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Investigators Struggle to Fight Drug Crimes in Guinea-Bissau


International anti-drug agents have warned repeatedly that Guinea-Bissau has become a key transit point for drugs going from South America to Europe. The government of the impoverished West African nation says it needs much more international help to fight the drug trade, but security analysts accuse high-ranking officials of being part of the problem. For VOA, Phuong Tran reports she spent time with a government anti-drug investigator who struggles with limited equipment and suspicion within his own ranks.

An undercover investigator, who goes by the alias Francisco, works the overnight shift at the city jail in the capital Bissau.

He says almost no one in Guinea-Bissau knows he is part of a recently-formed eight-person national drug crimes team.

He says that they are so covert, they have no weapons. He says they have no handcuffs, or phones that can make international phone calls. Energy is scarce and there is no electricity after 4:00 in the afternoon. The National Police has just one truck.

Francisco says if an informant calls him, he needs to find a taxi cab or rental car to follow the tip.

Several weeks ago, Francisco says his team received a tip a small plane had made an unauthorized landing. The police truck was available, he says, but there was no gas.

The director of the police loaned her personal car, but by the time the team reached the site, the plane was gone.

Francisco says the military had apparently moved the plane to an army base. Analysts and security experts who have studied the drug trade in Guinea-Bissau accuse government officials and the military of taking part in the lucrative business.

In a British television news report last year in which a local journalist acted as an interpreter, Guinea-Bissau navy chief, Jose Américo Bubo Na Tchuto, was quoted as saying soldiers were implicated in the trade. But he later denied making the statement, and filed libel charges against the journalist whom he said had misinterpreted his words.

Another local journalist went into hiding after he received threats following his own reports on the drug trade.

The government says the allegations of official complicity are being investigated.

But Francisco Benante, the president of the National Assembly, says corruption happens everywhere, including in Guinea-Bissau.

He says militaries are paid off in many parts of the world to look the other way. He says the only difference with Guinea-Bissau is that the military is in his words, "hungrier and poorer".

For years, the government has not been able to pay its employees on time, including members of the military and the police as the country struggles to recover from its latest coup, less than five years ago.

The United Nations estimates about 40 tons of cocaine passes through West Africa annually on the way to Europe, and a big chunk of this apparently passes through Guinea-Bissau.

Undercover investigator Francisco says it is hard to compete with drug traffickers. He says the wholesale value of 2.5 tons of cocaine in Europe is equal to the 2006 annual budget of Guinea-Bissau, about $125 million.

Traffickers co-opt people in Guinea-Bissau into providing surveillance, transportation, and support for their operations. The traffickers use planes and ships to drop off and pick up drugs throughout the inlets and islands that make up Guinea-Bissau's coast.

Francisco says he became an anti-drug investigator, because he says, he hates seeing his country potentially being ripped apart by the drug trade.

He says he knows his job is dangerous, but that he used to be a freedom fighter against Portuguese colonizers, and he needs to do this now for his country.

At the end of his 12-hour shift, on this day, investigator Francisco has not received any leads. He says he works with six informants. He says if the tip is good, he pays. He also tries to cover their transportation and telephone costs if he can.

But he says he has lost some informants because drug dealers and their local collaborators can pay more to keep them quiet.

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