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The president of Guinea Bissau died over the weekend, sparking fears of greater unrest and political instability in the small West African nation, which has struggled with high-level corruption and a growing role in the international drug trade. We look at the pipeline funneling drugs and money between Latin America, West Africa, and Europe and how Guinea Bissau will cope with the loss of its leader.
- Sebastian Rotella Senior Reporter, ProPublica; author "Triple Crossing: A Novel" (Mulholland)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, Moving Healthcare into the Digital Age, but first, the president of Guinea Bissau died in Paris over the weekend sparking fears of more unrest and political instability in this small West African nation that saw a thwarted coup attempt in December.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt's one of the world's poorest countries yet top-of-the-line SUVs cruise around the capital and high-end nightclubs are packed because of a thriving role in the international drug trade, Guinea Bissau has become a central hub for cocaine trafficking in a pipeline, funneling money and drugs between Latin America, West Africa and Europe.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to discuss what the future may hold is Sebastian Rotella. He's a senior reporter with ProPublica and the author of "Triple Crossing: A Novel." Sebastian, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. SEBASTIAN ROTELLAIt's my pleasure, Kojo.
NNAMDII should mention that a documentary that you worked on, "A Perfect Tourist" is airing tonight on "Frontline" at 10:00 p.m. tonight. It was originally broadcast in November. It's about one of the plotters in the terror attacks on Mumbai in 2008. He was also a heroin dealer, that's David Headley. The documentary, "Frontline" and ProPublica investigate the mysterious circumstances behind his rise from heroin dealer and U.S. government informant to plotter of the 2008 attack on Mumbai.
NNAMDINow, the president of Guinea Bissau died in Paris over the weekend, but the political struggle is already underway with a coup attempt in December and now there's opposition already to the proposed interim president. It doesn't look good for a smooth transition of power does it, Sebastian?
ROTELLANo, it doesn't unfortunately. And I think this continues a series of upheavals that have happened in recent years in which the context is sadly the drug trade.
NNAMDIPolitical turmoil, nothing new in Guinea Bissau, but that's one of the reasons, isn't it, that it's been so vulnerable to drug trafficking?
ROTELLAThat's right. And obviously, as you said, one of the poorest countries in the world and, you know, the tragedy of geography, it is in a prime spot in the center of an area that has become this trampoline, as you mentioned, for cocaine trafficking from Latin America through this part of West Africa into Europe and other places.
NNAMDIAnd one of the issues is that the cocaine cartels are so deeply linked to both the military and the government?
ROTELLAThat's right. I mean, in Guinea Bissau in particular and some of the neighboring countries, you've seen things like assassinations, coup attempts, shootouts between different elements of the government and the security forces in which what's at play are mafia-style battles over drugs and drug turf and different drug interests. It reminds me of covering a shootout in Tijuana years ago when I was covering Mexico, of a shootout between the federal police and the state police in a Mexican state. Well, in Guinea Bissau, you have that happening at the highest levels of power, sadly, and it's really a sign of how deeply entrenched that culture is.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments about events, developments in Guinea Bissau, you can call us at 800-433-8850 or go to our website, kojoshow.org, join the conversation there. Send a tweet at kojoshow or email to email@example.com. We're talking with Sebastian Rotella. He's a senior reporter with ProPublica and he's the author of "Triple Crossing: A Novel."
NNAMDILooking at a map, Guinea Bissau is a convenient stop if you're looking to link places like Columbia and Venezuela to Africa and then to Europe. Is that the pipeline we're talking about here?
ROTELLAExactly what happened, you know, going back five to seven years ago was that a particularly Columbian, Venezuelan, some Mexican traffickers started showing up in Guinea Bissau and other countries. Companies started popping up, some legitimate and many of them front companies. And what was going on, you started getting these huge seizures of cocaine in countries that had never had significant presence of cocaine before.
ROTELLAAnd what was going on is you had the movement of cocaine through this pipeline by sea and particularly now by air, going in, landing in, say, some of these abandoned or these empty islands off Guinea Bissau or landing in Mauritania or places like Togo and Benin and Ghana and then the drugs then being stockpiled. This region of Africa is, imagine it as a large, almost like a stockpile, a warehouse for cocaine and then through international globalized alliances of criminal groups moving up through Spain, through Italy, sometimes through the Middle East into the markets of the developed world.
NNAMDIYou know, it's ironic that during the Cold War, our interests, the U.S. interests in countries such as Guinea Bissau, had to do with whether or not they would fall under communist influence. But the fall of socialism in Eastern Europe and the breakup of the Soviet Union, our interest now has shifted to these areas in a slightly different way. So that they don't come up as much in the foreign policy discussion, but they come up a great deal in the war on drugs discussion because policing the drug trade seems to be especially challenging because of the archipelago of islands on the coast of West Africa.
ROTELLAThat's right. In fact, the United Nations, which has tried to focus a lot of attention on Guinea Bissau as a symbol of this danger of the overwhelming powers of the Mafia, you know, sort of overwhelming weak states. There was concern that these islands were being used not only as landing bases, but because Guinea Bissau was so desperately poor there was a plan to sell off some of the islands to raise revenue.
ROTELLAAnd the fear in law enforcement was that these islands were going to be bought by the drug traffickers and essentially become private landing strips. But I think you know, what you said is very true. The problem this now talks about, it's almost like people have talked about the colonization by the Mafias, right? You have Mafias moving in and Mafias involved very much also in the legitimate economy.
ROTELLAYou know, we have to worry about that both in, again, developing and the developed world so it's a very complex interplay.
NNAMDITrace for us, if you will, the route that the drugs take.
ROTELLAMost of it -- and this goes back, a lot of it, to 9/11 because obviously the United States was always a big market and remains so for cocaine. But Europe became increasingly attractive because it was harder to smuggle into the U.S. because Europe was a big -- there was a big demand for cocaine and because the euro was strong. So what traffickers started doing and particularly Columbians, Venezuelans, we're talking about drug production obviously, cocaine production in Peru, Bolivia, Columbia.
ROTELLAVenezuela is increasingly the place where the drugs leave, though. It's also some from Columbia, some from Brazil, some from Argentina. But either by sea in legitimate sort of freighters, you know, concealed in legitimate cargo or in smaller vessels and a lot, as I was saying, by plane. So they're flying and they're flying into airstrips, sometimes legitimate airstrips protected by corrupt military or security officials or clandestine ones in the different countries like...
NNAMDIWhen you look at the map, it's a no-brainer. It's a straight shot.
ROTELLAThat's right, you know. You look at how far over South America is and it's not really that far from parts of Venezuela to that part of Africa. And then again, you have the -- what the traffickers have there is the blessing of time and of power because, you know, this is a place where there's enough poverty where they can, in many places, sort of take over without firing a shot. And then you have the whole infrastructure of stockpiling of the cocaine, stockpiling of money, creation of fronts to launder money.
ROTELLAAnd then, gradually, the drugs move by different ways, by old contraband trails, through the deserts, through the Sahel, through the Sahara, sometimes by ship, out of, say, Senegal and Mauritania, places like that, sometimes through North Africa and into Southern Europe and also increasingly the Middle East is another place we're seeing with the presence of Lebanese Diaspora gangsters involved in Africa.
NNAMDIAnd if people have questions about who's facilitating this, you should know that the U.N.'s drug enforcement arm is particularly concerned about Guinea Bissau because the special report of Guinea Bissau in 2008 repeated allegations that high-ranking officials, both in government and the military, are apparently complicit.
ROTELLAThat's correct. In fact, high-ranking officials in the military have been designated by the U.S. Treasury as drug traffickers and one of them has been sort of at the center of some of this recent upheaval in terms of this fighting, in-fighting, political in-fighting, coup attempts, things like that. So you have a situation not unlike you may have seen in some Latin American countries in the past and that we associate with Latin America. But I think a lot of Americans are still getting their head around the idea that this is going on in Africa. But it is a great drama and tragedy of what is happening in Africa today.
NNAMDIYou mentioned earlier Europe as a destination because of, I guess, the consumer market there. But talk about the attractiveness of Europe because of the relative strength of the euro.
ROTELLAWell, certainly. I mean, if you look at the euro, it has consistently for years now been sometimes as high as $1.50, sometimes $1.30, even now when the euro is hurting, it's stronger than the dollar so you just have that market there and that amount of extra money to be made on the same amount of cocaine. And again, a place where in countries like Spain, Britain, France, the Netherlands, there's been a rise in cocaine consumption in this past decade and where policing is difficult.
ROTELLAYou know, I mean, you have -- when I was based in Europe and looking at these questions, you had the French, the Spanish, different groups within Europe trying to deal with different countries in Africa and it's a complicated policing issue.
NNAMDIWe talked about this a few weeks ago back on the show, but about the Lebanese Diaspora and how it's become a central in this trade linking the money and the drugs and sometimes the money is funneled to groups like Hezbollah, correct?
ROTELLAThat's right. I mean, there have been recent cases by the DEA that have shown pretty strong evidence that this Diaspora -- obviously, you have people who are completely legitimate based in Africa who have been there forever in different kinds of legitimate business, but you do have this gangster element connected to Lebanese organized crime that has taken advantage of the presence there to be kind of the middlemen, you know, to be funneling the drugs and the money through Africa and into Europe and the Middle East. And some of that money is going to the coffers apparently of Hezbollah.
ROTELLAYou have remarkable scenes, for example, of vehicles stopped at the border between Togo and other countries and with, you know, millions of dollars in cash, bulk cash being smuggled that then makes its way by plane to Lebanon.
NNAMDIAnd if people are trying to make a connection between the colonial empires of various European countries -- and today, a new player in the international drug trade seems to be Brazil. It's rising as an economic powerhouse and now in the drug trade as well with import/export businesses providing cover and the links go directly to West Africa. Brazil was linked to West Africa and Guinea Bissau because they were both Portuguese colonies at one time.
ROTELLAAbsolutely. And, you know, Brazil has been -- having covered Brazil for many years in the '90s, Brazil has a lot of things that make it attractive to the drug Mafias. It's a powerful, rich country with a lot of legitimate business, a good transport infrastructure, connections to places all over the world, to Africa, to the Middle East, to Europe and a big internal market. So you had, you know, the favelas of Brazil always being places that consumed cocaine, that created it, that fed the Mafias internally and then this platform for smuggling and connections overseas.
ROTELLASo Brazil is definitely one of those places where this is happening. Brazil, things are getting better in some ways, but what we see in these cases is that some of the prosperous countries are not immune. Ghana, for example, which is one of the more prosperous, hopeful countries in Africa has had problems with this, including allegations of a Venezuelan drug lord being protected by corrupt officials in Ghana, which is not something that we would ordinarily imagine happening.
NNAMDIWatching the evolution of leadership in Guinea Bissau in the wake of the death of its president is going to be fascinating. Sebastian Rotella, thank you so much for joining us.
ROTELLAAlways a pleasure.
NNAMDISebastian is a senior reporter with ProPublica and the author of "Triple Crossing: A Novel." We're going to take a short break and when we come back, Moving Healthcare into the Digital Age. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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