By VIVIENNE WALT/BISSAU
Wednesday, Jun. 27, 2007http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1637719,00.html
The four men park their sport-utility vehicle in the back lot of a five-star hotel, size me up carefully and make their offer: I can sample some high-grade cocaine, and then buy 7 kg for about $78,000 — roughly one-quarter of what I can sell it for on the streets of London, Amsterdam or elsewhere in Europe. It has taken me — a stranger in town — just one afternoon to locate a sizable drug deal.
If Guinea Bissau had the money to paint a sign for arriving visitors, it might read: welcome to the world's newest narco state. This small country in West Africa is such a perfect base for cocaine operations that it could have been designed by Pablo Escobar himself. Escobar and other Colombian drug lords poured untold tons of cocaine into the United States in the 1980s, setting off a narcotics epidemic across urban America, and leading to drug wars which have taken decades and billions of dollars to combat.
Now it looks like Europe's turn. Cocaine use has roughly tripled in Europe over the past decade, while U.S. consumption of the drug has tailed off, according to U.N. figures released in June. Although only 3% of Europeans report having taken cocaine, according to the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction in Lisbon, officials say the figures are far higher in urban areas of Britain, Spain and the Netherlands, and that it's gaining popularity across Europe. Cocaine use is now higher in Spain than in the U.S., according to the U.N., and authorities fear that the Continent may be heading down the same path from which the U.S. has just started to emerge. Some admit that they are badly unprepared for what's happening. "It's caught us by surprise," says Carel Edwards, head of the European Commission's drug coordination unit in Brussels.
Europe's open borders are a strong draw for traffickers, because they allow smugglers to move with relative ease across the Continent, which contains millions of people with money to spend. The strong euro is also a lure. A kilogram of uncut cocaine wholesales for about $40,000 in Spain — roughly double the U.S. price. (In Russia and Norway, one kilogram can fetch up to $120,000.) Divided into street-sized amounts, a kilogram can earn five times those figures. Since moving in on Europe in the mid-'90s, the cartels — overwhelmingly Colombian, but also Venezuelan and Mexican — have hugely ramped up operations.
But the Latin American drug lords faced one big hurdle in targeting the European market: geography. Europe is thousands of kilometers from Colombia, Bolivia and Peru — home to the world's entire crop of coca leaves, from which the white powder of cocaine is refined. And Europe's sophisticated airport security systems and coastal patrols have made it tough to ship massive volumes of cocaine undetected. That means the cartels need transit points where they can store the huge amounts of the drug that they have moved across the Atlantic. It can then be divided among hundreds of smugglers who can individually sneak it into Europe — and who are desperate enough to take the risk.
Africa provided the cartels the way stations they needed to create an efficient global smuggling machine. According to a senior drugs intelligence officer at Interpol, the cartels now export between 200,000 and 300,000 kg a year to West Africa destined for Europe. "What is emerging is a substantial trafficking scheme involving suspects on three continents: Africa, Europe and South America," says the officer, who could not be named. "This is one of the world's biggest generators of illicit cash."
And supply is only likely to increase to meet a growing demand. "In the next few years, cocaine will spread into the whole E.U.," says Koli Kouame, head of the United Nations International Narcotics Control Board in Vienna, who is from the Ivory Coast. "It is simple: the youth in Warsaw want to be like the youth in London or Paris, so it will spread fast."
By far the leading African connection in this growing global network is Guinea Bissau. The fifth poorest country in the world was perfectly suited to playing a key role in the coke trade. The average person in this country of 1.6 million people earns about $720 a year and dies at 45. The capital, Bissau, is a decrepit relic on which the government has not slapped a lick of paint since the Portuguese colonials decamped in the 1970s. There are few phone lines and almost no electricity. Even the President's office building has a generator roaring outside. The judicial police headquarters has no working communications radio, computer or phone. Its four police cars all need repair, and there is no money for fuel. In theory, police officers earn about $100 a month. But — like the nation's judges, soldiers, bureaucrats and Cabinet Ministers — they have not been paid since January. Civil servants received only three months' pay last year. The country also has no prison. In the squalid lockup in the judicial police compound, 66-year-old Aboubakar Seidi stumbles to his feet from a grimy sponge mat, and tells me he has spent five months there with no trial or lawyer's visit. He's suspected of knowing who killed a military commander last January, but he insists: "I know nothing."
Like its poverty, Guinea Bissau's landscape proved ideal for drug cartels. Its 350-km coastline, with 50 or so uninhabited islands, offers excellent drop-off points for drug vessels, and planes can deliver drugs to any number of Portuguese-built airstrips that have been abandoned for years as the country has no planes. "This is an open space where you can do anything," says a military officer from another African country who is stationed in Guinea Bissau as part of a cooperation agreement. "There is no plane. No radar. Nothing."
Colombians began to rent houses in Bissau in 2004, declaring themselves exporters of fish or cashew nuts, while in reality coordinating industrial-sized shipment and storage of cocaine from Latin America. One afternoon, an undercover detective drives me around Bissau to point out the mansions where the Colombians live. Erected on dirt lanes, they have Romanesque columns, walls with kitsch pastoral mosaics, and satellite dishes on their Spanish-style tiled roofs.
Police sources in Bissau claim the Colombians are protected by the military, which appears to allow them free rein. They are not certain whether the soldiers are paid in return, or whether they are themselves involved in trafficking. Certainly there are signs of a fresh influx of money. In a new neighborhood on the edge of town, about 20 mansions owned by government officials are under construction, many with pools and multiple wings.
Last September the judicial police raided one of the Colombian-rented houses in Bissau and found 674 kg of high-grade cocaine. They drove the drugs and the two Colombian tenants to the police lockup, says Gabriel Madjanhe Djedjo, the judge who handled the case. Within an hour of the arrests, he says, military officers surrounded the compound, demanding the drugs and threatening to shoot their way in. The police relented, and the soldiers loaded the cocaine — stored in 1-kg packets — onto a pickup truck and drove it to the crumbling Treasury building, where they placed it in a locked vault. Within days, the entire load vanished. "The drugs were for [the military]," says Djedjo. Shortly after, the Attorney General ordered Djedjo to release the Colombians, he says; the men were never seen again.
By April, the country had become so swamped with cocaine that radio journalists in Bissau broadcast an appeal for villagers to phone in with details of mysterious activities. Locals near the airfield of Cufar quickly called on their mobile phones to describe major drug drops. Crucially, they exposed the military's deep involvement in the trafficking. "People called and said: 'Here is a plane landing, now they are offloading packets, now the military is coming, the military is loading it and driving toward Bissau,'" a local journalist told me.
Government officials say they have too little money and not enough weaponry or personnel to stop drug trafficking. "Cocaine is a big, big problem," says Barnabé Gomes, spokesman for the country's President, João Bernardo Vieira. "We need help to do something." He says what's needed is Western intervention to stop traffickers transiting through Guinea Bissau: "Europe is not doing much to help. We are even asking the United States to help us." In Bissau's crumbling port, Portuguese naval Sergeant Jorge Padua says he arrived last March to help Guinea Bissau apprehend illegal fishing boats plying its waters. "The government has never asked us to stop the drug traffickers," Padua says.
So European governments are faced with the challenge of outwitting traffickers thousands of kilometers away. "They are looking for safer routes and methods," says María Marcos, director of Spain's Intelligence Center Against Organized Crime in Madrid. The routes and methods vary. Some cocaine is shipped on large vessels directly across the Atlantic, often having been processed at sea. Marcos says this cocaine is sometimes dropped overboard attached to floating buoys, then collected by Africa-based traffickers. The rest is flown from Latin America on twin-prop planes to West Africa, where it is offloaded and shuttled to Europe on smaller planes or via boat.
Desperate for an arrest, Guinea Bissau's judicial police finally borrowed cash for fuel and hired cars to drive 50 km east of Bissau, where they intercepted the convoy the villagers had described. They found 635 kg of cocaine, worth about $80 million in parts of Europe — more than one-quarter of Guinea Bissau's annual gross domestic product. Inside the car were two military men, whom officials in Bissau recognized as bodyguards of a senior army officer. The police burned the cocaine, but the military later quietly released the two arrested men without charge. Having witnessed such things, senior officials are now open about the military's involvement in trafficking. "There are people in power who are connected to it," says navy Commander José Américo Na Tchutu, one of the military's top officials. "It is sad but true."
After months of failed attempts to stop the trafficking, Guinea Bissau's judges claim that the military has effectively blocked any effort to end the trade and that it's protecting the cartels. "The military has impunity and we have no protection," says Judge André Lima. He says the military has forced judges to sign release orders for those arrested on drug charges. "What is sad is that we are forever prosecuting people who steal one chicken or a cow," says Lima. "But [cases involving] drugs will never get to court."
Since the police arrest few traffickers, people sense little danger in the business. To many Africans involved, cocaine is a drug used by Europeans and Americans, not them, and the easy money it provides is just good business. "Everybody is saying that this is a blessing from God because the government does not have the money to pay people," says a local journalist in Bissau.
Meanwhile, as the cocaine trade with Europe booms, the cartels have also spread into other African countries. "It's not just Guinea Bissau," says Antonio Mazzitelli, West African director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. "It is also Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ghana and others" — countries, in other words, where the justice system has all but collapsed, where prisons are overcrowded, and where there are too few judges and courtrooms to provide efficient trials.
Interpol estimates that about two-thirds of all the cocaine destined for Europe flows through West Africa. Some of the shipments that law enforcement authorities have been able to track down have been enormous. In May, a Cessna 441 twin-prop aircraft registered in the U.S. offloaded 630 kg of cocaine at an airport in Mauritania, and took off again. The crew then abandoned the aircraft in the desert about 125 km away and fled. Mauritanian police believe the scheme involves European dealers, and have questioned Belgian and French citizens. In early June, police in Belgium said they had cracked a cocaine network that had shipped about 350 kg in unchecked luggage through Brussels International Airport from Sierra Leone and Gambia. Airport staff apparently slipped the drugs into Europe without inspection, according to accounts by Belgian journalists.
So far, the destination country hardest hit by the new drug pipeline is Spain. Cocaine has flooded into Spain on smuggling boats, some of which use the same extensive networks that carry illegal migrants. Officials believe that Colombian cartels have long-standing connections in Spain, based partly on their shared language, and that smugglers have converted their old hashish trade into more lucrative cocaine operations. "They are taking advantage of the old marijuana routes into southern Spain," says Matilde Duque, spokeswoman for Spain's Ministry of Health antidrug plan. "The infrastructure is already in place. They are just changing the cargo." Last year, Spanish police seized 46 tons of cocaine in joint operations with British, Italian and Dutch drug patrols, while Portuguese officials intercepted about 30 tons. By comparison, only about 74 tons of cocaine were seized in all of the E.U. countries in 2004, the latest figure available from the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction. Civil Guards at Madrid Barajas Airport have found cocaine on thousands of small-time mules, who hide the drug in bullfighter's swords, guitars and tubes of toothpaste or shaving cream.
With supplies booming, cocaine has pervaded Madrid's clubs and bars in the past two years. On a recent Saturday night in one of Madrid's hottest nightclubs, a long line formed outside the restrooms as people waited their turn to snort cocaine inside. "It's one of the most popular drugs, like ecstasy in other European countries," says Federico, a music producer in Madrid. "Most people sniff a line or two at weekends. You have a drink, you have dinner with friends, then you go to a club and share a gram or so of coke. It doesn't mean we're addicted."
Beyond the risks of addiction, however, officials warn that there are dangerous links between the drug business and funding for terrorism — an argument that U.S. authorities use to press European governments to crack down on drug networks. They point to the fact that the explosives used in the Madrid train bombings of 2004, which killed 191 people, were bought with hashish. "We are seeing increasing incidents of the use of drug barter for munitions in terror attacks," U.S. Drug Enforcement Administrator Karen Tandy told international law-enforcement officials at a meeting in Madrid in May.
Seven European governments will open a drug intelligence and operations center in Lisbon later this year. These countries — Spain, Ireland, Britain, the Netherlands, Portugal, Italy and France — will coordinate with U.S. intelligence officers, and plan to begin surveillance flights over the Atlantic in July. They will also coordinate military and police patrols at sea to try to intercept Latin American drug vessels before they reach Africa or Europe. "Whichever warship is nearest will take the vessel and the drugs to Portugal," says Edwards, of the European Commission's drug unit.
But West Africans, having seen the sophistication of smugglers in their region, see little chance of Europe ending cocaine smuggling. "Even in the U.S. the government spends billions of dollars a year on the Coast Guard, but traffickers are always, always ahead of them," says Kouame of the U.N. narcotics control board. A local journalist in Bissau who has traveled to Europe illicitly with West African smugglers says boatmen in the region are adept at avoiding authorities, having spent decades smuggling people, goods, fuel and various drugs. At least some of those drugs ended up in the hands of the four men who parked behind my hotel in Bissau and offered to sell me 7 kg of cocaine. After concluding I was not a likely customer, they drove off. But in Bissau, the world's newest and perhaps poorest narco state, they will soon find someone to buy the drugs — and eventually send them to the rich streets of Europe.
With reporting by Jane Walker/Madrid