In a country where nearly seven out of 10 people live on less than $2 a day and 85 percent of the population survives mostly by farming, the spectacular wealth generated by the cocaine trade makes it easy for cartels to buy the loyalty of soldiers and public officials – who sometimes go for months without a government paycheck . Higher-level officials might demand more, but their cut is easily within the traffickers’ budget.
Analysts say soldiers have come to see drug money as a right – much like police officers here expect small bribes to subsidize their meager wages.
At one point, the United Nations estimated that 40 tons of cocaine valued at $1.8 billion was moving through West Africa each year – much of it through Guinea-Bissau. Others estimated it was 300 tons a year. By comparison, Guinea-Bissau’s annual economic output is less than $900 million.
Those taking drug money have proven they’ll stop at nothing to stay in power. Assassinations, political arrests, torture, death threats and mass bribery are all fair game. Some believe the nearly simultaneous killings of the country’s president and army chief in March 2009, crimes that have yet to solved, were linked to drug-trafficking disputes.
“The result is a political process intensely focused on self-interest and survival rather than political, social or economic development, making government and military officials particularly vulnerable to the temptation of narcotics-fueled corruption,” a U.S. diplomat reported to the State Department in 2009, according to a cable made public last year by the WikiLeaks Website.
The battle for control of the drug trade is continuous. In December, Adm. Jose Americo Bubo na Tchuto, a former navy chief whom the U.S. has labeled a drug kingpin, was arrested by his former ally, armed forces Chief of Staff Gen. Antonio Indjai. The charge was masterminding an earlier coup attempt that failed, but Guinean officials here say the arrest had more to do with a dispute between the two men over a recent drug drop. Now, Indjai is accused of orchestrating last month’s coup.
Before 2004, hardly any cocaine came through West Africa. But as authorities increasingly cracked down on direct shipments from Latin America to Europe – where the drug’s popularity was growing rapidly – cartels began looking for alternative routes.
Guinea-Bissau was the perfect transit point. The country had been unstable for decades: None of its elected presidents have completed a five-year term since the country gained independence from Portugal in 1974.
And with a sprinkling of 88 lush, forested islands dotting its coast – most of them uninhabited and perfect for stashing drugs – the country became “drug traffickers’ destination of choice,” according to the 2009 diplomatic cable. Many Latin American “businessmen” began migrating here, settling into gated villas with private security guards.
The cartels began shipping the cocaine across the Atlantic by boat or small planes equipped with extra fuel tanks. The boats unloaded the drugs before reaching shore, and smaller boats ferried the cargo to land; the planes landed on airstrips monitored only by the military. From Guinea-Bissau, the cocaine was smuggled north into Spain via well-established sea- and land-trafficking routes, or through human mules who ingest one or two kilograms of the drug in tiny packets before catching commercial flights into Europe.