Guinea Bissau: Africa’s first narcostate

By Loro Horta
October 2007


In the West coast of Africa sandwich between Senegal to the North and Guinea Conakry to the South is the small and impoverished nation of Guinea Bissau. The former Portuguese colony gained its independence in 1975 after 13 years of brutal guerrilla war against the Portuguese colonial army. For the first 23 years of its independence the country was a one party dictatorship ruled by the Marxist Leninist PAIGC. Nino Vieira ruled as President for 18 years until a military rebellion in 1998 put an end to his regime. From that moment on the country went from one crisis to another leading to economic collapse and state failure.


The desperate situation of the country and the inability of Nino Vieira’s successors to address the most basic needs of the people created the necessary conditions for the return of Vieira as President in 2005. Since than Vieira’s strong rule and his purge of the military as brought some semblance of stability to the country. However, the country remains one of the 10 poorest nations in the world.


The 1998-2000 civil war left the country’s economy in tartars for a all year the Bissau government was unable to pay its public servants Salaries in the country are one of the lowest in the world, with a medical doctor being paid as little as $60 a month.  In 2007 Guinea Bissau received a $4 million aid donation from China in order to pay its public servants. A $1.2 million donation was also given by Beijing in early 2005 to assist Bissau host the Cumunidade de Paises the Lingua Portuguesa (CPLP) or community of Portuguese speaking countries heads of state summit. As of 2006 the country relied on foreign aid to cover over 90 percent of its state’s budgets needs. 


Another consequence of the civil war and resulting instability was the collapse of most government institutions. The judicial system is completely none existent with judges and other legal stuff being paid miserably and most of the infrastructure such as court buildings and prisons still lie in ruins.  The Guinea Bissau police is an institution hardly worth being described as such, its ability to impose law and other stops at the outskirts of the Capital Bissau. The army plagued by internal strife and personal and tribal loyalties is more a collection of various warlords than a real national military institution. Guinea Bissau is defenseless for the storm that lays a head.


Enter the Colombians

A state with no ability to protect its territory, a struggling economy, no policy force to speak of and an overbearing and corrupt military is the ideal place for narco traffickers and other criminal elements to run their illicitly activities.  Apart from the fragility of the state, Guinea Bissau as attracted the attention of the Colombian drug cartels due to its proximity to Europe. The cartels have in the past three years been using the country as a major transit point in the illicitly cocaine trade between Latin America and Europe. To transfer drugs from South America to Europe is a major logistic operation that involves crossing the entire length of the Atlantic Ocean with the risk of early interception due to the long period at sea allowing authorities to monitor ships and apprehend them once they near Europe.


By sending the cocaine to Guinea Bissau and breaking it down in smaller consignments the cartels significantly reduced the logistics tail involved in direct shipping operations from the Americas with the add bonus of  a very low risk of capture due to the lack of means and endemic corruption of the local authorities. Once the drugs are in Guinea Bissau the drug cartels make use of the old marijuana road trough southern Spain and into Europe.


According to the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) an estimate 800-1000 kilograms of cocaine are flown every night into Guinea Bissau and an unspecified quantity is increasingly making its way by sea. The countries large coast with over 80 islands is poorly patrolled, with the local navy having a mere two patrol vessels at an uncertain level of readiness. The police force, even the fairly competent elite Portuguese trained Policia Judiciaria PJ, (judiciary Police), faces severe equipment shortages. For instance, in early April 2007 the PJ seized 635 kilograms of cocaine worth $54 million, but the remainder of the 2.5 ton load was lost due to the inability of the authorities to pursue the traffickers.


The local authorities lack the most basic equipment, such as vehicles, radios and in its not uncommon to have fuel shortages. As noted by a local inspector:


“We have no cars, no petrol, no radios so what are we suppose to do? Bite them?   


Indeed to carryout the above mentioned operation the police had to borrow petrol from civilian sources.


The low salaries of police officers further complicates issues, an inspector in the elite PJ make less than $65 a month and this year PJ officers went for several months without pay. The countries large and corrupt military seems heavily involved in the traffic, leasing military airstrips and naval facilities to the drug barons. The Colombians have rented various islands and build hotels as fronts to justify the unusual movement of planes. But, there are still some officials who despite their limited means are fighting back. Last year the Chief Justice launched two major raids into the islands were significant amounts of cocaine were seized. However, soon after he resigned and was appointed to a marginal post. In August 2007 the country’s own interior minister admitted that the army was involved in the elicit trade. However, this was just the recognition of the tip of the iceberg for state complicity goes further to the top. The military has no authority to remove someone as senior as a Chief Justice.  


The drug trade and the profits it brings those willing to associate with it is slowly leading to a culture of violence and intimidation, most worrisome this is taking place among the security services and the elites. Honest PJ officers are reported to have been “warned” by high ranking military officers not be ”espertos” wise guys or they may end up floating on the river Farin. The feared Seguranca do Estado,   State Security is also reported to be involved in narco related activities. Some sources report instances of violence among different sectors of the security services with some police officers and other officials paying with their lives. The potential for the situation to generate into an all-out war for control of the narcotics trade should not be taken lightly, especially in a country that had just come out of a civil war and remains bitterly divided. 


The risk of secession at least an informal one should not be discounted. Most of the cocaine from Latin America enters the country from its southern provinces with its numerous water ways and dense jungles. The large profits going into the pockets of corrupt military commanders and local officials are greatly increasing their local power bases while decreasing the influence of an already weak and impoverished government. The provinces of Guinara, Tombali and the archipelago province of Bolama are the most vulnerable to possible secession. While a formal separation, with the above mentioned provinces turning into independent states is unlikely. A situation in which local military commanders empowered by narco dollars and making use of tribal loyalties become the de facto rulers of mini narco states may not be that far fetched          



Abject poverty, state collapse, lack of means and endemic corruption have made Guinea Bissau a heaven for the Colombian drug lords. In a globalized world we leave in, not even remote and usually forgotten Guinea Bissau is immune from its negative forces. In the end the solution to the narcotics problem in Guinea Bissau lies in making the country a viable and prosperous state were its people have the minimum of hope. If the world, particularly the develop world fails to address this issue, the globalized nature of our world society will ensure that Guinea Bissau’s problems will soon be knocking at our doors, as the children of Europe have their life’s ruined. At the time of this writing Guinea Bissau’s problems are already spilling into neighboring Senegal, Guinea, Conakry and Mauritania.


Loro Horta a research associate fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International   Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He lived and worked in Africa for several years and has written extensively on Portuguese Africa



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