The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The U.S. posted a huge reward for a suspected drug kingpin in Guinea-Bissau. But capturing him is complicated.

Former general Antonio Indjai stands on his cashew farm outside Mansoa, Guinea-Bissau, in 2015. (Emma Farge/Reuters)

BISSAU, Guinea-Bissau — The suspected drug trafficker was supposed to be on the yacht.

American agents posing as Colombian cocaine traffickers tried to lure Antonio Indjai — then the leader of this tiny coastal nation’s military — into international waters eight years ago with a million-dollar payout, but he was known to be paranoid. The ex-general sent someone else to fetch the cash, authorities say, and has evaded capture ever since.

The United States revived the mission last month, posting a $5 million reward for information that leads to Indjai’s arrest or conviction, calling him “one of the most powerful destabilizing figures in Guinea-Bissau.” Officials have accused him of exploiting his influence in West Africa to partner with South American drug gangs.

But the retired general, 66, isn’t hiding. He openly splits his time between his home in the capital, Bissau, and a cashew farm in the countryside. For leaders here, delivering the wanted man risks inciting vengeance — potentially another coup on top of a long record of bloody military rebellions, according to local security officers, Western officials and independent researchers in the nation of 2 million.

“It is a threat to our stability,” said Bubacar Turé, vice president of the Guinean League for Human Rights. “Even out of the barracks, he can do damage. He is powerful. He is a rock in the government’s shoe.”

The bounty arrived as Guinea-Bissau’s president was pushing to shake off the nation’s reputation as Africa’s first narco-state. Handing over an alleged mastermind could be cast as a step toward redemption. Yet much of the country’s military is seen as loyal to Indjai.

“The soldiers will revolt,” said one armed forces official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case. “Indjai has men all over the units. The president risks paying with his life — just like the rest of his government.”

Over the last 17 years, Guinea-Bissau has suffered two coups, a civil war, an attempted power grab and a presidential assassination.

Indjai himself led a military takeover in 2012 and remains the target of a U.N. travel ban. More than half the nation’s soldiers belong to his ethnic group, the Balanta — a legacy of Indjai’s enlistment priorities that analysts say cemented his grip.

The risk of uprising

Residents describe the state, sandwiched between Senegal and Guinea, as a tinderbox: One spark, regardless of intentions, could trigger a blowup.

“It’s very volatile,” said one Western official in Bissau, who — like the other authorities and researchers in this story — spoke on the condition of anonymity because they fear retaliation or ejection from the country. “The president needs the support of the military.”

Indjai is the only African target on the State Department’s narco-offenders list, which includes names from mostly South America and central Europe.

“Indjai was seen as one of the most powerful destabilizing figures in Guinea-Bissau, operating freely throughout West Africa, using illegal proceeds to corrupt and destabilize other foreign governments and undermine the rule of law throughout the region,” the State Department wrote on the reward poster.

A spokesperson declined to discuss Indjai’s case but said the Biden administration is focused on fighting corruption. The Drug Enforcement Administration did not respond to requests for comment.

Indjai declined to comment.

When Guinea-Bissau’s president won a fiercely contested election in 2019, Indjai stood by him at a de facto inauguration in a hotel reception hall before the Supreme Court signed off on his victory. Many interpreted the gesture to mean President Umaro Sissoco Embalo is protected. Only one of Guinea-Bissau’s leaders has finished a term since the country gained independence from Portugal in 1974.

“The president is Indjai’s hostage,” said a European researcher in the country.

The U.S. reward surfaced about 18 months later. Embalo swiftly rejected the possibility of extradition, declaring in August that Guinea-Bissau will handle its own security issues and that Indjai can “move around as he pleases.”

“No Guinean citizen,” the president said, “will be brought to justice in another country.”

Before flying to New York in September for the United Nations General Assembly, Embalo told reporters he was urging U.N. leadership to end sanctions against the current and former military leaders involved in the 2012 coup.

He also revealed plans to meet with Washington officials to discuss dropping the hunt for Indjai.

His government has backed him up.

“Americans have a very distorted image of Guinea-Bissau,” said the minister of tourism, Fernando Vaz. “We are perceived as the bad guys, but it is safe here.”

The local courts will address any wrongdoers, he added.

“I sincerely do not see the importance that Antonio Indjai has in the international drug trade,” Vaz said. “But if Antonio Indjai is implicated in the trade, he will answer for his crimes.”

In a power vacuum, organized crime

Guinea-Bissau’s 11-year war for independence from Portugal left the verdant territory with 88 islands in a state of ruin when peace returned in the mid-1970s. Leaders struggled for decades to recover, turning to illicit sources of cash.

The 1998-1999 civil war that tore the country apart started with organized crime, researchers say: The military was caught smuggling weapons to Senegalese separatists, and the president at the time placed the blame on the head of the army, who, in turn, commanded his soldiers to oust the leader.

South American traffickers with accomplices in Europe saw an opportunity in the upheaval, and Guinea-Bissau became key to a global network, according to the United Nations: By 2008, at least 50 tons of cocaine from mostly Colombia and Venezuela passed through West Africa each year to the United States and Europe, officials estimated, where it was worth nearly $2 billion on the black market.

Enter the case of Indjai.

In the six months after his armed forces seized power in 2012, planes thought to be loaded with drugs landed in Guinea-Bissau at least 20 times, the United Nations reported.

The DEA soon began work on a sting operation. Indjai was suspected of partnering with Colombian rebels who had plotted attacks on Americans.

Informants posing as members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a militant group known as FARC that funds its strikes with narcotics, asked Indjai and other military officials that year to send them missiles, assault rifles and grenade launchers in exchange for cocaine.

Indjai agreed, according to a U.S. indictment, and offered to store FARC’s drugs in Guinea-Bissau, as well as set up a phony company for cover. The military would hide the drugs in shipments of army uniforms, Indjai said in the alleged exchanges, before facilitating the transfer of hundreds of kilograms overseas.

“It is through me you can do that,” he said, according to the court documents.

While the DEA’s yacht trap failed to catch Indjai, it ensnared another big name: Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto, who led Guinea-Bissau’s navy.

Indjai had sent Na Tchuto in a speedboat as his envoy, according to the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, a Swiss research group, which conducted interviews with people close to the military officials.

The Navy chief liked to show off his wealth and spoke casually about storing the money in his basement, while Indjai had a reputation for being guarded. People in Bissau joke that he refuses gifts because they could be bugged.

“Indjai is discreet,” said Rui Jorge Semedo, a political scientist in the capital. “He does not boast. He does not drive a flashy car.”

The high-profile bust on the Atlantic embarrassed Guinea-Bissau. Leaders pledged change. Indjai lost his military job and retreated to his cashew compound. He invested in an ice factory. He opened a rural hotel.

The glare of the international spotlight faded — until March 2019, when, acting on a tip from the United Kingdom’s crime authority, police in Guinea-Bissau found 789 kilograms of cocaine in a fish truck, the biggest thwarted haul in the nation’s history.

Six months later, officers uncovered 1.8 tons of cocaine in flour bags at the port, breaking the country’s seizure record again, and arrested suspects from Guinea-Bissau, Colombia and Mali. The cache was worth up to $80 million, Interpol reported at the time.

Cartels have fueled the route by funding campaigns for politicians and paying off military officials, according to a 2014 report by the West African Commission on Drugs, placing the leaders “at the service of drug traffickers” while neglecting the needs of civilians. Nearly 70 percent of Bissau-Guineans live below the poverty line. Most complete less than four years of schooling. The typical health-care facility lacks reliable electricity and running water.

“The traffickers prey on the innocent dreams of the poor,” said Mamadu Quebe Junior, a Bissau-Guinean who spent four years in Portuguese prison on drug charges. “They know we have nothing, and they destroy people.”

Quebe Junior, 33, who was released in June, was promised $6,000 to sneak a suitcase full of cocaine from Brazil to his home country. The money would cover university expenses, he hoped, and medicine for his mother with asthma. Then he was caught during a stopover in Lisbon.

“I was a small fish, and Indjai is a big one,” he said. “I think he should be judged in his own country.”

Allen Embalo in Bissau contributed to this report.

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