The Coke Coast

November 19, 2009

Historically, the countries of West Africa have fallen victim to exploitation from international explorers, colonizers, or businessmen, wanting everything from goods to slaves. And now, little seems to have changed as the countries of West Africa, most notably Guinea-Bissau, begin their fight against a new industry: cocaine, an industry with a global price tag of $70-billion.

South American drug cartels are now using West Africa as a stop over for drugs on their way to Europe after finding it difficult to find direct routes.  The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that an average $7 billion worth of cocaine has been trafficked through this region of the world since 2005, more than the country’s GDP.

And the country of Guinea-Bissau seems to be the main target for drug traffickers.

In an interview with TIME in Bissau in 2007, a high-ranking West African military officer who asked not to be named said Guinea-Bissau’s government and military allowed drug traffickers to operate “not because of a lack of resources but a lack of political will.”

Earlier this year the president was murdered in a coup, leaving the country in a power vacuum that seems to fueling the lucrative cocaine industry.

“Rivalries over control of narcotics trafficking may be at the heart of the schism between military and the presidency,” said Jonas Horner, Africa Associate of the Eurasia Group in Washington in a statement also published in the same TIME’s article.

The U.N. launched a $50-million effort this year to train and outfit West African police, beginning with Sierra Leone, but in an article by the Los Angeles Times, Rudolfo Landeros, the senior police advisor to the U.N. in Sierra Leone, said,

“You’re never going to stop the drug flow through West Africa.  But we have to take a stand somewhere….”

And according to one U.N. report he might be right.

“West Africa has everything criminals need: resources, a strategic location, weak governance, and an endless source of foot soldiers who see few viable alternatives to a life of crime.”

And as Al- Jazeera English points out, even if the drug traffickers are arrested or convicted there is nowhere to put them.

“The country’s only jail was destroyed during the civil war about 10 years ago and an official from the justice ministry takes Al Jazeera to a run-down house that now serves as a prison.  About 20 men live here in cramped, filthy conditions, sharing a single toilet and sleeping on the dirty floors. The house is in the centre of Bissau, with very little security, so escapes are common.”

While little of the drug actually stays in the country, it is already having far reaching effects for the community.

The Global Post states,

“The consequences stretch as well to the slums of Guinea-Bissau, where crack-fueled prostitution is driving a new AIDS epidemic in a region where even basic health care is beyond the reach of many — and where young people turning to the drug trade become the unwitting soldiers of organized crime.”