Guinea-Bissau is a small West African nation that declared its independence from Portugal in 1973. Two-thirds of its 1.5 million people live in poverty, making Guinea-Bissau one of Africa’s poorest countries.
It has endured coups, military revolts, political assassinations and a civil war. The country is awash with cash from the drug trade. According to United Nations officials, as much as $1 billion a year of cocaine is funneled through the country from Latin America to sell in Europe. Apart from smuggling, its tiny economy is based on cashews and fish.
When Guinea-Bissau became independent from Portugal, a ferocious guerrilla war left the country shattered. It suffered through disastrous experiments with a Marxist-style military dictatorship. In the 1990s, there were attempts at democracy, then a civil war and ruin.
In 2005, successful elections brought President João Bernardo Vieira, who ruled the country for 23 years in all, back to power. But in March 2009, Mr. Vieira was assassinated, less than 12 hours after a top military leader was killed by a remote-controlled bomb. The killings of the country’s most powerful men, who were longtime rivals, remain unsolved. The military did not seize power, and, at first, Guinea-Bissau seemed more stable in the aftermath of the assassinations.
In April 2010, the army again briefly seized power in another coup.
In April 2012, former prime minister Carlos Gomes Jr. appeared poised to win the presidency in a runoff election. But shortly before the vote, Mr. Gomes was taken into army custody along with other senior officials. A transitional government was put in place, but the army remains in charge.
After the Coup, Nation is a Drug Haven
The military brass has long been associated with drug trafficking, but the coup in April 2012 means that soldiers control the drug racket and the country itself, turning Guinea-Bissau in the eyes of some international counternarcotics experts into a nation where illegal drugs are sanctioned at the top.
Since the coup, more small twin-engine planes than ever are making the 1,600-mile Atlantic crossing from Latin America, landing in Guinea-Bissau’s fields, uninhabited islands and remote estuaries. There they unload their cargos of cocaine for transshipment north, experts say.
The fact that the army has put in place a figurehead government and that military officers continue to call the shots behind the scenes only intensifies the problem.
The political instability continued as soldiers attacked an army barracks in late October 2012, apparently in an attempt to topple the government. A dissident army captain was arrested on an offshore island on Oct. 27 and accused of being the organizer of the countercoup attempt. Two critics of the government were also assaulted and then left outside Bissau, the capital.
Europe is the Final Destination for Cocaine
From April to July 2012, there were at least 20 landings in Guinea-Bissau of small planes that United Nations officials suspected were drug flights — traffic that could represent more than half the estimated annual cocaine volume for the region. The planes need to carry a 1.5-ton cargo to make the transatlantic trip viable, officials say. Europe, already the destination for about 50 tons of cocaine annually from West Africa, United Nations officials say, could be in for a far greater flood.
In 2010, the United States government explicitly linked the country’s military to the drug trade: the Treasury Department declared as drug kingpins both the ex-chief of the Navy, Rear Adm. Bubo Na Tchuto, and the Air Force chief of staff, Ibraima Papa Camara, and froze whatever assets they may have had in the United States.
Now, however, American officials are making overtures to the transitional government, despite other Western embassies’ hands-off approach to protest the military’s continued meddling in politics.
Officials point to several indicators, besides the increase in plane flights, to show that Guinea-Bissau has become a major drug transit hub.
They cite photographs of a recently well-cleared stretch of road in a remote rural area near the Senegal border, complete with turning space for small planes. The clearing was created under the supervision of military authorities, officials say.
Four months before the coup, a plane, with the aid of uniformed soldiers, landed in a rural area in the center of the country, said João Biague, head of the judicial police. The landing took place not far from a farm owned by Gen. Antonio Injai, the army chief of staff.
Mr. Biague heads what is nominally the country’s antidrug agency, though he made it clear that he and his staff are largely powerless to practice any form of drug interdiction despite receiving frequent tips about small planes landing from abroad. “The traffickers know we can’t do much,” he said.
The agency is so starved of funds that he does not have money to put gas in its few vehicles, Mr. Biague said. Paint is peeling from the outside of the judicial police’s two-story colonial building downtown, and mold blackens the ground-floor pilasters. It is allocated $85 a week from the country’s justice ministry.