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LatAm Drug Traffickers Set Up in Guinea-Bissau, Expand in Africa

Military chief Antonio Indjai is wanted for drug trafficking. Military chief Antonio Indjai is wanted for drug trafficking.

A recent study has shed light on the links between Latin American organized crime and West Africa, showing how drug trafficking has corrupted the state of Guinea-Bissau and is now spreading through the region.

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The report from the African Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS) primarily focuses on the situation in Guinea-Bissau, outlining how Latin American drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) have established themselves in the tiny coastal nation. However, it also highlights how the influence of drug trafficking is spreading into other African countries, as traffickers seek new drug routes to Europe.

Read the full report here [pdf]

To illustrate the methods commonly employed by DTOs in Guinea-Bissau, the report highlights the case of Carmelo Vasquez Guerra, a Venezuelan pilot apparently linked to Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel. Vasquez was detained in Guinea-Bissau in 2008 after allegedly flying more than half a ton of cocaine into the country. He was released days later by a local judge, but arrested in Venezuela in 2011. 

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According to the ACSS study, the case of Vasquez sheds light on how the complex web of aircraft purchases and registries, front companies, fake business deals, and complicit individuals needed to execute a drug flight extends not only to West Africa and Latin America, but also to Europe and the United States. The plane Vasquez flew into Bissau was registered in Delaware and had been kept at Fort Lauderdale airport in Florida prior to the drug run.

Guinea Bissau has the perfect conditions for such drug trafficking to flourish. Echoing previous reports on Latin America's DTOs in the country [pdf], the study identifies the reasons why this is: the combination of a corrupt and centralized leadership and an inadequate and underfunded justice system in a country riven by upheaval and abject poverty.

However, the report stresses that while turmoil and corruption in Guinea-Bissau laid the foundations for the arrival of Latin American DTOs, since their arrival, it is arguably the cocaine trade that has stoked the turbulence witnessed in recent years.

According to the study, the 2009 assassination of the country's military chief Batista Tagme Na Wai and subsequent killing of President João Bernardo Vieira by troops loyal to Na Wai stemmed from a dispute between the two over drug trafficking. In the years that followed, two officials who played instrumental roles in coups in 2010 and 2012, the country's chief of staff, Antonio Indjai, and Admiral Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto, were later implicated in drug trafficking. According to the ACSS report, in the four months following the 2012 coup, up to 25 tons of cocaine entered Guinea-Bissau from Latin America.

The report also raises the question of whether Guinea-Bissau is just the first of many African countries to fall under the corrosive influence of drug trafficking. "Guinea-Bissau may be Africa’s first narco-state, but worrying signs in Mali, The Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria, Mozambique, Kenya, and elsewhere indicate that this is not the only country struggling against the hollowing effects of drug trafficking on security, development, and governance," it states.

The spreading influence of Latin American DTOs has also contributed to the development of African organized crime networks, according to the report, which are now keen to step up their involvement in drug trafficking. "What was initially a transshipment problem has metastasized into something larger, more complex, homegrown, and destabilizing," it says.

InSight Crime Analysis

The presence of Latin American DTOs in Africa is irrefutable; according to a United Nations report, up to 50 Colombian drug lords are based in Guinea-Bissau, where they coordinate drugs moving in and out of the country.

According to United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates, cocaine trafficked through West Africa has a street value of approximately $2 billion per year, roughly equal to Guinea-Bissau's GDP, so Latin American DTOs are capable of offering head turning sums to already corrupt officials.

The extent of this corruption was revealed by a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) sting operation in April, which resulted in the arrest of several Guinea-Bissau military officials in international waters. The officials involved believed they were brokering a weapons and drugs deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Among them were coup plotters Bubo Na Tchuto and Indjai, and the latter has now been charged in the United States, but remains at large in his homeland.

As part of the deal negotiated with the DEA, Bubo Na Tchuto believed he would be paid $1 million for every ton of cocaine brought into the country -- an astronomical sum in Guinea-Bissau, which has a per capita GDP of about 1.

The Latin American expansion into Africa has been driven by the search for access to the growing cocaine market in Europe. According to the UNODC, in 1998 the value of the European cocaine market was a quarter of the US market; a decade later it was almost on par.

The exponential growth in European cocaine consumption has pushed Latin American DTOs to seek out new trafficking routes to exploit the market. With a poorly monitored transport corridor linking Guinea-Bissau to two of Latin America’s largest drug departure countries for cocaine headed to Europe, Brazil and Venezuela, it is an ideal layover for drug shipments heading north.

The invasion of Guinea-Bissau has allowed Latin American DTOs to get a foothold in Africa, but it is not the limit of their ambitions. The presence of Sinaloa Cartel elements in North Africa has been well documented in recent years, while the 2009 recovery in Mali of a crashed drug plane that set off from Venezuela suggests that air routes are expanding throughout the region.

The political instability caused by the presence of DTOs is not reserved to Guinea-Bissau, either. The empowerment of groups with access to drug money and the impact this can have was demonstrated last year when Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) -- which earns millions of dollars from trafficking drugs through North Africa -- capitalized on a coup to take control of the northern half of Mali.

Meanwhile, in West Africa, a recent study from the US Strategic Studies Institute reported the presence of Colombian drug lords in Guinea, opening up the possibility that Guinea-Bissau's closest neighbor could be the next domino to fall.

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