Guinea Bissau: The End of a Narco State?

Following elections in April and May this year, there are expectations that Guinea Bissau may shift away from its reputation as a narco state. The new president, Jose Mario Vaz, is a former finance minister with a reputation for tough economic reforms.

The elections have been viewed as an entry point for renewed engagement by the international community. The EU has lifted sanctions on the country and it is likely that cooperation will be resumed shortly.

Despite these advances, Guinea Bissau has a long way to go to shed its reputation as a key conduit for cocaine from Latin America into Europe.

Guinea Bissau was one of the failed states targeted by South American cartels because ‘poverty is extreme, society has been ravaged by war and the institutions of the state can be easily bought off’. With the value of cocaine higher than official revenue the drugs trade has found an easy home in Guinea Bissau. Those that have opposed the trade have been easily dispensed with. The assassination of President Joao Vieira and senior political and military officials in 2009 was linked to the drug trade.

The US Drug Enforcement Agency pointed out how easy a target Guinea Bissau was for drug trafficking:

A place like Guinea Bissau is a failed state anyway, so it’s like moving into an empty house. One rusty ship patrols a coastline of 350km, and an archipelago of 82 islands. The airspace is un-patrolled. The police have few cars, no petrol, no radios, handcuffs or phones. You walk in, buy the services you need from the government, army and people, and take over.

Questions still remain around how transformative Vaz’s new leadership will be, and indeed, how long he will last. Since gaining independence, no elected leader has served a full term.

Despite these challenges, the international community is hopeful.

As the EU’s flagship programme on organised crime, the Cocaine Route Programme is likely to play a key role in addressing these issues. For instance, Guinea Bissau was originally identified as a participant in SEACOP, but this was undermined by the ongoing instability. There is now potential for real action on drug trafficking in the country.