BUBAQUE, Guinea-Bissau -- Last year, as children played on the beach of this tropical island, splashing in the ocean and kicking soccer balls through makeshift goals in the sand, a small turboprop plane flew overhead, drowning out conversations below with the steady hum of its engine.
Calvario Ahukharie, the head of Interpol in Guinea-Bissau, had been resting in the shade while sipping wine from a plastic cup. He looked up.
Another drug plane, Ahukharie recently recalled thinking. Another criminal turning my country into a cocaine warehouse.
Guinea-Bissau, on the west coast of Africa, is one of the smallest and poorest countries in the world, but it has a big claim to fame: It’s become a key hub for South American drug traffickers looking to make a few hundred million dollars a year shipping their goods to Europe via West Africa.
As a way station, it is ideal, just a four-hour flight from Brazil, with dozens of unpopulated islands for drug-bearing planes to land. And it is virtually risk free. Other than the underfunded Interpol office, Western police agencies, including the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, don’t have much of a presence. More importantly, the country’s military is known to be deeply involved in the drug trade, guaranteeing that even if a shipment is detected, police intervention is useless.
Indeed, protecting the drug trade is thought to have been one of the primary motives behind a military coup here last month that saw the army take control of the nation just two weeks ahead of a presidential runoff election. The target of the coup, former Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Jr., had been widely expected to win the presidency and had promised to approve internationally backed plans to downsize the bloated and unwieldy military and put an end to the drug traffickers’ payoffs that privates and officers alike have come to rely on.
Gomes, whose house was ransacked by soldiers, was arrested April 12 along with interim President Raimundo Pereira. They were held incommunicado for two weeks before an outraged international community pressured the military to release them.
Nonetheless, coup leaders still control the country, the government has ceased functioning, hundreds have fled the capital, and some Western organizations have pulled out their staffs. Food prices are increasing and gas stations are operating intermittently. The military says it wants to form a civilian transition government, but it doesn’t want Gomes or Pereira to participate.
Which means Guinea-Bissau’s role in the drug trade is unlikely to end anytime soon. Many politicians are suspected of being on the take.
“All the problems in Guinea-Bissau are because of drug trafficking,” Lucinda Gomes Barbosa, the former head of the country’s anti-narcotics police, said in her first interview since leaving the agency last year. “There are people in high positions in government who are benefiting from this. They only think about money. They fight each other so that the drug trafficking can continue and they don’t think about the problems that it creates in the country.”
Ahukharie, the Interpol official, said the plane he watched fly over while he was vacationing proved the point. When he sought to inspect it after it landed on a rugged island runway, the island’s governor refused him permission.
“It’s like open war,” Ahukharie said. "These kinds of things are frustrating because you have no strong will from the politicians.”