When, on 1 June, US President Barack Obama named Mozambican businessman Mohamed Bachir Suleman as a drugs baron, the overwhelming reaction in the Mozambican media was surprise, shock - and even condemnation of the Americans for ruining a supposedly innocent entrepreneur.
Yet the American move against an alleged Mozambican drugs "kingpin" should have come as no surprise.
Since the mid-1990s, Mozambique has been used as a corridor by drugs traffickers, but to date no key figure in the trafficking has ever been convicted.
Large scale drug seizures have been made. Thus in 1995, the police seized 40 tonnes of hashish being carried across Maputo in two trucks.
The investigations petered out, and the only person ever jailed in connection with this haul was a driver, Samssudine Satar.
Also in 1995, a laboratory producing the drug mandrax was discovered in the Trevo neighbourhood in the southern city of Matola.
The people working there set it on fire, but this attempt to destroy the evidence was botched, and the police concluded that the equipment there was for the mass production of mandrax, a drug for which a sizeable market exists in South Africa.
The ten Asian workers arrested in Trevo, mostly recruited off the streets of Bombay, were released by the Maputo provincial attorney, Luis Muthisse, even though a judge had refused to grant them bail.
The intervention of Muthisse (who lost his job over the affair) was one of many indications of high level collusion with traffickers.
The ten Asians, although they were penniless, were able to hire the services of a top lawyer, Maximo Dias, who refused to tell reporters who was paying him.
Coincidentally, Dias is now the lawyer for Mohamed Bachir Suleman.
The mandrax equipment had been imported via the fishing company Afropesca.
The Afropesca managing director, Spanish businessman Luis da Costa Virott, was arrested, on suspicion of trafficking Pakistani hashish to Mozambique.
Like the ten Asians, he was mysteriously released from custody, after the intervention of a high powered Portuguese lawyer.
The release was conditional on Virott staying in the country - but a few days later he was on a plane heading for Lisbon and no attempt was made to stop him.
In August 1997, 12 tonnes of hashish was seized from a hideout in Quissanga, in the northern province of Cabo Delgado.
A well-known businessman, Gulamo Rassul, was arrested in connection with this case.
This was his second arrest in connection with drugs - he had earlier been named in connection with the smuggling of hashish to America and Europe from the port of Nacala in containers where it was disguised as tea.
When this case came to trial the following year, the minor players - Quissanga fishermen and boat owners - received long sentences, but the men the prosecution regarded as the drug barons, Rassul and a certain Momade Bachir (no relation to Bachir Suleman), were acquitted.
Thus Rassul's chauffeur picked up a 12 year jail sentence, but the learned judge would have the public believe that Rassul knew nothing of his chauffeur's activities.
Trafficking also takes place by boat in the Mozambique Channel, in Mozambican territorial waters.
This came to light dramatically when a boat carrying hashish ran aground on rocks off the coast of Inhambane province in June 2000. About 16 tonnes of hashish packed into tins was washed ashore.
The nine Pakistanis who escaped the shipwreck were sentenced to lengthy prison terms. But once again nothing was revealed about the destination of the hashish or its owners.
Those who investigated the drugs trade reached some startling conclusions.
London-based journalist Joseph Hanlon wrote, in an article published on 28 June 2001, in the independent newsheet "Metical" , that the value of illegal drugs passing through Mozambique is probably more than all legal foreign trade combined, according to international experts (This was before the MOZAL aluminium smelter, the mainstay of Mozambican exports, had reached full production).
Those experts (who were not named) estimate that more than one tonne per month of cocaine and heroin are now passing through Mozambique.
That monthly drug traffic had an estimated retail value of about 50 million US dollars.
Since Mozambique is essentially a transit route rather than a consumer of illicit drugs, most of the money would end up outside the country.
But Hanlon suggested that perhaps 10 per cent would be the take for local drug dealers - which would be 60 million dollars a year.
Hanlon suggested that drug money must be one factor in Mozambique's record growth in recent years.
This article identified two drug routes. Hanlon wrote that heroin moves from Pakistan to Dubai then onto Tanzania and Mozambique, before it is eventually channeled to Europe.
The cocaine route is in the other direction from Colombia to Brazil to Mozambique and on to Europe and East Asia.
Hanlon argued that the money from these hard drugs, but also from hashish and mandrax, is laundered through banks, and foreign exchange bureaux.
The explosion in the number of foreign exchange bureaus (41 at the time of Hanlon's article) was certainly hard to explain given the relatively small size of the legal economy.
Hanlon's article, a shortened version of which was published in English by AIM, elicited no outraged denial.
No official sources attempted to refute Hanlon's claims.
And Hanlon was far from alone in warning of the dangers of drug trafficking, money laundering and organised crime.
In a speech made at an international seminar in Portugal in 2003, judge Augusto Paulino (who is now the country's attorney general) made much the same points.
He agreed that Mozambique had become a transit area for the cocaine trade and that a second network active since 1992, consisting mainly of Pakistanis and Mozambicans of Pakistani origin, is concentrating on hashish and mandrax.
On top of this came the heroin route, from Pakistan to Tanzania and Mozambique and then to Europe.
The various drug trafficking networks are well organised companies, said Paulino, perhaps better organised than the structures of the State, involving importers, exporters and transporters of dugs, operators on the ground and informers.
Paulino had no doubt that this was only possible with the connivance of corrupt officials within the Mozambican state.
Customs officials are bribed to let drugs pass, immigration officers facilitate identification and residence documents, police are paid to look the other way, and it is even said that magistrates receive bribes to order illegal releases, he noted.
Drug profits were laundered, and the result was a proliferation of mansions and luxury cars - but some of the money would be reinvested in legal businesses to allay future suspicions.
In the seven years since Paulino spoke, no significant drug trafficker has been arrested, but there is little doubt that Mozambique remains on the traffickers' map.
Regularly police and customs announce the seizure of cocaine at Maputo and Beira airports, often carried in the stomachs of young Mozambican women who have traveled from Brazil.
In no case have the women revealed who hired them. Fear of reprisals is clearly greater than the fear of prison.
And for all those who are caught - how many more pass through the airports undetected?
One of the most senior parliamentarians in the ruling Frelimo Party, Teodato Hunguana, in 2002 warned that if the state does not take action against the bandits, then the bandits will capture the state.
The only way to prevent the State from falling definitively into the webs of crime is to unleash a war without quarter against the lords of crime, Hunguana said.
If the war was restricted just to the hitmen and the small fry, leaving what the Americans call the "kingpins" untouched, that would allow them to become ever more powerful, and capable of taking over the state itself.
When Paulino or Hunguana sounded their warnings, they were widely applauded by the Mozambican media - the same media which today throws up its hands in horror when the American president and Treasury Department take a serious step in the fight against organised crime.
Of course, it would have been much better had Mozambican law enforcement agencies been willing and able to identify and bring to justice drug barons.
Since they have not done so, it is entirely reasonable for the Americans to take measures to protect their financial system from dirty money from Mozambique, just as they do when the duty money comes from Colombia.
Obama deserves praise for his action, not a welter of cheap anti-American abuse.
11 June 2010
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