Voters in Guinea-Bissau go to the polls Sunday to choose a new president. One of the biggest challenges facing that new leader is Latin American drug gangs using the country to smuggle cocaine to Europe.

The United Nations now estimates that Latin American drug gangs smuggle nearly 50 tons of cocaine through West Africa each year.  Much of that illegal trafficking, worth almost  $2 billion, comes through remote airstrips on islands off the coast of Guinea-Bissau.

The corruption necessary to support that smuggling and the small-arms trade that follows have helped feed instability in a country with a history of army mutinies and coups since independence in 1974.

Guinea-Bissau's combination of poverty, porous borders and weak law enforcement make it an ideal spot for drug smugglers. A kilo of cashews here is worth less than 50 cents.  A kilo of cocaine delivered to Europe is worth more than $56,000.

Regional diplomats express concern that drug money may have helped influence some seats in last year's legislative elections.   Although there is no evidence that those illicit funds are part of the current presidential campaign, confronting the illegal drug trade will clearly be one of the new leader's first tests.

The United Nations Development Program's Vladimir Montiero says it is a challenge not only to law-and-order but also to public health.

"The risk is there and it is real.  When a territory is used as a transit point, the risk is having people of this place consume this drug," Montiero said.  "And, this is another problem for the country because it means that you have to invest in security, but also you have to invest in social issues like hospitals.  And, for a country like Guinea-Bissau - a very poor country without resources -- that will be an another problem to tackle."

Pastor Domingos Te runs a drug rehabilitation center outside Quinhamel,
where young men and women get counseling and vocational training.

Te says, with the introduction of cocaine, young people now prefer to smoke crack, rather than marijuana.  He says, as a consequence, more young people are moving toward violence and robbery to maintain their crack habit.  It is a big problem for Guinea Bissau that Te says is difficult to manage.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson told a Senate subcommittee hearing this week that the Obama Administration is increasing cooperation between diplomatic, military, and drug enforcement authorities.

"We are united in our understanding about the threat drug trafficking poses to Africa and to U.S. interests and why we must collectively boost our coordination and efforts now to prevent a tidal wave of addictions, drug-related enterprises, corruption, instability and conflict from overwhelming Africa's shores," Carson said.

At that hearing, Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold said drug smuggling is already hollowing out government institutions in Guinea Bissau.  He says, without action soon, illegal trafficking could undermine governance throughout West Africa.