Arrest of Guinea-Bissau's drug lords just the first step in the battle against trafficking

A sustained effort is needed to overhaul the country's criminal justice system, which has been severely compromised by corruption.

No other African country provides a better setting for a fast-paced crime thriller than Guinea-Bissau. The spectacular capture at sea of the former head of Guinea-Bissau’s navy, José Américo Bubo Na Tchuto, by the United States (US) navy in April this year was another reminder that fact is stranger than fiction in this country – notorious for being West Africa’s drug capital. Cocaine trafficking here has an estimated market value of $4,3 billion a year.

But apart from its spectator value, one has to ask what the sting operation led by the US Drug Enforcement Agency means for Guinea-Bissau’s future.Recently, the country’s interim leader President Manuel Serifo Nhamadjo announced that the long-overdue elections would be held on 24 November this year – the first elections since a military coup in April 2012. Building on the recent successful arrests, everything possible should be done to ensure that these elections are not tainted by drug money.

In order for the operation against the drug lords to have a lasting and positive effect on stability, democratic governance and the rule of law in Guinea Bissau and in West Africa more broadly, Na Tchuto’s trial, which began in the US this week, needs to be emphasised as a deterrent and followed up with a sustained effort to improve the country’s criminal justice system. If not, an opportunity will be wasted to see long-term benefits from this dramatic external intervention. On the contrary, the arrests might destabilise power relations and lead to more violence.

The capture of Na Tchuto and six accomplices, as well as the indictment against General Antonio Indjai, head of the armed forces, is certainly a victory for law enforcement. It may also mean the end of an era of impunity in the region. Both men are charged with drug trafficking and the purchase of surface-to-air missiles and AK47 assault rifles with grenade launchers for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) insurgency. The main problem with these arrests is that outsiders were responsible for them and Na Tchuto is now being tried by the New York District Court. This undermines due process in Guinea Bissau and has been met with nationalistic indignation in some circles. The military, not surprisingly, feels threatened and betrayed.

Clearly, it would have been preferable if Na Tchuto and his accomplices were tried and imprisoned on national soil. However, years of turmoil have left Guinea-Bissau’s judiciary in tatters. Since the latest coup, high-ranking officials like Indjai have vetted all political and judicial appointments, ruling out any credible due process. Guinea-Bissau has also been plagued by political assassinations in recent years, including that of former president João Bernardo ‘Nino’ Vieira in March 2009. None of these acts – often linked to the cocaine trade – has ever been seriously investigated. The Guinea-Bissau League of Human Rights remarked in a 2012 press release that ‘citizens are denied the fundamental right of access to justice due to the failure of the state to fulfil its constitutional obligations’.

A possible solution could be to try drug traffickers in the region. This could be modelled on the international response to piracy in West Africa, where pirates are tried in neighbouring countries. This option has been discussed in the past and a majority of the members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) are in favour of such a move.

In the short term, the 2 April sting operation could, paradoxically, increase the possibility of violence. A lesson learned from Latin America is that the key driver of violence is not cocaine as such, but change: change in the negotiated power relations between and within groups, and with the state. It is clear that if Na Tchuto and Indjai are successfully unseated it will destabilise a longstanding balance of power, linked to control of territory along ethnic and clan lines.Until now Guinea-Bissau has been relatively free from clan-, community- and gang-related violence and people do not see drug trafficking as directly impacting on their own sense of security. This might now change.

Some citizens also fear military retaliation or another coup, following the arrest of the drug lords. To allow this to happen on the eve of the elections, and because of a much-needed law enforcement intervention, would be a crying shame.

To help Guinea-Bissau break the vicious cycle of political fragility the international community can use this opportunity to highlight that impunity for drug trafficking and organised crime has now ended in West Africa. It should work with the region to make sure the upcoming elections go ahead and are not influenced by criminal actors, and continue to support the work of the United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Guinea-Bissau (UNOGBIS). It should support efforts to strengthen the criminal justice system and help the country establish a broad-based rule of law and legal empowerment framework.

Finally, it could consider setting up an internationally sponsored mechanism – perhaps similar to the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). The aim will be to provide integrity to regionally or nationally led criminal justice proceedings against crimes committed in Guinea-Bissau, such as drug trafficking and violations of human rights.

A serious commitment is needed to strengthen the criminal justice system in Guinea-Bissau and to build citizens’ confidence that the state has the capacity to deliver justice and uphold the rule of law. Elections are a perfect opportunity to hold the candidates, and thus the potential future government, to account for building more robust measures to counter organised crime and impunity. The international community can and should help in this process in preparation for the elections.

This article is based on an ISS Policy Brief, ‘The end of impunity? After the kingpins, what next for Guinea-Bissau?’.

Tuesday Reitano and Mark Shaw, senior research associates, Institute for Security Studies and STATT Consulting, Hong Kong. Edited by Liesl Louw, ISS consultant

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