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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

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Video by Kevin Sullivan/The Washington PostEditor: Jacqueline Refo/washingtonpost.com
[MAP: Guinea-Bissau, a major hub on the cocaine route to Europe, has become Africa's first narco-state.]
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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.

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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.


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