West Africa has become a vulnerable hot spot as the latest link in the South American cocaine trade to Europe.
The long and poorly policed regional coastline is ideal territory for experienced and inventive drug cartels.
They have switched trafficking routes into Europe by channeling cocaine through West Africa — trying to put international law enforcement agencies off their scent.
Experts are concerned that lawless stretches of postwar West Africa, especially countries with weak governments, institutions, police and judiciary, could be exploited.
The tiny nation of Guinea Bissau is one of them.
It's not a country that generally makes headline news — not even in West Africa. Guinea Bissau was once a Portuguese colony, until it unilaterally declared independence in 1973 after a liberation war drove out the colonial masters.
A New Way Station for Drug Cartels
Located on the far western coastal curve of Africa, Guinea Bissau ranks among the poorest countries in the world.
It has a history of coups, civil war and chronic instability. It also has fishing, timber, agriculture and now drugs.
Amado Philip de Andres, the deputy head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in West and Central Africa, warns that "extremely organized and well-funded networks" support terrorism and cocaine trafficking that is linked to smuggling migrants. And they traffic arms from post-conflict countries, he says.
"There is a link between the financing of terrorism and the activities of these cocaine dealers in specific countries in West and Central Africa," de Andres says.
Ringed by remote islands where the cocaine is dumped, Guinea Bissau has become especially valuable to the drug cartels.
The Bijagos archipelago is a straight shot, about 4,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean, from the coca fields of Latin America. Major recent cocaine seizures in West Africa have set off alarm bells in the United States and Europe.
Transiting through Guinea Bissau en route to Europe, cocaine has even become a part of the local folklore, with song lyrics saying the "white powder, this hurricane of white powder" is now "building some people big houses and buying them fancy motor cars."
In the capital Bissau, you don't see pushers peddling coke in small packets on street corners. Drug trafficking is much more sophisticated.
Guinea Bissau is simply a way station. Europe is the final destination for South America's hard drugs. And it's all about geography — and those hidden-away islands.
An 'Easy' Country
The UNODC is helping to coordinate an anti-drug strategy in Guinea Bissau.
Drug lords understand that it's hard to send cocaine mules on planes to European airports — that the mules are likely to be detected — de Andres says, so they funnel the drugs through West Africa.
De Andres adds that there is also a perception among the drug cartels that public officials in Guinea Bissau and other West African nations are "easier to corrupt."
Cocaine that would fetch $10 million in Guinea Bissau sells for triple that figure in lucrative European markets. The United Nations estimates that almost one-fifth of all cocaine seized in Europe last year, and smuggled by air, came from West Africa.
Lax security at its ports, borders and on its islands means Guinea Bissau is paying the price. The country's justice minister, Carmelita Barbosa Pires, wants the world to know that the drugs aren't from her country.
The drugs are destined for Europe, and Europe and the international community must help the country fight drug trafficking, she says.
"Guinea Bissau is being used as a storage warehouse for these drugs. But this does not mean we are a narco-state," Pires says.
"We don't plant or grow cocaine. The people of Guinea Bissau can't even afford to buy or use drugs."
Few Resources to Fight a Big Problem
But the country's main anti-drug unit, the judicial police force, lacks the means to adequately fight the cocaine traffickers.
At its shabby dusky-pink painted headquarters in Bissau, the click-clack of manual typewriters fills the air. Modern technology is a rarity.
The head of the criminal investigation police, Lucinda Barbosa Ahukharie, says she recently received three computers, a photocopier and desks to train her officers.
"It's true that, in Guinea Bissau, the struggle against narco-trafficking is tough work," Ahukharie says. "It's difficult because we don't have all the sophisticated equipment we need for cocaine detection."
Her statement understates the government's lack of resources.
The dedicated force of 50 to 70 investigators shares one fully functional vehicle and has no flak jackets, no walkie-talkies and no radios.
When the officers arrest suspects, they sometimes don't have handcuffs. But thanks to a visiting FBI agent, the agency now has a portable fingerprint lab.
Alekson Joachim Lopes is part of Ahukharie's team. Lopes talks about the dangers of his job.
"I don't have a gun, but I'm working to look for criminals," Lopes says. "It's dangerous for me. It's dangerous for every officer here."
And Guinea Bissau has no prison. The country's main jail was destroyed during the civil war in the late '90s, so detainees are confined to a small lockup within the grounds of the judicial police department.
"Any criminal knows that he won't even go to prison," de Andres says. "They'll go into detention somewhere similar to my office, with a normal wooden door. It's ridiculous We must build a prison."
So the country's anti-drug force, with its poor resources and lack of effective enforcement, must battle against drug cartels armed with sophisticated weapons, technology, small planes, speedboats and money.
But even with scant resources, the investigating police force has won praise from international law enforcement colleagues, and, with more resources, the country's officials hope to make more major cocaine seizures.
Still Fighting the Drug War
The United Nations estimates that Guinea Bissau needs up to $15 million to fully equip the judicial police. Until then, the officers, with their rousing anthem about fighting criminals and protecting the people, appear to be no match for the cocaine barons.
But they haven't given up trying.
In August, two Colombians were arrested, after allegedly being found with arms and explosives, along with a blackboard diagram listing government and military members.
But observers say they and two other Colombian suspects before them were released because of pressure from "interested parties" within Guinea Bissau. The justice minister was visibly irritated by their failure to hold on to the Colombians.
"We spent three weeks asking the international community to assist us with the extradition of these two Colombian citizens," Pires says. "It was neither a government nor a judicial police decision that resulted in the Colombians being released."
Agnelo Regalla is a veteran journalist, and he's among those convinced there is a high-level collusion involving senior government, military and judiciary officials.
"I'm a journalist, I know it happens. Doesn't the president know? Doesn't the army know? Don't the security [forces] know?," Regalla says. "They know. You have to ask them."
Regalla says he and other journalists reporting on drug trafficking and alleged official complicity have been intimidated and threatened. Some have gone into hiding or exile.
But he insists that the cocaine smugglers had powerful friends and allies within Guinea Bissau.
Military spokesman Col. Arsenio Balde rejects the accusations of official links to narcotics.
"I don't think anybody has evidence to prove that some officials in this country are involved," Balde says. "If they have evidence, they should show us."
Balde also says it's not within the military's constitutional mission to battle drug traffickers, but that it had willingly joined the fight to curb trafficking. He said senior army officers, including the chief of staff, have joined the police's anti-trafficking efforts.
A Percolating Problem
The United Nations warns that the international community must help Guinea Bissau now, otherwise the country could be overrun by cocaine cartels.
Antonio Mazzitelli, the regional head of the UNODC, said the security and stability of West Africa is at risk.
"The real stake in West Africa is the money that is generated through drug trafficking which is, per se, an explosive tool," Mazzitelli says. "It can affect democratic rule. It can finance rebellions. [It can] be a reason for taking up arms and perpetuate corruption, bad governance and instability."
Regalla is afraid that the country's youth could fall prey to the easy money that drug trafficking offers. He says cocaine cartels have found a country with fragile state structures. The traffickers use that to their advantage.
So there's a fear that Guinea Bissau will become Africa's first de facto narco-state.
Regalla warns that the drug trade, and possible deadly competition between rival drug lords, could lead his country back into civil war.
Col. Balde predicts that there's a long battle ahead.
"It's not a war that you can win tomorrow," Balde says. "It's not easy. It's a very tough war."