State institutions hijacked by cocaine cartels

Guinea-Bissau continues to serve as a key transit point for cocaine between Latin America and Europe, despite government promises to crack down on smuggling – says a new report from the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime ( GI-TOC) published in July.

Cocaine traffickers take advantage of Guinea-Bissau’s complex coastline and its many small islands. (Photo: Josef Skrdlik, OCCRP)The country’s Supreme Court earlier this month overturned the convictions of two alleged drug kingpins – Seidi Ba, a citizen of Guinea-Bissau, and Ricardo Monje, a Colombian national. They had been sentenced to 20 years in prison in connection with the record 2019 seizure of 1.8 tonnes of cocaine.

According to the report, the decision was not accidental.

When Umaro Cissoko Embalo took office as President in January 2020, he announced the end of the “era of cocaine”.

His inauguration was indeed followed by a marked drop in the volumes of cocaine seized in the country. However, information provided by law enforcement authorities indicated that releases of cocaine from ships in the country’s territorial waters were in fact increasing.

The report attributes this paradox to a systematic weakening of the justice system under Embalo’s rule, which weakened its ability to take action against smugglers. “Since the start of 2020, executive influence has grown over key nodes of the criminal justice system,” he said.

The cocaine trade in Guinea-Bissau took hold in the unrest following the 1998-99 civil war, in which a faction of the army overthrew then-president Joao Bernardo Vieira.

With help from the Venezuelan and Colombian military and cartels, smugglers took advantage of the country’s intricate coastline and many small islands.

Typically, cocaine is unloaded from large vessels into the ocean and carried to shore by smaller vessels. Subsequently, the shipments were smuggled into Senegal, passing through the rebel region of Casamance, and then to Mali or Mauritania with Europe as the final destination.

The report indicates that the rise of the cocaine economy has been facilitated by elite protection networks, which over the years have become deeply embedded in the political architecture of Guinea-Bissau, thus enjoying a remarkable resilience. He said the stage is “made up of long-time protagonists and a cast of characters who exit the stage at one point, only to return later and repeat the performance”.

The existing power-sharing rules, however, appear to be changing.

Embalo has taken steps to centralize power in the president’s office and weaken the military, which has traditionally dominated the cocaine trade.

Concerned by Embalo’s actions, the military is likely to have backed the foiled coup attempt in February, when heavily armed men fired on the government palace in Bissau, the report said.

While the power struggle is still ongoing, there are indications that cocaine smuggling will remain prevalent regardless of the outcome. Due to the country’s low tax base and generally unstable revenue streams, elites often turn to illicit markets to supplement public budgets and fund election campaigns.

The report suggests they could do so again now that the economy is weakened by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and a drop in demand for cashews, which account for 90% of exports.

“The timing of the acquittal of Seidi Ba and Ricardo Monje in June 2022, just months before the legislative elections scheduled for December 2022, could fuel suspicions that the cocaine market is already singled out as a potential source of election financing,” the report said.

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