Guinea-Bissau: How Cocaine Transformed a Tiny African Nation

Seven years ago, almost no one in Guinea-Bissau could imagine that just 1 g of a bland-looking white powder could be worth more than their average monthly salary

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Marco Vernaschi / Pulitzer Center

Tiny Guinea-Bissau has become a base for cocaine trafficking between Latin America and Europe, and officials seem helpless to stop it

One morning in early 2005, the villagers of Biombo found hundreds of carefully sealed packets of white powder washed up on their mangrove flats on Guinea-Bissau’s Atlantic coast. The women discovered them as they checked their fishing lines; they had arrived, it turned out, from a simple-looking steel-hull cargo vessel that ran aground while trying to reach the shore. Some of the villagers thought the powder was Ajinomoto, a popular Japanese brand of MSG, and used it in their cooking sauces. One man mixed some with water and tried to use it to whitewash his house. Most people initially agreed it was fertilizer, but doubts grew when it seemed to be killing rather than invigorating the eggplant crop.

It took a Bissau-Guinean man who had been recently deported from Europe, known now by local legend simply as the Boy from Biombo, to realize exactly what the powder was: cocaine. Seeing calabashes filled with the stuff, he began buying it up for a few dollars a kilo and shipping it to the capital, Bissau. When one of the villagers, Joy, telephoned Guinea-Bissau’s City FM radio station, told them the story of the sacks of powder and asked them to contact the vegetable department at the Ministry of Agriculture on her behalf, a group of Nigerians arrived in Biombo and set about buying up whatever of the substance remained. By then, the Boy from Biombo was well on the way to establishing a small business empire. It was only after several months that the penny finally dropped for the police and the villagers. There were living in the middle of a new drug-trafficking highway running between Latin America and Europe.

(MORE: The Cocaine Crisis: How the Drug Trade Is Ruining West Africa)

Seven years ago, almost no one in Guinea-Bissau could imagine that just 1 g of a bland-looking white powder could be worth more than their average monthly salary. But in 2004 and ’05 the Latin American cartels, realizing they had all but saturated the North American market, began looking for growth in Europe, and today the U.S. estimates 30 tons of cocaine passes through this African country every year en route across the Atlantic. In Guinea-Bissau, one of the poorest countries in the world and one of the smallest, with a population of just 1.6 million, the drug now permeates the entire nation, from the military and political elites, who facilitate its passage, to the poorest and most vulnerable, who are developing a rising addiction.

Despite obvious signs of the trade — such as $100,000 cars in Bissau’s streets and smugglers’ abandoned Gulfstream jet at the airport — the drug business thrives on a willful silence. Malam is a 35-year-old Bissau-Guinean drug dealer and international trafficker. He tells me he has full impunity because he is related to a former President. “The police are worthless,” says Malam, who refuses to use his full name. “They’re in everyone’s pocket.” He dips into his own supply on occasion and counts himself lucky. The younger and poorer in Guinea-Bissau use cocaine’s cheaper and more-addictive derivative, crack. As night falls in the capital, young people can be seen gathering in groups under mango trees or in sleepy side streets to smoke rocks of crack cocaine for less than a dollar a hit. “No police approach them,” says Peter Correia, a government health care worker, in his small office piled high with boxes of condoms. “They can’t because of the condition of these people — they are becoming dangerous.”

(MORE: Dialogue with a Coup Leader: Has Guinea-Bissau Become a Narco-State?)

Guinea-Bissau’s only drug-addiction clinic lies on a back road in the quiet village about an hour outside Bissau. Nine months ago, fellow inmates watched as José Belenta arrived at Quinhámel mental-health center with his wrists and ankles bound. Then addicted to crack, the former carpenter is now clean and has become a voluntary worker at the clinic. Run by an evangelical pastor with no formal medical training, it combines drug rehab with a safe environment for the mentally ill: Belenta has to break off from our conversation a number of times to administer sedatives to patients or to calm his charges. “It started in 2009,” he says. “Some of my friends had big money, and I’d travel up and down helping them to transport the drugs.” Belenta says he was paying around 70 ¢ for a hit. He estimates 20% to 30% of the young people in Bissau are now using crack. A World Health Organization representative in Bissau, who asks not to be identified, concurs with that rough assessment. “We have no proof,” he says, “but if you see the number of people with mental illness now, it figures that there is an increase in drug use.” A European health worker, who also requests anonymity, adds: “I like the Bible — I’m a Christian — but for recovery, people need a wider path. We need specialized psychiatric doctors and nurses.”

There is little hope of that. All aid to the state was cut after Army Chief of Staff Antonio Indjai — in a putsch most observers agree was at least partly motivated by a fight over the drug trade — staged a coup in April. The government cannot bring itself to accept that the 60 patients admitted to the Simão Mendes National Hospital with severe diarrhea in September were suffering from cholera. Cocaine, a trade in which the state is complicit, is even more taboo, says Correia, the government health worker. “No one will talk about it, so how can we address it?” he says. “There is no state control at all.” At least, he says, he himself knows about cocaine. Speaking of his 7-year-old daughter, he says, “I am aware of the problem. I will be able to protect my child and give her the ability to understand.” In a country where the average age is 19, many thousands of others are likely to be less fortunate. “Our population is so young that if the youth enter into this phenomenon, we’ll never get out,” says Allen Yero Embalo, a former radio presenter who follows the rising influence of cocaine in Guinea-Bissau. In the end, he says, the white powder did turn out to be a kind of fertilizer. The political corruption and social instability it brought, he says, “is a fertilizer for criminals.”

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