The Cocaine Coast

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The Cocaine Coast

West Africa’s New Achilles’ Heel – Virginia Quarterly Review. Image by Marco Vernaschi. Guinea Bissau, 2009

A frantic voice came over the radio: a blast had just destroyed Guinea-Bissau’s military headquarters. I drove toward the compound and, when I arrived, everyone was still shouting and running through the smoking ruins of the building. Bissau’s only ambulance was shuttling back and forth from the hospital, ferrying the bodies of victims. All that four heavily armed soldiers would tell me was that General Batista Tagme Na Wai, head of the army, had just been assassinated.

At six o’clock the next morning, my friend and informant, Vladimir, a reliable security man who worked at my hotel, came to tell me that President Joao Bernardo Vieira had just been killed, too. I asked how he knew, but he simply shook his head. When I pulled up at the president’s house, soldiers were shooting in the air and swinging machetes to keep a crowd of people away. The president’s armored Hummer was still parked out front, the tires flat and its bulletproof windows shattered. The police cars from his escort were destroyed. A rocket shot from a bazooka had penetrated four walls of his house, ending up in the living room. After ruling Guinea-Bissau for nearly a quarter of a century, Vieira, known to his people simply as Nino, was dead.

In just nine hours Guinea-Bissau had lost both its president and the head of its army. Why such violence? Was this double assassination the result of an old rivalry between Vieira and Tagme, or was it something more? The army’s spokesman, Zamora Induta, declared that the president had been killed by a group of renegade soldiers and that assailants had used a bomb to assassinate General Tagme. He said there was no connection between the two deaths. Of course, nobody believed this. Since 2007, Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony and one of the poorest nations in the world, has become the new hub for cocaine trafficking. The drug is shipped from Venezuela, Colombia, and Brazil to West Africa en route to Europe. Everyone suspected that these assassinations were somehow linked to drug trafficking.

I headed back to the military headquarters. After taking some pictures of the destroyed building, I sneaked out of the generals’ view and made my way to a backyard where some soldiers were resting, sipping tea under a big tree. I offered cigarettes and was given tea in return. Paul—the chief of a special commando unit from the region of Mansoa—told me they had had a hell of night. I thought he was referring to the general situation, but then he told me that he and his men had been sent to the president’s house the night before. It had been their job to kill him. Paul wore a denim cowboy hat and two cartridge belts across his body, in perfect Rambo style. It was noon, the sun higher than ever, but a chill ran through me.

“We went to the house, to question Nino about the bomb that killed Tagme Na Wai,” Paul told me in French. “When we arrived he was trying to flee with his wife, so we forced them to stay. When we asked if he issued the order to kill Tagme, he first denied his responsibility but then confessed. He said he bought the bomb during his last trip to France and ordered that it be placed under the staircase, by Tagme’s office. He didn’t want to give the names of those who brought the bomb here, or the name of the person who placed it.”

Something about the quality of the details, the casual authority of Paul’s voice, convinced me he was telling the truth.

“You know, Nino was a brave man but this time he really did something wrong. So we had to kill him. After all, he killed Tagme and made our life impossible . . . We have not received our salary since six months ago.”

“So, what happened after you questioned him?” I asked.

“Well, after that we shot him and then we took his powers away.”

I asked what he meant.

“Nino had some special powers,” Paul explained. “We needed to make sure he won’t come back for revenge. So we hacked his body with a machete—the hands, the arms, the legs, his belly, and his head. Now he’s really dead.”

Paul erupted in a smoky chuckle, joined by his men. I scanned the laughing soldiers and saw that three had blood spattered on their boots and pants.

The next day, I convinced one of Vieira’s cousins to let me into the president’s house. He led me to the kitchen, to show me where Nino Vieira was executed. Blood was all over the room. The bulletproof vest he always wore sat propped on a chair. Hundreds of AK-47 bullet casings and the machete used to dismember his corpse still lay scattered on the floor. The rest of the house was looted and destroyed. The soldiers had taken everything.

Nino Vieira’s and Tagme Na Wai’s brutal assassinations go way beyond the settling of personal scores. They reflect more than a mere confrontation between warring ethnic groups—the president’s Papel and the military leader’s Balanta. According to Calvario Ahukharie, the national director of Interpol, this escalation of violence is the result of a war to gain more control over drug trafficking. “The army, the navy, and the president are all involved. Nino was number one and Tagme number two—and they were competing,” he told me. “Someone had to fall.”

A confidential source close to Interpol, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told me that a private jet had arrived in Bissau on February 26, three days before the assassination of General Tagme Na Wai. There is no record of such aircraft at the airport’s flight-traffic office, but the bomb that killed General Tagme was made in Thailand—the kind of device you couldn’t buy in Africa, the kind you would have to fly in. This same day, two hundred kilos of seized cocaine disappeared from the navy storage. According to my source, some soldiers known to be loyal to President Vieira were spotted loading the undocumented flight, and the plane took off a few hours later.

I asked Director Ahukharie if he could confirm the information I had obtained. I wanted to know if the bomb had arrived on that jet and if the missing two hundred kilos of cocaine had been loaded on board as all or part of a payment.

“I can’t give you more details than you already have,” Ahukharie said. “We also suspect that the bomb arrived in Bissau on a private flight a few days before the assassination, and it’s true that two hundred kilos of cocaine have vanished. That’s all.”

But the mysterious arrivals and departures of private jets have figured prominently in Bissau’s growing drug war. The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Spanish police confirm that a Gulfstream jet proceeding from Venezuela landed in Bissau on July 12, 2008, loaded with five hundred kilos of cocaine. The Guinean police immediately surrounded the jet and arrested the three-member crew, including the pilot, Carmelo Vásquez Guerra. Three policemen and two air-traffic-control agents were also arrested and charged with complicity with the traffickers.

Carmelo Vásquez Guerra was an especially big catch; he had been investigated by the Mexican Police in 2006 for piloting a DC-9 jet—also proceeding from Venezuela and loaded with five tons of cocaine—that landed in Ciudad del Carmen, Campeche, Mexico. During this operation Miguel Vásquez Guerra, Carmelo’s brother, was arrested along with five other members of the jet’s crew—all reputed to have been part of the Chapo Guzman criminal organization, the most powerful among the Mexican drug cartels.

Five days after Carmelo’s arrest in Bissau, however, the drugs vanished. Interpol, in cooperation with the DEA and the FBI, inspected the plane with a drug-sniffing dog and confirmed that cocaine had been transported on the jet, but the cargo was now nowhere to be found. Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime later conceded that “hundreds of boxes had been taken out from this jet,” and opened an investigation into the case, in cooperation with the FBI, Interpol, and the DEA.

In November 2008, just before the spiral of violence started, Interpol and the Judicial Police seized a similar plane, also originating from Venezuela. Again the police seized a payload of cocaine, and again it mysteriously vanished. The pilot fled to Malawi but the copilot was arrested; Interpol was also able to recover seven satellite phones that were then decrypted, providing important information about a network of drug traffickers.

I met Lucinda Barbosa Ahukharie, Director of the Judicial Police, at her office to ask some questions about the second jet that was seized.

“I’m fighting a war, alone, against someone that I will never defeat,” she said. “Look at our offices. We have nothing here. The international community keeps promising aid but we are working with just one car and most of our agents have had no salary for four months. Of course they are corrupt—they need to feed their families! How can we possibly compete with drug traffickers?”

Then she locked the door and picked up a folder from her desk.

“I want to show you the situation we have here.”

Dr. Ahukharie opened the folder and showed me a series of pictures taken with a mobile phone, by one of her informants at the airport. They depict some soldiers, in uniform, unloading the private jet seized in November. Their faces aren’t clearly visible, but a witness would be able to identify them.

“See? That’s how things work here. We had the flight, the pilot, and the pictures. We also had the drugs but then they vanished. This would have been an easy trial in your country, but here nothing happened. The judge said the pictures don’t show any evidence, and now that the drugs have gone, the trial is dead.”

From the day this plane was seized, the equilibrium between the army and the president has been unsettled, and Bissau’s streets have turned more violent. Bubo Na Tchuto, former Chief of the Navy, was arrested in November and fled to Gambia a few hours after. The president’s compound was assaulted in December in what appeared to be more a settling of scores than an attempted coup d’état. At least fifteen people have died in drug-related violence.President Nino Viera was aware of the power that his generals were gradually gaining and was growing increasingly paranoid. Copies I obtained of reports looking into the November jet seizure detail how the original investigation was killed—with General Tagme Na Wai mentioned by name. Viera decided, investigators now believe, to eliminate all those who were putting his business at risk. They say the goal was to strengthen his position at home and to regain control over the drug-trafficking trade. He needed to show the Latin American cartels that Guinea-Bissau was still a convenient place for their business—that they needn’t fear seizure, that their product would not occasionally disappear.Vieira, who was renown for his brutality, let it be known that he was preparing to take action against his enemies. The navy chief fled in fear for his life. The president knew it would not be so easy to intimidate General Batista Tagme Na Wai. There would be no room for mercy or for mistakes—which is why he had Tagme blown to smithereens.

One night I headed to the Palace Hotel—a huge, Chinese-style building on the way to the airport surrounded by a series of luxury bungalows that are always closed and empty. The Palace became famous on January 11, 2008, when French intelligence and the judicial police arrested Ould Sinda and Ould Sidi Chabarnou, two al Qaeda terrorists from the Baqmi, the Maghreb wing of the organization. The two had killed a family of four French tourists in Mauritania and then fled to Bissau, with the eventual aim of reaching Guinea-Conakry. They spent some days at the Palace pretending to be businessmen and never left the hotel, probably waiting for a contact or for instructions.

The hotel’s European-style disco-bar is the beating heart of Bissau’s nightlife, where drug traffickers hang out drinking hundred-dollar bottles of whiskey and smoking puros imported from Cuba. I was barely inside when a drunk guy and five of his friends dragged me out. They were all Lebanese. They told me in French that they knew I was a journalist and demanded to know the purpose of my visit.

“We all know what the foreign journalists look for in this country,” the ringleader said, “and I know your name, Marco, so if I see anything published from you that mentions drug trafficking I will find you, wherever you are.

“The presence of Lebanese strongmen is an alarming sign. According to reports from Interpol and United Nations agencies, cocaine traded through West Africa accounts for a considerable portion of the income of Hezbollah. These reports say Hezbollah uses the Lebanese Shiite expatriate population in South America and West Africa to guarantee an efficient connection between the two continents. To maintain and expand its influence on the Shiite community, however, Hezbollah needs money. The estimated $120 million given annually by Iran is just a slice of the pie. Most of Hezbollah’s support comes from drug trafficking, a major moneymaker endorsed by the mullahs through a particular fatwa. In addition to the production and trade of heroin in the Middle East, Hezbollah facilitates, for a fee, the trafficking for other drug-smuggling networks, such as the FARC and its cocaine trade.

Guinea-Bissau is a strategically unique trait d’union between Latin America’s cocaine supply and Europe’s market, where the Euro is stronger than the US dollar and the voracious appetite for coke is growing. An archipelago of ninety islands, Bissau is an convenient staging point. When shipments from Latin America reach the coast of Guinea-Bissau, the cocaine is broken into smaller consignments that are then sent by fast boats to the coasts of Morocco and Senegal or moved in trucks through Mauritania and across the Sahara to the Mediterranean coast. Convoys of heavily armed four-wheel-drive vehicles travel through the Sahel, across regions controlled by a network of terrorists associated with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The Lebanese network based in Bissau does business at the source, directly with the FARC, on behalf of Hezbollah. The associated al Qaeda cells, based in the Sahel, receive a cut for letting smugglers cross their territories in Mauritania.

Ronald Noble, Secretary General of Interpol, confirms that cocaine trafficking in West Africa has supported several Hezbollah operations in Lebanon as well as al Qaeda since at least 2006. Analysts and counterterrorism experts explain that profits from cocaine trafficking have allowed the Lebanese network to diversify its portfolio of illegal activities in West Africa. In Nigeria, for example, 80,000 barrels of oil a day are siphoned from illegally tapped pipelines—an estimated $4 billion each year. In Sierra Leone and Liberia, al Qaeda and Hezbollah have begun investing in diamonds.

Out of this diverse criminal activity emerged a terrorism-financing network, led by the Lebanese clan of Assad Ahmad Barakat in Ciudad del Este, on the freewheeling “tri-border area” where Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay converge—a region famous for cocaine trafficking, piracy, and contraband goods. Barakat was arrested in 2002 by Brazilian and Paraguayan authorities working in cooperation with the FBI, but his clan continues to serve as a key financier for Hezbollah. The Lebanese network operating in Bissau is the next link in the chain. President Nino Vieira had some hand in distributing drugs, but mostly he assisted by looking away and allowing the Lebanese to do their business. In return he reaped considerable personal benefits, and the country itself benefited from a surge in foreign investments, mostly from the Middle East, that in 2006 totaled over $42 million.

Put those numbers together and the Palace Hotel starts to make a little more sense. But Guinea-Bissau’s role in Latin American drug-trafficking dynamics is not limited to its connections with the tri-border area. During the last few months Buenos Aires, to the south, has turned into one of the major points of shipment for the cocaine smuggled into Africa, in particular to Guinea-Bissau and South Africa (where traffickers are amassing big quantities for the 2010 World Cup Soccer championship).

On March 12, ten days after Vieira was killed, the Argentine government declared that the Consulate of Guinea-Bissau in Buenos Aires was involved in criminal activities related to money laundering, drug trafficking, and illegal arms trade. Arms were a part of what was being trafficked from Argentina to Bissau, but mostly the shipments consisted of the base ingredients to produce ephedrine and methamphetamines, which were then trafficked from South America to West Africa and then smuggled through Mexico en route to the US. All of this was supervised by the Lebanese network in the tri-border area of South America and managed in Bissau with the cooperation of Nino Vieira.

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