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two birds
April 19, 2015 | by  | in Features |
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Two Birds Flipped at the West

Last June, New York court sources let slip that a 64-year-old West African man, José Américo Bubo Na Tchuto, had pleaded guilty in a secret hearing in Manhattan. The exact charges were unknown and the court transcript was immediately sealed—sure signs of a politically sensitive plea deal. Na Tchuto’s current whereabouts are unknown.

Na Tchuto had been arrested in April 2013. He was picked up in international waters and taken to the United States to face charges under American drug trafficking law. The move had been brewing for years—over the better part of the last decade Na Tchuto, sometime-head of the Guinea-Bissau navy, had been considered one of the country’s leading drug kingpins.

That the US should concern itself with the drug trade in this tiny West African country might come as a surprise. More surprising yet were the sheer stakes involved. Na Tchuto’s arrest followed the negotiation of a high-level arms-for-drugs deal struck between top Bissau-Guinean military officials, representatives from South American cartels, Colombian wannabe guerrillas—and, as it happened, the Drug Enforcement Agency.

The deal was to involve huge shipments of cocaine from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), brought into Guinea-Bissau on its way to the US. Local officials would ensure the safe storage of the shipments, and would act as FARC’s agents in purchasing and sending back weapons for the group’s decades-long Marxist struggle. In exchange, the locals would receive a 13 per cent slice of the cocaine’s wholesale value. Na Tchuto himself was to pocket US$1 million for every metric ton of cocaine that arrived on his shores. He planned to stash the money in a specially constructed underground bunker.

Unfortunately for Na Tchuto, the FARC representatives were actually DEA informants. He agreed to join them on their luxury yacht to celebrate the deal while his right-hand man, army chief António Indjai, cautiously elected to remain onshore. Once the yacht had strayed 22 kilometres from shore, out of the country’s territorial waters, the DEA made its move.


Guinea-Bissau’s population is about the size of Auckland, its area that of Otago. It’s named for its capital, the Wellington-sized Bissau, in order to distinguish it from the “other” Guineas, Guinea-Conakry and Equatorial Guinea. The names are a confusing legacy of competing colonial powers: Equatorial Guinea was a Spanish colony, Conakry was French and Bissau Portuguese. Bissau was the last of the three to gain independence, in 1973-74; Na Tchuto was one of the movement’s leading heroes.

After two decades under a one-party state, the country’s first free elections were held in 1994. On paper, the country is a multi-party presidential democracy; in reality, the largest party, the PAIGC, has had only four years out of power since independence, and thanks to a combination of civil wars, coups and assassinations, no president has served a full five-year term.

It is one of the world’s poorest countries, ranking 177th out of 187 on the Human Development Index. The capital is an almost clichéd picture of crumbling postcolonial Africa, the kind of place you’d expect to see in a Bond film in one of those casually racist scenes in which 007 demolishes some tattered local bazaar. The few cars that travel the city’s optimistically wide boulevards have to dodge the frequent potholes. The streets are lined with handsome trees, behind which lie decaying colonial buildings. There is no mains electricity—the whole country is pitched into near total darkness at sunset—and running water is limited to a wealthy few. Outside Bissau the picture is even worse; many communities are isolated and suffer brutal food shortages.

But Guinea-Bissau has a secret. Off the coast lies the Bijagós, an archipelago with a bewildering number of mostly uninhabited islands, many with abandoned airstrips built during the civil war in the 1990s. Virtually unpoliceable, it’s the perfect place to sneak things in and out undetected.

Guinea-Bissau’s unique geography has made it one of the primary transit ports for cocaine headed from South America to Europe. In 2008, an estimated ton of pure Colombian cocaine left Guinea-Bissau every day. Increasingly, the country is also part of the cocaine route into the US (Mexico is too dangerous and expensive; the Caribbean well-policed), and a hub for Afghan heroin crossing the Atlantic.

Traffickers use large, specially modified fishing motherships, as well as small chartered planes. The planes can leave Colombia or Venezuela with around 600-700 kilograms of cocaine on board, refuel in Brazil, and cross the Atlantic in the space of a day. The cocaine is then transported to Europe by air, using mules; by sea, using small vessels such as fishing boats or canoes; or by land, via Morocco on the old “cannabis trail”. Being a drug mule is dangerous work—most employ the condom-swallowing technique, and if the condom bursts the results are usually fatal. But for a country in which the average weekly wage is around twenty dollars, it’s hugely lucrative work: a single mule carrying multiple packages can collect several thousand dollars per trip. In 2006, Dutch police caught 32 mules from Guinea-Bissau on a single flight into Amsterdam.

When packets of cocaine first began to drift ashore in the mid-2000s, local fishermen didn’t realise what they’d found. They tried using the powder to decorate themselves, paint their houses, fertilise their crops and, in one case, even mark out a football pitch. Before long, though, traffickers arrived offering lucrative buybacks for washed-up cocaine.

Locals used to inconsistent income and a hand-to-mouth existence suddenly found they could build new homes and buy cars. Many gave up fishing and agriculture to join the traffickers, using their knowledge of the area to help smuggle drugs and people. A fisherman with access to a large boat capable of carrying 50 or more people could net around US$40,000 for a single trip into neighbouring Senegal. As the money washed in, so it trickled down—maybe the Chicago School was right after all.

Drug money first started to pour into the country around 2003-04. Under the rule of President João Bernardo Vieira (2005-09), the trade quickly saturated every facet of public life. The army now provides traffickers with logistical support, protection and storage facilities. A significant portion of army wages is paid directly from trafficking profits, and soldiers are often paid in cocaine. When one of the country’s 63 police officers does catch a drug trafficker, the suspect is often released by judges or freed by the army with no explanation given. In any case, springing an inmate isn’t exactly difficult: the capital has no prison, and detainees are simply locked in the basements of various abandoned colonial villas.

The federal court documents produced for Na Tchuto’s prosecution described a truly brazen degree of official cooperation with the traffickers. Government officials arranged a fake shipment of military uniforms to conceal the cocaine, accepted upfront payments of tens of thousands of euros from the traffickers, and created a front company to store the drugs.

The illicit nature of the drug trade makes it difficult to assess just how much money is involved. 93 per cent of the country’s official exports come from cash crops (cashew nuts, Brazil nuts and coconuts), and its US$100 million trade deficit is only just patched up by foreign aid. Despite this, Guinea-Bissau’s foreign currency reserves went from US$33 million in 2003 to US$169 million in 2009. With an estimated US$4.29 billion of cocaine travelling through the country every year, drug money is the obvious source.


Since the mid-nineteenth century, when the Quakers in England first popularised the idea of addiction as a “disease of the soul”, Western views on drugs have taken on a permanent edge of moral hysteria. With the rise of eugenics in the early nineteenth century scientific community, drug use came to be associated with genetic theories of race, class and sexuality.

In the early to mid-twentieth century, US attitudes toward a range of drugs were formed, often at an official level, by tapping into political fears and social and racial prejudices. The American Pharmaceutical Association’s Committee on the Acquirement of the Drug Habit, reporting on a study conducted from 1888-1902, found that blacks and “unfortunate women” were “made madly wild by cocaine”. A 1920 report by the American Medical Association found that without treatment, an addict could become “organised and vocal”, warning that “society awakens to the fact that he is an I.W.W., a Bolshevik, or what not.” In 1934, two years before the release of Reefer Madness (watch it, it’s fantastic), the American Psychiatric Association opined that marijuana is “a primary stimulus to the impulsive life” that “acts as a sexual stimulant for overt homosexuals”.

The illicit drug trade has always been fed by Western demand. For most of the twentieth century, this awkward reality was explained away by blaming drug use on undesirable others within the West. In the US, drugs have variously been the domain of “non-American” immigrant minorities (in the early twentieth century), subversive communist sympathisers (during the mid-twentieth century), and inner-city blacks (in the eighties and nineties).

But the rising popularity of cocaine among affluent whites in the 70s and 80s forced a partial rethink. Painting this group as un-American was hardly an option, for obvious reasons; the focus instead turned to FARC and other leftwing insurgencies. Drugs became not just a threat to society’s moral fabric, but a national security concern—culminating in President Bush’s 1989 declaration of the war on drugs.

That the war has been a failure hardly needs repeating. In foreign policy terms alone, it has succeeded only in bringing together drug producers and political radicals, from the Colombian cartels and FARC to poppy farmers and the Taliban. By joining forces, the producers have gained a vicious paramilitary wing, and the insurgents a huge source of revenue. Meanwhile, enforcement measures from the US and EU have succeeded only in driving up global prices without affecting actual rates of drug consumption—the upshot is that more money in total is flowing into the illicit drug market, with much of the extra revenue going toward funding the associated violence.

Guinea-Bissau stands in contrast to Colombia, Mexico and Afghanistan because its problems are not caused by the mere illegality of drugs. Commentators often point out that if the US and EU—or even just the US—were to legalise cocaine and heroin, the war in Mexico would end almost overnight, while the insurgencies in Colombia and Afghanistan would lose billions of dollars of income.

Guinea-Bissau is different because its drug trade wouldn’t even exist were the product not illegal. It’s precisely the country’s obscurity that makes it attractive to traffickers. Were the traffickers able to operate in the open, the country would no longer be needed, and would in all likelihood go back to being yet another forgotten African backwater.

The EU suspended political ties with Bissau in 2010, a move it disingenuously claimed would not affect humanitarian efforts in the country. The ties were restored last month after the country’s new President, José Mário Vaz, dismissed Indjai as the army’s chief of staff and promised to crack down on the drug trade. The day after the EU restored ties, it pledged over €160 million in additional aid to the country, part of a ten-year package totalling over €1 billion.

That Guinea-Bissau—a country for so long on the arse-end of globalisation—should have to apologise for cashing in on the West’s self-destructive domestic drug policies is obscene. That in doing so it should have to dance for a slice of the development pie is even worse. In many respects, its lucrative complicity in the drug trade has been a thrilling jibe at both the racist global economy and the racist war on drugs—a bird flipped in each hand.


In 2008, as naval commander, Na Tchuto staged a foiled coup attempt that saw him exiled to the Gambia. Late the following year, he snuck back into the country on a fishing boat. When his presence in the capital became known, he took refuge in Bissau’s UN headquarters, demanding political asylum on humanitarian grounds. For months, he slept on a mattress on the floor of one of the offices and ate at the canteen.

On 1 April, 2010, soldiers stormed the UN building and escorted Na Tchuto away. The soldiers, however, were loyal to Na Tchuto’s ally Indjai, who that same day had staged a mutiny-cum-coup, seizing the Prime Minister and the army chief and placing himself in charge. That one of Indjai’s first acts had been to free Na Tchuto stoked suspicions that Na Tchuto had been the mastermind all along. Now Bissau belonged to him.

Like Na Tchuto, President Vieira himself had been considered a drug kingpin. He was assassinated by renegade soldiers in March 2009, a suspected reprisal attack after a bomb blast just hours earlier that had killed his direct rival, army chief Batista Tagme Na Waie.

In 2007, the UN told donor countries that the drug trade in Guinea-Bissau was an existential threat to both the country and the region. The Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Antonio Maria Costa, compared the effects of the drug trade to those of slavery: “In the 19th century, Europe’s hunger for slaves devastated West Africa. Two hundred years later, its growing appetite for cocaine could do the same.”

The perversity of that comparison aside, the dramatic claims seem largely unfounded. Despite the political intrigue, the coups, the drug money, there’s a notable lack of hard evidence that Guinea-Bissau has been destabilised in any real way by the drug trade—there’s barely even evidence of violence. Nonetheless, Western governments and media outlets seem quick to ascribe to the country a set of clichéd ills based solely on assumption and guesswork.

In 2009, TIME reported that drug-related violence in the country is rife, but offered few details; in 2008, The Guardian claimed that the country “suffers from a proliferation of addiction” but said the addicts are “hidden away in villages”, relying on a second-hand interview with a single addict.

By contrast, Der Spiegel reported in 2013 that the state apparatus had created a “secure environment” for drug lords: “Guinea-Bissau seems rather peaceful, even sleepy at times. There are no junkies here and no beheaded traitors on the roadside. The daily drug trade is conducted virtually without violence.” Indeed, the ability to operate with virtual impunity and the lack of any local market for the goods means there’s no need for violent competition. Quite simply, there’s enough to go around.

A 2008 Washington Post article described Bissau as a city “full of jarring signs of incongruous wealth—the exclusive restaurant selling jumbo shrimp for more than $50, the grocery store selling Johnny Walker Green Label whiskey for $132.” Both WaPo and The Guardian lingered on the lurid displays of Colombian wealth—the luxury hacienda villas, the swimming pools, the black-tinted four-wheel drives. People were employed to build those villas and man those bars, but this was nonetheless, they assured us, a Very Serious Problem.

Because God forbid anyone actually invest in Africa.

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