News / Africa

US Accuses Guinea-Bissau Military Officers of Drug Trafficking

Two top officers are named as major players in cocaine shipment from Latin America to Guinea-Bissau

The U.S. Treasury Department has accused Guinea-Bissau's Air Force Chief of Staff Ibraima Papa Camara and former Navy Chief of Staff Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto of helping bring in a huge shipment of cocaine from Venezuela in 2008.

The charges mean that U.S. citizens are now banned from doing business with either man and any U.S. assets they hold will be frozen. The head of the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, Adam Szubin, said the moves deter them from profiting from the narcotics trade and engaging in "destabilizing activities."

Former Navy Chief Na Tchuto played a role in last week's ouster of Army Chief Zamora Induta and the brief arrest of Carlos Gomes Jr., Guinea-Bissau's prime minister. Na Tchuto fled to Gambia when he was accused of leading a coup attempt in 2008. Last year, he secretly returned to Guinea-Bissau and sought refuge at the local United Nations headquarters. He emerged from that compound last Thursday alongside Deputy Army Chief Antonio Indjai after soldiers seized Army Chief Induta, who had pressed for Na Tchuto's prosecution.

Na Tchuto denied the allegations on Friday and said that he will cooperate with the United States government. He also said the charges of drug trafficking do not make sense because he was in Portugal on June 29, 2008 when the cocaine shipment from Venezuela arrived.  Na Tchuto said he did not return to Guinea-Bissau until July.

Na Tchuto also pointed out that he was not arrested by Interpol when he was in Gambia or while staying at the U.N. compound in Bissau. Since he was not taken into custody, Na Chuto says this shows he is not guilty.  Interpol is aware that he could have been dismissed as Navy chief of staff were he guilty, added Na Chuto.  But he remained in his post which he said means he had nothing to do with illegal drug trafficking.

Remote airstrips on islands off the coast of Guinea-Bissau are used by Latin American drug gangs as a transit point for cocaine headed for Europe.  

The Commission for Political Affairs at the Economic Community of West African States Mahamane Toure says the drug trade has hurt security in Guinea-Bissau.  

"The police, the justice system, and the prison system with the threat of the drugs have been almost reduced to nil," said Toure.  He adds, "They don't have any capacity to have vehicles, telecommunications systems, to be organized and trained to at least tackle the issue of the drug barons."

Reforming security services in Guinea-Bissau is complicated by the presence of veterans who fought against Portuguese colonialism 36 years ago and are unwilling to retire because a small military pension would leave them in poverty. The President of the United Nations Security Council Yukio Takasu says the international community needs to rethink its strategy toward Guinea-Bissau.

"Are we really on the right track or not? It's easy to say that security sector reform is key for the success of peace building," said Takasu. "But what do we mean by security sector reform? How many people should stay in the military, how they should be paid, how they should retire? Those are important things. Without this clear strategy, it's not just enough to say that this is important."

The Foreign Minister of Senegal, Madike Niang, adds that narco-traffickers pose a real threat to  Guinea-Bissau and the surrounding region.  With a disorganized army and a fragile state, Niang says the international community must step in to help stabilize Guinea-Bissau.

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