It is not known how much of a role the illegal international drug trade had in boosting tensions between Guinea-Bissau's president and the military before Sunday's and Monday's assassinations of General Batista Tagme Na Waie and President Joao Bernardo Vieira. Although the gunfire and bombing in the capital Bissau have forced new figures to replace the president and the army chief of staff, there is a sense of relief that the overnight developments did not produce a full-fledged coup d'etat. But last Friday in its annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, the US State Department cited increased drug trafficking in Guinea-Bissau and its vulnerability to money laundering and financial crime as sources of systemic corruption.
The report says, "Drug traffickers transiting between Latin America and Europe have increased their use of the country. Guinea-Bissau is often the placement point for proceeds from drug payoffs, theft of foreign aid, and corrupt diversion of oil and other state resources headed for investment abroad." Douglas Farah is a Washington, DC–based consultant on international drug trafficking issues. He points out that Bissau and other West African countries have fallen prey to hostile Latin American drug lords, who are using Africa's Atlantic coast airstrips as transit points for smuggling cocaine to Europe.
"Guinea-Bissau is not an isolated case any longer, unfortunately in West Africa. You have Guinea-Conakry. You have Sierra Leone. You have Liberia. You certainly have Nigeria, all major transit points for drugs moving into Europe and into other markets in Africa itself," Farah noted.
He says that this week's flare-up and assassinations in Bissau should signal other countries in the neighborhood that when resource-weak governments grow vulnerable and dependent on funding from outside kingpins, they endanger the safety and security of their own citizens.
"This should be a lesson or a warning to other African states, where the drug trafficking trade has penetrated so deeply that if you don't eradicate this type of corruption, this inflow of illicit funds that completely undermines already weak states, you can end up very easily down the road to widespread assassinations, to unredeemable corruption. I think if you see competent states like Mexico and Colombia almost caving when the drug traffickers move in there in a serious way and concentrate on them, those tiny countries with no functioning institutions are far more challenged. And if they don't unite to take this on, I think Guinea-Bissau will be the first of many," he cautioned.
While West African landing strips have opened a "new avenue" of wealth for drug suppliers from the Caribbean to reach their lucrative markets in Europe, Douglas Farah believes that European governments need to become more deeply engaged in stopping the three-way commerce.
"It's essentially a European problem now because those drugs are not going to the United States. They're going to Europe. And Europe has to step up and take a much more active and aggressive role if they want to control that avenue of entrance into their continent," he says.
Farah believes that European governments need to acknowledge that their continent's appetite for a thriving drug market is spurring the Latin American penetration of the transatlantic trade.
"It's a testament to how lucrative the traffic is. If you still make an enormous profit going from Latin America to West Africa and then north to Europe, I think it's a whole new route that the law enforcement community in the European countries were not thinking about and were not dealing with, and as water runs downhill to the easiest possible terrain, that's how drug trafficking will move into Europe, in the US markets, or wherever the new market exists. And so they will find the seams in the global structure and move there. And we're always playing catch-up with them," Farah pointed out.
He urges Guinea-Bissau's former colonial ruler Portugal and other European countries to become more engaged in trying to stem the drug cartel's African transit operations. Regrettably, Farah says he does not put much hope in Africa's regional and continent-wide bodies like ECOWAS and the African Union taking similar action any time soon.
"I think that they're overwhelmed. I don't think that they've shown any will to take any action in the best of circumstances. And I think in this circumstance, where they're overwhelmed with everything else and already imbued in a culture of corruption and government weakness that there is any likelihood that they will take any significant action," he said.
In the past three or four months, the US government has stepped up its efforts to curb the drug trade from Central and South America. Farah cites as the principal reason for this Washington's desire to stop enriching the Latin American cartels "that are of great concern to the United States." He observes that the United States does have allies in Africa who are working to rid the continent of what he calls helpless "narco-states" like Guinea-Bissau, but those partners are in the minority.
"I think there are elements in almost
every country, good people and uncorrupted people who are fighting uphill
battles to stem the tide. But I don't
think that there has been a systematic, organized regional response to this,
and I doubt there will be simply because the corruption is so great there," he