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Route of Evil
How a Tiny West African Nation Became a Key Smuggling Hub For Colombian Cocaine, and the Price It Is Paying

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 25, 2008

QUINHAMEL, Guinea-Bissau -- Filipe Dju sat grim-faced on the tangled roots of a mangrove tree, a padlocked chain around his ankle tethering him to four other recovering cocaine addicts.

Three months ago, Dju's family brought him to this tiny, swampy West African country's first drug rehabilitation center because he had turned violent using a drug barely seen here until 2005.

"My mother said my head was not working well," said Dju, 40, whose life and country have been crippled by Colombian drug cartels shifting their focus from Americans paying in ever-weaker dollars to Europeans paying in increasingly valuable euros.

Guinea-Bissau, one of the world's poorest nations, has become a major transshipment hub and the epicenter in Africa for the cocaine trade, according to U.S., European and U.N. officials. The shift demonstrates how the flow of drugs adapts not only to law enforcement pressure but also to the forces of global economics.

Officials said some of the world's richest criminal gangs are exploiting barely functioning countries such as Guinea-Bissau, which has 63 federal police officers, no prison and a population that still lives largely in thatched-roof homes on dirt roads with no electricity or running water.

"West Africa is under attack," said Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, who recently visited Guinea-Bissau and concluded that it is so overrun by the cocaine trade that it could become Africa's first "narco-state."

The Colombian cartels are responding to the pressure for cocaine in nations such as Britain, Spain and Italy, where demand is soaring as the U.S. market has leveled off, officials said.

Costa described the strong currencies in Europe, where cocaine sells for twice as much as in the United States, as "a magnet" for the cartels. Police raids in Colombia are increasingly turning up suitcases full of euros instead of the traditional dollars.

While mysterious foreigners tool around Guinea-Bissau's crumbling roads in expensive Porsche and BMW sport-utility vehicles, the country's 1.5 million people are suffering because of global currency fluctuations and because European "bankers and models want to snort," Costa said.

"This isn't even our problem -- we do not produce cocaine here, but it is destroying our future," said Lucinda Barbosa, chief of the judicial police in the former Portuguese colony.

Government officials said drug smugglers bribing local people with small amounts of cocaine are creating addicts in a nation that never had them. They said the drug trade has led to rampant corruption at high levels of government, threatening the economic and political stability of a country that endured a civil war as recently as the late 1990s.

"We are a fragile country," Barbosa said.

The U.N. Development Program ranks Guinea-Bissau 175th out of 177 nations on its Human Development Index. The U.N. drug and crime office has noted that the national budget of Guinea-Bissau is roughly equal to the wholesale value in Europe of 2 1/2 tons of cocaine.

The country is best known for its cashews and mangoes, but its main attractions for the cartels are its weak government and coastal waters dotted with scores of uninhabited islands.

Officials said the drug traffickers don't export directly to Europe because European navies and air forces would detect large shipments. So they send ships and planes loaded with cocaine to West Africa. Some is unloaded at abandoned airstrips in the islands off Guinea-Bissau; more is dropped at sea and picked up by small boats.

The cocaine is then broken up into still smaller loads and sent on to Europe in light aircraft or by human mules -- in 2006, Dutch police discovered on a single flight to Amsterdam 32 people traveling from Guinea-Bissau with hidden cocaine.

So much cocaine is moving through Guinea-Bissau that plastic-wrapped bricks of it have washed ashore, where officials said confused villagers tried using the unfamiliar substance to fertilize their crops or paint their walls.

The navy has only two boats, one of which is out of service, and the air force has no working planes or helicopters. "We have no military means over here. Nothing. Zero," said Jorge Sambu, a top aide to the navy chief of staff.

So Barbosa, the police chief, is attempting to fight sophisticated cartels from her primitive downtown office, with 63 officers, half of whom have guns. Her office is in a dirt courtyard. The "homicide bureau" is a single room with four empty desks and an old TV.

The department has no handcuffs, one laptop computer, sporadic electricity and hole-in-the-ground toilets. In the courtyard during a recent visit, a few barefoot officers lolled in the shade next to the smashed remains of several old computers.

Asked if the situation is hopeless, Barbosa, 47, laughed.

"This is the most dangerous thing we've ever seen," she said. "It's really worrisome -- they have guns, bullets and military equipment."

Last August, Barbosa said, two Colombian men living in Bissau, the crumbling capital city, were caught with the equivalent of $150,000, two grenades, a handgun, an AK-47 assault rifle, pepper spray, military weapons manuals, more than 100 rounds of ammunition and maps of the country's remote areas.

Barbosa said one of the Colombians had served five years in prison in Miami on a drug-related conviction. But both suspects were eventually released by a judge, with no explanation, and they still live in Bissau, she said.

Guinea-Bissau has so far escaped the violence common in Mexico and other drug transshipment countries. But officials here said police and journalists have received death threats.

Allen Yero Emballo, 51, who spent 15 years as a reporter for Agence France-Presse and Radio France Internationale in his native Guinea-Bissau, said that in June 2007 he witnessed uniformed navy sailors in a boat pulling bricks of cocaine out of the ocean.

He said he suspected the sailors were working with traffickers and confronted Adm. José Américo Bubo Na Tchut, the navy chief of staff. He said Tchut told him: "Journalists have to choose. If you talk, you die. If you are quiet, you are free."

Tchut, in an interview, said he had never met Emballo and denied threatening him or having any connection with the drug cartels. "I have served my country for 45 years, and I don't lie," he said.

Emballo said that in July, masked men burst into his house and confronted his wife and children. He said they ransacked the place and took his computer, notebooks, audiocassettes, camera and photos.

On the way out the door, he said, they told his family: "This time we took his things. Next time we will take his head."

"These drug traffickers, they are able to do anything," Emballo said in a telephone interview from Paris, where he has fled and is seeking asylum. "They have money, they have guns; they can buy the government."

Jarring Inequalities

The city of Bissau is what charming looks like after decades of neglect. Dozens of once-grand houses with red-tiled roofs on tree-lined boulevards are abandoned and crumbling. The presidential palace has been empty since 1999, when its roof was blown off by bombs during the civil war.

The few paved streets are filled with deep potholes, and rusting cars sit on the roadsides, stripped clean and covered with red dust. Piles of garbage smolder constantly, while flocks of vultures spar with skinny dogs for the tastiest bits.

In a nation where those lucky enough to have a job earn about $25 a month and many government workers haven't been paid in months, sweaty men push wheelbarrows full of odds and ends to unknown destinations.

At night, bereft of power, the city is virtually pitch-dark except for the dim glow from cooking fires, oil lamps and candles. Many people live on bowls of a mushy mix of rice, ground cashews and sugar.

Yet new, expensive SUVs and big Toyota pickups ply the rutted streets. Bruno Vallance, director of a Toyota dealership, said that last year, a man came into his office and said he wanted to buy two pickups. Vallance said the man didn't want to see the vehicles, didn't want any receipts and produced nearly $66,000 in cash from a briefcase.

"I don't ask questions," Vallance said. "If they give me cash, I give them a car. That's my job."

The city is full of jarring signs of incongruous wealth -- the exclusive restaurant selling a plate of jumbo shrimp for more than $50, the grocery store selling Johnnie Walker green label whiskey for $132.

At the brightly lighted X Klub, a downtown bar and disco, a burly bouncer in a tight black T-shirt stood guard over the Mercedes sedans and BMW SUVs parked outside at midnight, while inside foreign men chatted with dolled-up local prostitutes sipping drinks along the wall.

"The traffickers have a paradise here," said Constantino Correia, a top Justice Ministry official who is coordinating the government's efforts against the traffickers.

"Justice does not work. The police do not work," he said. "A place where criminals can do whatever they want is not a state. It is chaos."

Correia said that last year, police intercepted a shipment of almost three-quarters of a ton of cocaine and arrested two suspects, who turned out to be army officers. The rest of the traffickers fled, along with an estimated 2 1/2 additional tons of cocaine. The two officers have not been convicted of any crime.

Without computers or other investigative tools, police have no way of telling which of the foreign "businessmen" in Bissau might be smuggling drugs. "It's a war without faces or borders," Correia said.

Portugal and a handful of other countries, the European Union and the United Nations have pledged more than $6 million to help overhaul the justice system, Correia said, adding that the problems would take much more to fix.

Correia also said, with a deep sigh and his hand to his forehead, that even if Guinea-Bissau does manage to capture a big drug trafficker, it lacks a real prison in which to hold him.

Along the capital's bumpy streets, Correia, 52, pointed out mossy hulks that were once distinguished buildings. He came to a baby-blue structure that used to be an office building.

At the door, he greeted two uniformed police officers, one of whom had a pistol. They were guarding about 40 prisoners who slept on thin mattresses on the floor, with nothing but an open door between them and freedom.

Down a dark flight of stairs, an officer opened a padlocked room where a dozen serious offenders were held. In the baking-hot basement with no electricity, the men sat beneath walls painted with graffiti and murals of Jesus.

"We need a new prison. It's urgent," Correia said.

In Quinhamel, a village about 22 miles west of Bissau, the country's only drug rehab center sits at the end of a long dirt road.

One recent morning, several dozen recovering addicts lay under shady trees; some slept in the dirt. Dju and four others were chained together because they were newcomers still deemed potentially violent.

Domingos Te, an evangelical pastor, opened the center in 2002 for people addicted to alcohol or marijuana. Now, he said, "cocaine use is rampant."

Abdulie Injie, 27, said he used to earn a good salary as a house painter. But since he started using cocaine a couple of years ago, all his wages were going up his nose.

He said he stole from his family to buy drugs. A month ago, he said, he realized he was sick, so he asked his family to bring him here.

As he spoke, another patient at the center ran screaming through the dirt courtyard and out the gate. Four men chased him down and brought him back. Te gave him a mild sedative to soothe his withdrawal from cocaine.

"We don't know where it comes from," Injie said. "But now everyone has it. Every family."

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