Drug trafficking and instability behind Guinea-Bissau assassinations

As news trickles in from the small West African country of Guinea Bissau this morning, it looks more and more like a spat between President Joao Bernardo Vieira (right) and a faction of his army led to unfortunate deaths on both sides. The armed forces chief was killed last night in a bomb attack. Today, ...

By , International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.
588127_090302_guinearesized2.jpg
588127_090302_guinearesized2.jpg

As news trickles in from the small West African country of Guinea Bissau this morning, it looks more and more like a spat between President Joao Bernardo Vieira (right) and a faction of his army led to unfortunate deaths on both sides. The armed forces chief was killed last night in a bomb attack. Today, the president himself was assasinated by a small contingent of soldiers in apparent retribution.

News like this is bad most anywhere. It's particularly bad in Guinea Bissau, a country that has recently joined the ranks of the world's narco-states. Cocaine has recently started making its way to Europe from Latin America via West Africa and Guinea Bissau is a favorite of trafficking gangs.

The army -- at least part of which was involved in the President's death -- is one of the reasons why drug-runners love the place. "We cannot talk about the army [in Guinea] as an institution that we are used to talking about," Antonio Mazzitelli of the UN Office of Drugs and Crime in West Africa told me. Officers lack training and equipment; most are relics of the independence fight over three decades ago. "When drugs arrive, [there is a] lot of money. The traffickers find it easy to secure the services of army people; in order to provide services or in order not to interfere with [the trafficking.]"

As news trickles in from the small West African country of Guinea Bissau this morning, it looks more and more like a spat between President Joao Bernardo Vieira (right) and a faction of his army led to unfortunate deaths on both sides. The armed forces chief was killed last night in a bomb attack. Today, the president himself was assasinated by a small contingent of soldiers in apparent retribution.

News like this is bad most anywhere. It’s particularly bad in Guinea Bissau, a country that has recently joined the ranks of the world’s narco-states. Cocaine has recently started making its way to Europe from Latin America via West Africa and Guinea Bissau is a favorite of trafficking gangs.

The army — at least part of which was involved in the President’s death — is one of the reasons why drug-runners love the place. “We cannot talk about the army [in Guinea] as an institution that we are used to talking about,” Antonio Mazzitelli of the UN Office of Drugs and Crime in West Africa told me. Officers lack training and equipment; most are relics of the independence fight over three decades ago. “When drugs arrive, [there is a] lot of money. The traffickers find it easy to secure the services of army people; in order to provide services or in order not to interfere with [the trafficking.]”

Now, Bissau looks more vulnerable than ever. Though the army claims that it has no interest in a coup d’etat, it’s unclear who is in charge in the at the moment. (Coups are a historical staple in Bissau.) Regardless of whether civilians or officers take over, drug money has permeated the country’s political system and daily life. “Drugs generate enormous amounts of money that unfortunately can easily infiltrate West African institutions,” says Mazzitelli, describing the case of Guinea Bissau and its neighbors. Mazzitelli worries that elections would be a time when drug money could be particulary influential.

The only good news might be that drug gangs tend to shy away from international attention — and Guinea Bissau is suddenly getting lots of that. With any luck, it will be the window of calm before a new leader has to weather the drug-trafficking storm. 

GEORGES GOBET/AFP/Getty Images

Elizabeth Dickinson is International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.

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