Europe’s cocaine supermarket

At the beginning of June, the European Union launched a civil-military mission in Guinea-Bissau to help reforming the security sector. The West African country is an important transit hub for cocaine towards Europe.
The security sector in Guinea-Bissau has been struggling for years. The most important reason is a lack of capacity and means in the army and the police. Guinea-Bissau is the third poorest country in the world, according to the human development index of the United Nations. The list of shortcomings in the security sector is long. The migration services don’t have any vehicles at their disposal and are forced to do everything on foot. While criminals make use of satellite phones, air transport and speedboats, the judicial police doesn’t even have computers. The only prison in the country has been left destroyed after the civil war at the end of the nineties, and also the army barracks are in a terrible state. On top of that, the security sector does not have an efficient structure. The police has nine different divisions, that are controlled by five different ministries.

Failure from the outset


The recently launched European mission, EU SSR Guinea-Bissau, is the fourth attempt to restructure Guinea-Bissau’s defence and police. Under the guidance of the Spanish general Esteban Verastegui, some twenty European and twenty local experts are assisting the country.
It is the first time that the European Union unfolds a mixed civil-military mission: military, juridical as well as police experts are sent abroad. The budget of the EU SSR is 5,6 million euro. The question rises whether that is enough to achieve the ambitious goal of security sector reform. ‘The state in Guinea-Bissau is hardly functioning’, says professor Koen Vlassenroot, Africa-expert at the Conflict Research Group of the University of Ghent. ‘The country is almost a non-state. You can compare the situation to that in many other African countries nowadays: the buildings exist, people sit on a chair but the machine doesn’t function properly –due to a lack of capacity, means and vision. Twenty European experts are not going to make a difference. In the best case scenario, they might be able to revitalize some services. But in order to turn them into an efficient apparatus, more means are necessary. The weakest point of the EU-operation is that a reform of the security sector only is useful when it is embedded in a general strategy to strengthen the state. It has to fit in a wider strategy of state building, political change and development. The EU is aware of that, but apparently there seems to be not enough commitment to launch such a general strategy. The EU-mission is a failure from the outset.
That the EU of all countries launches an operation in Guinea-Bissau, officially is because of the priorities of the European Security and Defence Policy. ‘Stability in Africa is important to all the EU-members’, says a spokesman of the European Council. ‘It is no coincidence that the EU already has unfolded missions in Congo, Sudan and Chad.’ However, well informed sources within the EU told MO* that cocaine traffic is the real reason for the European worries about the security sector in Guinea-Bissau.

Market function


Short article in the Belgian daily newspaper Het Belang van Limburg, middle of May: ‘Sunday morning the federal police seized 1,04 kilo cocaine at Brussels Airport. A passenger from Guinea-Bissau had hidden the drugs in a sports bag. The 41-year old man was arrested in the transit zone. He came from the airport in Conakry with a flight from Brussels Airlines.’ In 2006 the federal police seized 25,5 kilo cocaine imported from Guinea-Bissau at the airport of Zaventem. More important however are the shipments arriving by boat –coming from Guinea-Bissau but also from Togo, Benin, Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal.
In the last couple of years, West Africa has become an important transit hub for Colombian cocaine towards Europe. ‘The amount of cocaine going from South-America through West-Africa towards Europe has increased dramatically’, can be read in the recent report Cocaine trafficking in West Africa, published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). ‘Guinea-Bissau seems to be the epicenter of this phenomenon.’ The value of the coke passing through the country appears to be even higher than the national income of Guinea-Bissau. ‘In the past, coke was shipped directly from Latin-America towards Europe’, says UNODC-researcher Theodore Leggett. ‘Nowadays, the smugglers first make a stop in West Africa. This detour has a market function. In West Africa, big amounts of coke are stored and subsequently divided into smaller amounts –you could compare it to a supermarket. The storage and distribution of the drugs is no longer possible in Europe and Colombia, because the supervision and control is tougher there. Smugglers look for countries where the control is not so tight, where public servants can be corrupted or where the police force is weak –as is the case in Guinea-Bissau.’
Besides the weak security sector in the country, and the strategical position of Guinea-Bissau towards Europe and Colombia, several other factors make the country a playground for traffickers. The long, capricious coastline with a lot of deserted islands, marshs and creeks is an ideal biotope for smugglers who want to hide their contraband. With no coast guard patrolling the frontiers, it is easy to stay underneath the radar. The smugglers take advantage of the poverty in the country, since unpayed salaries stimulate corruption. Several police officers have been accused of complicity in drug dealing.

Street value


Last year in October, the UN Security Council appealed to Guinea-Bissau to take action against drug traffic and organised crime, two factors that ‘threaten the stability of West Africa.’ According to Theodore Leggett, it is not clear when exactly the country became a transit hub towards Europe, or how much ton is being trafficked through it each week. ‘But we see that since 2005 big amounts of coke –with an enormous street value– have been seized. With the revenues of the two drug shipments of about 700 kilo that were confiscated in Guinea-Bissau in 2006 and 2007, you could buy the whole army of the country.’ Cashews, the main export product of the country, are much less profitable. It seems almost impossible to overcome that reality with a modest EU-mission of 20 experts. Nevertheless Leggett is more optimistic than professor Vlassenroot. ‘The mere fact that there is international attention for the situation already matters. It makes it harder for the traffickers to do business.’ The UNODC-report sums up yet another way to support Guinea-Bissau in its battle against drug traffic. ‘Europeans can help by curbing their appetite for cocaine that is the main driver of this problem.’

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