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Bissau Assassinations Highlight Obstacles to Drug Trafficking Fight

Following the assassinations of Guinea-Bissau's president and army chief of staff, questions are being raised about the role of drug cartels in national politics.

President Joao Bernardo "Nino" Vieira's assassination Monday brought widespread speculation over the role of Latin American drug cartels in Guinea-Bissau's government and political process. Fear has spread the time may be ripe for the cartels to further increase their influence in the West African nation that has often been called a narco-state.

Economic Community of West African States Executive Secretary Mohammed Ibn Chambas said a group of foreign ministers from the region, due to arrive in Guinea-Bissau, will investigate the possible role of drug cartels in Vieira's death.

"We need to really ensure that some sinister forces were not behind this," said Chambas. "You know Guinea-Bissau has become a transit point for drug traffickers."

President Vieira and army chief of staff General Batista Tagme na Waie, largely considered to be the two most powerful men in Guinea-Bissau, were killed within hours of each other over the weekend. The president died at the hands of a group of soldiers who attacked the presidential mansion following General Waie's death.

Richard Moncrieff is the head of International Crisis Group's West Africa Project.

"We know that accusations were leveled against Tagme na Waie of having been involved in the drug trade," said Moncrieff. "There are allegations leveled at other members of the armed forces."

Latin American cartels have increased their presence in Guinea-Bissau in recent years, utilizing vast expanses of desolate, island-dotted coastline to transport drugs to Europe.

U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime West African representative Antonio Mazzitelli says the drugs are only part of the danger.

"Certainly the major threat that drug trafficking or all other transnational organized crime introduces into the West African scenario at large is the possibility of hijacking and influencing the democratic process," said Mazzitelli. "Thanks to the enormous financial and corruptive power of this money, this is a major concern in a country like Guinea-Bissau."

Mazzitelli says 1.3 tons of cocaine, worth more than $100 million on the streets of Europe, has been seized in Guinea-Bissau in recent years. He points out that most drug shipments go undetected in the remote region.

Mazzitelli says, in a country with a gross national income of around $300 million, the money associated with the drug trade can wreak havoc in society and corrupt politics.

"We know that drug traffickers had at least attempted to directly infiltrate government as proved by a police operation that was carried out a couple of years ago and that showed clearly the way of trying to infiltrate institutions by Latin American drug trafficker," he added. "We know that a number of political and institutionally exposed people have been to a certain extent involved directly or indirectly in the drug issue."

He says though the resource-strapped institutions of Guinea-Bissau are working to fight drug trafficking, incidences of corruption and a lack of institutional capability have continued to plague the country.

"The last case was the plane that landed in Guinea-Bissau in August on the tarmac of the international Vieira airport in Bissau," continued Mazzitelli. "No cocaine was seized, but most probably the plane was loaded with cocaine."

Mazzitelli also cites the mysterious disappearance of 600 kilos of cocaine from a safe at the Ministry of Finance as evidence that the country needs more assistance in fighting organized crime and preventing further inroads into Guinea-Bissau's institutions. He says the weakness of those institutions makes Guinea-Bissau unique in West Africa.

A number of suspects were taken into custody in connection with the plane Mazzitelli mentions, but all, including several South Americans, quickly disappeared after posting bail, partly because Guinea-Bissau has no prison.

"When I first went to Guinea-Bissau and found out that there was no prison, I started to wonder to myself, if there is no prison, what is the meaning of justice? And the very judges I had the possibility to talk with, they told me, look, we are scared to sentence, especially the most dangerous criminals, because we have no place we can make the law enforced," he said.

Despite the ongoing struggle against the drug trade, Mazzitelli says he is optimistic the institutions of Guinea-Bissau are strengthening. He says the absence of a military-staged coup in the aftermath of the president's assassination is evidence of, in his words, the mature approach of Bissau Guineans towards democracy.

The U.N. Human Development Index, which considers factors including education, income, and life expectancy, ranks Guinea-Bissau among the poorest nations in the world. The country suffers from a lack of viable infrastructure, made worse by a two-year civil war.

The war originally ousted Mr. Vieira from power in 1999, after nearly two decades of rule, but he returned from exile in Portugal to win back the presidency in elections in 2005.