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The Cocaine Coast


[clock] 23-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Winter 2010
Several men rest in a patch of shade on a pier. Behind them looms a large factory trawler.

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.

A menacing-looking soldier swings a machete to clear a crowd. Dozens of people have jumped back or dived for the ground to escape the blade, raising a cloud of dust.

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.

A grisly scene, rendered in black and white, shows where the president was assassinated. The floor is puddled with dried blood, which is also spattered on the walls. It's centered on a chair, on which a banana clip of ammunition rests. A bulletproof vest rests on the adjacent chair. On the floor lies a blood-encrusted machete.

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.

The white, walled entrace to a compound sports a large bullseye pattern of blood at head level.

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.”

“I know your name, Marco, so if I see anything published from you that mentions drug trafficking I will find you, wherever you are.”

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.

Half a dozen soldiers pose for a photograph. They are heavily armed, half of them with ammunition slung over their shoulders. One wears a cowboy hat, shielding his eyes from the camera. All are wearing military uniforms, some camouflaged.

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.

Decorated middle-aged soldiers, standing at attention, photographed in a double exposure.

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.

A man stands in front of a Hummer, posing as if for the cover of a rap album. He is photographed from the chest down to the knees. His button-down shirt is open in the front, revealing high-riding boxers and a handgun stuffed into the waist of his stylish jeans. The grill of his vehicle is polished to a high shine.

I asked a former journalist who had been a correspondent for a Portuguese magazine to show me where Bissau’s drug lords lived. We met at night, in front of my hotel, and went for a ride through the darkness.

“It all started when the fishermen found the drugs in the sea,” he told me while I drove. “A load of cocaine was dumped overboard, from a ship that was intercepted by the Senegalese Coast Guard, in 2005. The fishermen in Biombo found these packs and didn’t even know what it was. Some of them used it to fertilize their crops, some to paint their bodies and others simply kept the packs in their house. In this country very few knew what cocaine was.” He shook his head and smiled bitterly. We passed in front of the UN building and turned down a dark deserted road—then into a bizarre kind of Beverly Hills for the drug connected and the drug corrupted. Mansion after mansion guarded by armed security.

The man in the middle was blindfolded and the men on either side of him were holding rifles. One of them wore a SWAT hood and pressed a pistol against the hostage’s chest.

“See this? That’s where Augusto Bliri lives.” My journalist friend pointed to a huge mansion with a yellow Hummer parked in the courtyard. “That’s the traffickers’ neighborhood. This other house is where Bubo Na Tchuto used to live before he fled to Gambia . . . I guess the house is empty now . . . Look, over there, that was Pablo Camacho’s hideout.” Bliri, Na Tchuto, Camacho. The local gangster, the former rear admiral for Guinea-Bissau’s navy, a Colombian trafficker. Neighbors. Business partners.

Bliri is a young but savvy drug lord who is a legend in Bissau. He started the cocaine business here. He lived in Germany for several years, so when the fishermen found the mysterious packs with the white powder, he instantly knew what to do: he bought some kilos for almost nothing and converted them into hundreds of thousands of Euros. Now he spends most days driving around in his yellow Hummer, stopping in for a few drinks at the Samaritana, while children guard his SUV for a few coins.

Last year one of Bliri’s lieutenants killed a Spanish trafficker who had tried to steal some cocaine. The Bissau police arrested and imprisoned the suspected killer but after three days he was freed. No trial, no evidence. Nothing. The same happened when Bliri was busted and convicted in 2006. The police found firearms in his Hummer and a large amount of money. He was sentenced to four years but his lawyer, Carlos Lopes Correira, convinced the judge to let him go; his client was sick, Correira argued, and the basement where he was imprisoned was unhealthy.

I asked Lucinda Barbosa Ahukharie if Bliri’s gang was connected to the Lebanese network. “Of course they are,” she said. “The Lebanese are too smart, and would never put their own hands in the fire, so they protect these gangs because they need someone to do the job. These kids are untouchable, and they know it. They resolve any problem with bribes, so they don’t fear anyone.”

I decided to see if I could infiltrate Bliri’s gang.

A pair of masked men process bricks of drugs, breaing off pieces and wrapping them up for sale on a smaller scale. They each wear ski masks. One of them wears a t-shirt promoting Ohio Girls Basketball.

I approached one of Bliri’s lieutenants (I will call him Omar, because I promised to protect his identity); he was smoking marijuana with his friends at the Samaritana. We arranged to meet at the Kilimanjaro, a restaurant with a dark, secluded patio, at eleven o’clock at night. The place was abandoned when Omar arrived; even the owner was gone. I was a bit nervous, but I stood and shook his hand. I had decided to be straight and tell him exactly who I was and what I was looking for.

“I know who you are and what your business is,” I said. “I just need you to show me how the whole thing works. I’m a photographer, but nobody will know your name or see your face. I promise. Will you help me?”

He was silent for a few long seconds.

“What you are asking for is really risky,” he said. “I have great respect for you, brother, but you’re a little mad! Do you know you could have been killed if you would have met someone else rather than me?” His answer rattled me, but I understood it to be a skeptical “yes.” We had a drink. He took my phone number, and then we both left.

In the weeks that followed I met him almost every day. He tested me several times, gradually opening up to me, revealing his world. He introduced me to his people, inviting me three times in one week to share dinner with his gang. It took weeks, but slowly, I was gaining Omar’s respect. At carnival time, he invited me for a beer at the cabañas of barrio Bra, a place where no stranger would go alone. Everyone was drinking and dancing to the loud beats of Bissau’s pop music. Omar was a little high and started to tell me about his problems with his girl. After that night, I think, we were something like friends.

Two men face off in an arm wrestling match. Shirtless, their muscled arms are locked. Behind them sits another man, watching.

I asked Omar if Bliri knew that I existed. I already knew the answer, but I needed to test Omar. He laughed at the question. “If Augusto didn’t know about you, we wouldn’t be here,” he said. “I gave him my word that you’re reliable. If you do something wrong I will probably get killed, but in this case I wouldn’t be the only one who would die.” He smiled at this. “You know, we have our rules here. This is Africa, brother.”

We gathered for another party in an abandoned lot where the gang set up a wall screen with a projector and played a DVD of one of 50 Cent’s concerts. There were grills crowded with dozens of camaraos tigre, a jumbo shrimp the size of a lobster. Four buckets were filled with beers, and a group of girls danced liked they’d taken lessons from Beyoncé. The men kept drinking. None of them spoke English, but would periodically salute the screen with a loud and awkward “Go, motherfucker!” followed by a big laugh.

“One of these days I’ll show you what happens to those who break the rules,” said Omar, holding my arm. He had a strange smile on his face and his eyes were shining when he pointed at mine. I shivered and asked what he meant.

“Ah-ah-ah!” He erupted into a loud laugh “You don’t have to worry, nothing is going happened to you . . . unless you break some rule.” He kept laughing; my face felt paralyzed and my eyes clearly betrayed my fear. “No one is going to die, don’t worry. We don’t kill people that often here. We’re cool. I’m just going to show you something, but not tonight.”

A few days later, I was in my room, ready to sleep, when the phone rang. It was minutes before midnight.

“Marco!” Omar barked into the phone. “You should come now. There’s something I promised to show you, remember? Go to the airport parking lot. You will find my friends there in half an hour. And don’t forget your camera!”

I didn’t know what to do. I was fucking scared. I was afraid of what I was about to see, but I was also afraid to stand up to Omar.

When I arrived, half an hour later, the airport was abandoned. I locked my car, waited for a few minutes. A four-wheel drive pulled up. They approached and, through my window, a guy told me to get in the front seat of their car. Omar was not inside, but I recognized the driver. I didn’t know his name—had never even talked to him—but he was always around at the parties. When I got in the car, I saw there were three other men in the backseat. The one in the middle was blindfolded and the men on either side of him were holding rifles. One of them wore a SWAT hood and pressed a pistol against the hostage’s chest.

In the headlights of a car can be seen a thin man, head bowed and blindfolded, being pushed forward with the barrel of a rifle.

We drove without a word toward Quinhamel, a little village thirty minutes outside Bissau, when suddenly the driver turned down a secondary road, a dark dirt path flanked by cashew trees. He pulled over, and the two men got out of the backseat, leading their blindfolded hostage. “If you want to take pictures, do it,” the driver said. “Just make sure not to take my face. I’ll check your camera later.” He was extremely relaxed, businesslike.

I couldn’t bring myself to get out of the car. I started to photograph through the windshield, while outside the gangsters pointed their rifles at the hostage. They spoke Creole, so I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but it was clear they were threatening the hostage, asking questions that he never answered. He was so frightened he didn’t even cry. While the gunmen questioned the hostage, the driver stretched out under a cashew tree. He smoked patiently, almost comfortably.

I finally got out of the car and shot two or three pictures before they forced the hostage onto his knees. They pointed a gun to his head, shouted at him, then kicked him to the ground. The man was shaking.

A man kneels on the ground, hands behind his head, in the dark. One man stands behind him, holding a handgun perhaps a foot away from his head. Another man stands a few feet away, training a rifle on him.

Suddenly, the driver rose. He said it was time to go. We got into the car. The hostage was left in the middle of nowhere, at 2 A.M. and miles from Bissau. But, as he vanished in the side mirror, at least he was alive.

“You knew we wouldn’t have killed him, right?” the driver asked as he turned back onto the main road toward Bissau. “This guy talked too much. He should pay more attention. The next time he could have serious troubles.”

I still don’t know why Omar allowed me to photograph this. Maybe he wanted to send me a message, or just show his power. Maybe he wanted to remind me that there are rules here, that I’m from another world and this is Africa.


Marco Vernaschi traveled to Guinea-Bissau on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Learn more about this project at pulitzercenter.org.

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