DAKAR, Senegal (AP) - Drug trafficking has resumed heavily in the tiny West African nation of Guinea-Bissau, where the cocaine trade threatens to further destabilize a country reeling from the assassination of its president and a subsequent attempted coup, officials say.
Traffickers early last year appeared to have abandoned the coastal pocket of land after international attention first focused on the scourge and began to help train police in the country.
Scores of uninhabited islands serve as convenient depots for South American drugs that transit through the country each year on their way to Europe - last estimated at $1 billion.
The drug trafficking has resumed again in the country, Alexandre Schmidt, West Africa regional representative for the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, said this week out of his office in Dakar.
That is a worrying phenomenon in a country where drug money only serves to embolden military officers who have long been in the habit of ousting elected leaders.
Last year, the president and the head of the armed forces were assassinated, crimes that seem to have barely been investigated.
Though the country appeared to regain its footing with the successful election of President Malam Bacai Sanha three months later, the prime minister and army chief were detained in April in an attempted coup.
The prime minister has since been released, but has been out of the country for a month.
In the midst of the political chaos, the international community was training judicial police officers to investigate the trafficking, doubling the size of the force to 160 officers.
But their reach is still limited to the capital of Bissau, and Schmidt says traffickers have flooded back in because they can act with impunity.
The U.N. office relies in part on seizures to track the cocaine trade. When seizures in Guinea-Bissau "completely dropped" at the beginning of last year, it seemed clear cocaine was flowing to Europe through different ports.
Seizures remain low. A March report from the U.N. mission in the country to the secretary-general said there had been no major hauls since October.
But they are no longer a reliable measure of the trade. Almost all of the drugs come by plane these days, Schmidt says, saying that seizures are no longer made at sea.
The planes tend to be harder to intercept. Only through intelligence and reports of suspect planes landing - like one the UNODC office in Bissau says went to Cufar in the country's south earlier this year - do officials get a sense of the problem today.
It's much more difficult today to understand how much cocaine is trafficked into West Africa. The drug market is here, and the drug trafficking, which had in fact went down for some period last year, has definitely resumed very, very heavily, Schmidt said.
The size of the cocaine trade dwarfs the country's gross domestic product - less than $450 million in 2009, much from the legal export of cashews - making it easy for traffickers to buy off officials and the military.
While Guinea-Bissau has long been unstable, the trade exacerbates an already fragile political situation, according to David Mosby, chief of the political section at the U.S. Embassy in Dakar, Senegal, which covers Guinea-Bissau.
Targeting drug traffickers and the officials they buy is a key part of the U.S. strategy to reduce the influence of the armed forces' involvement in government.
In April, the U.S. Treasury Department listed a former chief of the navy, Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto, and the current chief of the air force, Ibraima Papa Camara, as drug kingpins
The evidence for the designation - which results in a freezing of U.S. assets and prevents Americans from doing business with those named - dates from 2008.
But Mosby says the listing is relevant today because it limits the ability of Na Tchuto, who returned to the country earlier this year after fleeing charges he orchestrated an attempted coup, to operate.
He's trying to gain a foothold on the government and in the military, in part by using money he earned from trafficking to buy access, Mosby said.
It may already be working: This week, he was acquitted of the 2008 charges, in a sign of the sway he still holds with the military.
But Mosby stresses that the political situation is very much in flux, and while Na Tchuto is jockeying for power, he is by no means running the country.
Schmidt says he fears the country is a "narco-economy," and that has serious implications: The entire destabilization of the government is related to drugs, Schmidt said.
Jun 05, 2010
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