Drug trade “potentially more dangerous than Guinea-Bissau”

Guinea has become a major drug-trafficking hub and the trade there is now potentially more dangerous than in Guinea-Bissau, according to Antonio Mazzitelli, regional representative of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

“The [drug trafficking] situation is more complex and more dangerous now than in Guinea-Bissau based on the information we have,” Mazzitelli told IRIN.

International drug traffickers from Colombia, Venezuela, Nigeria and Spain, among other countries, have moved their trade up the coast from Guinea-Bissau to Guinea after being driven out of Bissau because of increased government scrutiny, according to an official from the government’s anti-narcotics bureau (OCAD) in the capital Conakry.

Though the amount of drugs trafficked through Guinea is unclear, OCAD’s new head, Sakho Moussa Camara, told IRIN over 1,000kg were seized in Guinea in 2007. He said the office has seized 7,499kg of drugs between 19 August and 15 September 2008.

Mazzitelli said it is difficult to specify the amount of drugs in transit or that are seized, and would confirm only that the UNODC knew of several drug seizures in Guinea of approximately 150kg each in 2008.

Mazzitelli warned that the drugs trade could destabilise Guinea, which is prone to volatility and has been characterised by weak governance. “Drugs could be a trigger for further instability and could facilitate anarchy and individual abuses of whoever is in power, making any solution to potential political crisis difficult,” he said.

Trafficking and related corruption hamper development by building up a get-rich-quick culture which quashes private initiatives aimed at building up sustainable investment, says Mazzitelli. Instead “it generates additional sources of revenue for a few people without creating any real wealth or jobs for the rest, which can hijack development in the country,” Mazzitelli warned.

He added that drug trafficking fuels crime and engenders corruption at all levels of the administration. “[The trade] can contribute to tensions between different groups who will fight each other to get a larger share of the pie.”

Rising tension between the police and army spilled over into open conflict in the capital, Conakry, in June 2008.

Another official at OCAD who asked not to be named, said corruption at the highest levels of the military and police and a lack of personnel and equipment are impeding OCAD’s ability to crack down on drug trafficking.

Corruption

A senior official in the Guinean Ministry of Security who also asked to remain anonymous, said because of corruption, traffickers are often released hours after their arrest and many drug caches disappear.

The official said this occurred in the case of Venezuelan and Colombian drug traffickers in May 2008, after they were arrested for storing large quantities of cocaine in Kipé, a Conakry suburb.

OCAD’s Camara told IRIN,"I fight not only against drug traffickers, but also against some members of the Guinean police and military who are enriching themselves through drug trafficking." He continued, “You cannot imagine how deeply some drug barons are entrenched [here], in full view of law enforcers, and…protected by some senior officials.”

''...I fight...against members of the Guinean police and military who are enriching themselves through drug trafficking...''

He said people involved in the drug industry have offered him large sums of money to stop his work. He added OCAD has a list of 25 members of the military possibly implicated in drug trafficking.

Camara was appointed head of OCAD in August, one month after his predecessor stepped down in unclear circumstances.

Police and military officials told IRIN that a handful of people in their ranks who engage in illicit activities give the entire institutions a bad name.

“Not all police are mixed up in this drug-trafficking,” Conde Mansa Mady, a head of the judicial section of the Kaloum police station in Guinea, said. “Here at our police station once we arrest a narco-trafficker the person is immediately sent to the central prison of Conakry.”

A military officer who asked to remain anonymous told IRIN: “Certain among our military colleagues tarnish our name by trafficking drugs,” He added, “We often go out with OCAD officials to provide reinforcement for them in their work.”

The routes

According to the unnamed OCAD official, drugs leave Colombia aboard a small Cessna airplane flying at an altitude of 2,000 metres, making them undetectable by radar. The planes land, often at night, in towns like Faranah in central Guinea, 455km from Conakry, and from here they are conveyed under heavy escort to the capital for storage, he said.

During August and September, small Cessna aircraft landed “repeatedly” in Faranah, and the town of Boke, 268km north of the capital, transporting drugs, the official said.

Locals tipped off OCAD on 4 September when a small aircraft carrying drugs landed in Boke during the night. The move led to the arrest of the governor, the mayor, a military commander, central commissioner, and the air traffic controller, according to the Security Ministry official. All are currently being held in Conakry for questioning.

Smugglers generally transport the drugs across the region by truck or to Europe and the United States by boat, hidden in crates of cargo such as fish or soap cartons.

Individual drug couriers or ‘mules’ are carrying increasing amount of the trade, according to the UNODC’s Mazzitelli. They swallow capsules of drugs or hide drugs on their person. Guinea is one of four countries, along with Mali, Nigeria and Senegal, in which drug mules play a central role in trafficking, according to a yet-to-be-released UN study.

Mazzitelli said couriers departing by plane from Mali were in many cases supplied with cocaine from Guinea. In 2006, 221 couriers who had started their journeys in Guinea were arrested in Africa and Europe.

Government fight

OCAD’s Camara, appointed in August 2008, said the anti-drug body has made some progress.

OCAD has tried to ban small flights from landing and is working with locals who tip them off when they hear of a plane arriving. Camara said the office has helped drive about 100 drug traffickers out of the country. This could not be independently verified.

But OCAD is limited by a lack of money, people and equipment, said Camara. It has just one vehicle to monitor the entire country – nearly 246,000sqkm -- as its other two vehicles were damaged in the June 2008 stand-off between soldiers and the police, he said.

Camara said OCAD’s office was looted to remove traces of military involvement in drug trafficking. Others who asked not to be named said the incident was linked to a seizure of 300kg of cocaine that OCAD had been involved with a few weeks earlier.

“We are fighting against the phenomenon with bare hands against drug traffickers who use very sophisticated weapons,” said Camara. “We could do much more if we had the support of the military and paramilitary forces.”

OCAD is now trying to go deeper to tap into drug smuggling networks, he said, but these are hard to access.

One important step in the fight against trafficking, UNODC’s Mazzitelli said, is to work with banks to monitor unusual financial transactions so they can stop money laundering activities in Guinea.

“If people’s money is seized,” said Mazzitelli, “they will be powerless, and they will be exposed to the judgment of outsiders.” But he added that setting up such surveillance in Guinea will be a challenge.

West African officials are set to discuss this and related issues at an ECOWAS ministerial conference on drug trafficking, to be held 26 October in Cape Verde.

“We hope [at the conference] the Guinean authorities will seize the opportunity to make a ruling denouncing the situation, and to appeal to the international community for strong measures and support in the fight,” Mazzitelli told IRIN. “We hope they will adopt the same stance as Guinea-Bissau did three years ago to try to break this cycle and expose those who are involved.”

mc/aj/np