that Jomav will delay this year’s scheduled parliamentary elections in a bid to control the electoral process and maintain a lock on power.

Unsurprisingly, donors have withdrawn their pledges. Failed once again by its leaders, this impoverished country, where the majority depend on cashew crops, faces an uncertain future.

Cocaine flows off the radar

It’s against this backdrop of potential state collapse that questions are being asked once again about trafficking – although nobody can really say how much cocaine is still coming in, whether politicians and military top brass are still involved and how much control drug lords have.

At the judicial police headquarters in Bissau, the mood is optimistic. The chief, Juscelino De Gaulle Cunha Pereira, says that Guinea-Bissau has not been a narco-state since 2010. It’s a curious claim, since that year pre-dates the 2013 DEA swoop that netted Na Tchuto, an event that seemed to mark a rise in the country’s trafficking activity. But the police chief assures me that his agents were ready to arrest the drug kingpin before the US stepped in. ‘We’d have stopped him,’ he says.

The judicial police, charged with the country’s anti-narcotics operations, have been busy, says De Gaulle Cunha Pereira. The islands of the Bijagos Archipelago, once a staging post for narco landings, are now swarming with agents, resulting in a drop in annual flows of cocaine to less than a tonne, says the police chief. Later, however, he concedes that, as there are no radars for monitoring air traffic and no X-ray scanners to check shipping containers, it’s hard to be sure.

But he is keen to focus on positives, such as the hundreds of diplomatic passports used by traffickers, which were recently seized by the judicial police.

These days, most of the cocaine coming into Guinea-Bissau is brought by mules travelling from Brazil, most of them students, according to the police chief. In 2017, airport agents caught 14 mules, carrying 8.65 kilograms of cocaine.

But De Gaulle Cunha Pereira evidently has an uphill struggle on his hands. Outside the police headquarters a picket line of staff were striking over pay and conditions. The spectacle brings to mind allegations from several sources that poorly paid police agents on the islands, already a fragile line of defence against nimble-footed gangs, are easy prey for drug lords offering cash bribes.

Diplomatic sources in Bissau say that the police narcotics brigade was starved of funding by its previous director, Bacari Biai, who stepped down in 2017 to become the country’s prosecutor general. Now effectively non-operational, the brigade is supposed to work in tandem with the local Transnational Crime Unit, set up by UN agencies and INTERPOL to fight traffickers under the UN’s West African Coast Initiative. As local agencies struggle in a dysfunctional state, international actors seem to have taken their eye off the ball. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime scaled down its presence in the country in March 2017 owing to a lack of funds, according to one official in Dakar.

One high-ranking UN official in Bissau says that the judicial police’s focus on mules is just a ‘diversion’ from the real trade. He estimates that ‘no less than 30 tonnes’ of cocaine is still coming into the country each year. That figure is not far off the UNODC’s 2008 estimate that around 50 tonnes of Latin American cocaine were being shifted each year through West Africa, much of it via lawless Guinea-Bissau.

Big cargos still come by plane, says the official. Some is transported by international fishing boats, legal and illegal, and some is brought to land on small vessels by local fishermen, where it’s moved by the military over the borders.

‘We’ve been telling them to install a radar system,’ he says. ‘Then, we thought maybe it’s better not to do so because, that way, the military would have more control. We thought it would be better to see how the politics develop.’

Either way, the current political situation does not bode well.

‘Traffickers love the instability – a country that has no control of its borders and with no functioning institutions,’ he says.

Tracking the problem has become more complex, with shifting alliances and new players linked to groups like Islamic State and al-Qaeda said to be working with Latin American cartels.

‘The country is still a major hub. The actors might change, but the game remains the same,’ he says. ‘People are afraid. They can’t take action.’

Cocaine is so plentiful on the streets of Bissau that it’s like a currency, used to acquire goods or services, or to pay debts: ‘I owe you 100k. I give you 250k’s worth and you get rid of it,’ says the official, by way of example.

I discover just how easy it is to strike a deal after interviewing Abu, a former mule, who used to carry cocaine in bags in his stomach from Brazil to Bissau for €750 a trip. He offers me a kilo of cocaine for €20 000, which, he says, will fetch €50 000 on the streets in the UK, or €80 000 if I sell it in Switzerland.

I put to him the judicial police’s estimate of the flow of one tonne a year. ‘They’re the police – they would say that,’ he says. ‘Of course the planes and boats are still coming in. They can’t be detected.’

Decades after Guinea-Bissau’s hard-won battle for freedom from colonial rule, the country is still barely functional, kept from collapse only by the presence of international agencies, and constantly at risk of state capture by drug gangs. The next year, which is supposed to include parliamentary and presidential elections, will be crucial in determining where the country goes next. But, for now, Guinea-Bissau remains a country on the edge.

Photo Credit: Joe Penny/Reuters/2012