A surge in cocaine trafficking has transformed Guinea into West Africa’s latest drug hot spot, jeopardizing President Alpha Conde’s efforts to rebuild state institutions after a military coup and attract billion of dollars in mining investment.
Locals and Latin Americans long-accused of smuggling are operating freely in the country, some with high-level protection from within Conde’s administration, according to Guinean and international law enforcement officials and internal police reports seen by Reuters.
The growth of trafficking was overlooked as diplomats focused on securing a fragile transition back to civilian rule after the 2008 putsch.
Counter-narcotics agents from the United States and other countries, meanwhile, concentrated on smugglers in neighboring Guinea-Bissau, a tiny former Portuguese colony dubbed by crime experts Africa’s first “narco-state”.
However, the US State Department’s 2013 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report said seizures in Guinea and cases abroad traced back there show a spike in trafficking since Conde won power at a 2010 election.
A lack of government figures makes estimating volumes tricky, but a foreign security source said one or two planes landed each month last year, ferrying in cocaine from Latin America mostly for smuggling to Europe.
“Whatever the attitude of the head of state, it’s clear that traffickers can operate in Guinea. They have deep roots there,” said Stephen Ellis, researcher at the African Studies Center, Leiden, in the Netherlands.
Ellis said drug money was having a corrosive effect on attempts by Conde’s government to improve governance: “It’s worrying because of the effects not just on the politics of Guinea, but the whole region.”
A July report by Guinea’s top anti-drugs agency said traffickers were operating with protection of senior civilian, military and police officials. It said proceeds from the trade are laundered through various channels, including real estate, fishing companies and local mining operations.
Guinea and Guinea-Bissau are at the eastern end of “Highway 10″, the nickname given by law enforcement officers for the 10th parallel north of the equator, the shortest route across the Atlantic, used by traffickers over the past decade to smuggle Latin American cocaine destined mainly for Europe.
The United Nations experts estimated last year that some 20 tons of cocaine, mostly from Colombia and Venezuela, pass each year through West Africa, which became an attractive transit point as US and European authorities cracked down on more direct routes.
Guinea’s role has surged since last year, when an April US sting operation targeted Guinea-Bissau’s military chief, prompting traffickers to seek sanctuary in Conakry, law enforcement officials said.
The shift of the trade to Guinea raises the stakes. While Guinea-Bissau is an unstable backwater of just 1.6 million people that rarely attracts notice outside a small community of West Africa watchers, Guinea has nearly 8 times as many people and a much larger regional role.
“People are frightened to take the lid off Guinea,” said one foreign official, who, like others interviewed for the story, declined to be identified. “Authorities know traffickers are there but are powerless to do anything. They need international help.”
A Guinean anti-narcotics officer said his men are unarmed, need money for fuel and are forced to buy second-hand laptops. The 230 anti-drug agents are too few to police the air strips, coastal landing points or chaotic main port, making the country a smuggler’s paradise.
Local and international officials with access to intelligence reports say cocaine is increasingly landing by sea at unmonitored ports or flown in by small planes using remote air strips. Shipments then often receive military escort.
Conde took office after years in exile abroad. This has left him vulnerable and reliant on figures who know the system, according to a diplomat who follows Guinean politics.
“He doesn’t know who to trust … Once they realized that he barked but did not bite, the networks reformed,” the diplomat said.
At a conference in Abu Dhabi in November, Conde touted the country as “open for business” in a bid to woo Gulf investors. He won billions of dollars in mining investment.
Yet Conde faces a tough battle for re-election in 2015. He must also accomplish the delicate task of keeping in check the armed forces, implicated in trafficking.
“We are dealing with a government that lacks the most basic forms of governance … If you are a narco, the conditions you would want are all here,” said a Western diplomat.