Guinea-Bissau's military recently said it would shoot down planes suspected of transporting illegal drugs as it attempts to fight the drug trade that some say could overrun the country. But some in the West African nation say they doubt real measures will be taken because, they say, members of the government are complicit in the illegal trade. Naomi Schwarz has the story from Dakar with additional reporting by Julie Vandal in Guinea-Bissau.
The increase in illegal drug trafficking has experts across West Africa worried. But tiny Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony sandwiched between French-speaking Guinea and Senegal, is perhaps the most worrisome case, experts and Bissau Guineans say.
A former government minister, who asked not to be named, says if his country cannot find a way out of the situation quickly, it will be completely lost.
Countless tiny islands are scattered along Guinea-Bissau's Atlantic coastline. Many of them are uninhabited. Once they were vacation destinations for overseas travelers. After civil war ravaged the country in 1998 and 1999, tourism withered away. Now police say drug traffickers are taking advantage of these remote islands.
An officer for Interpol talked to VOA but asked that his name be withheld.
"Nobody knows [any]thing about what is going on there, or if something is going on or is not going," he said. "Nobody knows that. That is a perfect place."
In an attempt to stem the traffic, the military recently announced it would shoot down any plane entering Guinean airspace without permission. It said drug traffickers, mainly from Latin America, use small planes to ferry shipments of cocaine onto the islands. It says the drugs are then flown to Europe.
But Guinean police, charged with the task of enforcing anti-drug laws, do not have vehicles, boats, computers, or even handcuffs.
Several suspected drug dealers from Colombia have been arrested. On several occasions, they have been allowed to walk free on bail, frustrating efforts to extradite them to Colombia.
Last year, more than 600 kilograms of cocaine were seized by police and held in the public treasury. Soon after, the stash disappeared. Authorities said it had been destroyed but did not offer evidence.
Incidents like these have led many to speculate that some in Guinea-Bissau's government are, themselves, involved in the drug trade.
The former minister says people are even afraid to think that officials are associated with the drug trade, but that is the only explanation.
The capital, Bissau, has no state-supplied electricity and the per capita GDP is less than $1000 per year. Many houses are decaying, and remain partially destroyed from the civil war. But in recent years, ministers have built large, modern houses. Some members of the government and military now drive sports utility vehicles that cost upwards of $50,000.
The former minister says he can offer no hard proof, but he says some people from the state and military have become so rich overnight, it could only be from drug money.
Human rights activist Luis Vaz Martin says impunity is a big problem in Guinea-Bissau.
He says everyone suspects which officials might be involved, and he says they must be brought to trial.
Officials have vehemently denied charges of complicity. They say they do not have enough equipment or technology to fight the wealthy and well-equipped drug traffickers. They say they are doing everything in their power.
Vaz Martin says it has become dangerous to work against the drug trade.
He says many people have been threatened, not only police and judges but also human rights workers, including one of Martin's colleagues.
Vaz Martin says, with the help of the international community, the country can still be saved.
But Bishop Jose Camnaté says he does not see the political will to act.
The international community wants to help the country, and proposes concrete steps. But the Bishop says we in Guinea cannot seem to organize to take advantage of the help.