Guinea-Bissau President Caught up in ‘Arms for Drugs’ Conspiracy

Guinea-Bissau's interim president is beating back allegations that he played a role in a doomed “arms for drugs” deal that involved smuggling weapons for supposed Colombian FARC rebels from Guinea-Bissau in exchange for cocaine.

U.S. indictments against seven men, including Guinea-Bissau's former navy chief, includes their testimony which mentions President Manuel Serifo Nhamadjo. The men were arrested off the coast of Cape Verde last week.

According to the documents, these men, now defendants, told U.S. undercover anti-narcotic agents (who were pretending to be FARC rebels) that they were in contact with the president over the cocaine and weapons smuggling deal. The evidence that mentions Nhamadjo is found on page 7 of the indictment [pdf]:

CC-1 (defendant) agreed to a proposal to ship FARC cocaine to Guinea-Bissau for later distribution in the United States and to procure weapons for FARC, including surface-to-air missiles. CC-1 also stated that he would discuss the plan with the President of Guinea-Bissau. CC-1 stated, “The day after tomorrow I'll talk to the President of the Republic.”

Page 10 of the same document, talks about the weapons order:

CS-1 (undercover agent) provided CC-5 (defendant) with a list of weapons that the FARC were requesting, which included  among other things, surface-to-air missiles, AK-47 assault rifles, and machine guns. Mane (defendant) said that he and CC-5 (defendant) would speak to the President and Prime Minister of Guinea-Bissau about the weapons order for FARC.

The government allegedly expected a percentage of the 4,000 kg of cocaine as a fee:

During the meeting, CC-2 and CC-4 (defendants) agreed to facilitate the receipt of approximately 4,000 kg of cocaine from the FARC in Guinea Bissau, approximately 500 kg of which would be later sent to customers in the United States and Canada.

The president has lashed back at the allegations, calling them “criminal” [pt].

Political and military instability have been a constant feature of life in Guinea-Bissau, a country which has never seen an elected president reach the end of their mandate since its independence from colonial Portugal in 1974. The latest coup d'etat on April 12, 2012, a few days after the second round of presidential elections, saw Nhamadjo appointed transitional president as part of a deal made between military commanders and political, religious, and civic leaders.


US indictment.

Journalist Helena Ferro de Gouveia wrote [pt] on her blog about what it would mean for Guinea-Bissau if the allegations were true:

A confirmar-se o envolvimento do presidente de transição num esquema de tráfico de cocaína e armas, milímetros separam o país do abismo.

If the involvement of the transitional president in a scheme of cocaine and weapons trafficking is confirmed, millimeters separate the country from the abyss.

Even before the coup, connections between certain elites, military figures, and drug traffickers have long been an open secret in Guinea-Bissau. In the last decade, the country has become one of the main transit points for cocaine smuggling from South America into Europe.

Before the news of the president's alleged involvement in the drug and arms smuggling scheme, Nobel Peace Prize winner and former President of East Timor, José Ramos-Horta, who has led the United Nations Integrated Peace-Building Office in Guinea-Bissau since February 2013, said that “Guinea-Bissau faces an existential threat, as a State, as a nation” and hoped that the political and military elites “will conduct an introspection, a self-examination” on the anniversary of the coup.

At the end of March as the anniversary of the country's coup drew near, he described [pt] on his blog Guinea-Bissau's role in the world's drug trafficking:

A Guine-Bissau nao produz droga e o consumo e baixo. Ha sim grupos que funcionam como correio e pelo trabalho recebem umas migalhas e já ficam muito contentes. Individuos de outras nacionalidades – Colombianos, Bolivianos, Peruanos, Libaneses, Marroquinos e Nigerians – os profissionais do negocio. Face a eles, o Bissau-Guineense e um amador que se contenta com migalhas mas que fica com a fama!

Guinea-Bissau does not produce drugs and the consumption is low. There are however groups that work as courier and receive for the work a few crumbs and with that they become very happy. Individuals of other nationalities – Colombians, Bolivians, Peruvians, Lebanese, Moroccans and Nigerians – the business professionals. Comparing to them, the Bissau-Guinean is an amateur who is satisfied with the crumbs but gets all the fame instead!

Confirming Ramos-Horta's point is accused drug kingpin Real Admiral Bubo Na Tchuto's amusingly amateur blog-autobiography [pt]. Na Tchuto, former head of the navy, is now under arrest in New York. He had been released from prison on orders of Guinea-Bissau's army chief in June, 2012, after serving a few months due to accusations of leading the coup attempt of December 2011.

Earlier in March, Guilherme Dias from Lusomonitor blog summarized [pt] a Der Spiegel reporter's experience looking into the drug traffic in the Bijagós islands alongside an underfunded prosecutor:

As drogas chegam em carregamentos de 600 ou 1.200 quilos e são armazenadas em três depósitos, de onde são enviadas para a Europa. Dois países europeus têm satélites apontados à região e os investigadores internacionais sabem que um destes depósitos está numa zona militar. “Eu até sei que um voo vai aterrar esta semana no sul”, afirma Biague, sem dinheiro para qualquer operação de apreensão. Com um custo estimado de 115 euros, o repórter decidiu financiar. No final, foi um fracasso.

Drugs arrive in shipments of 600-1,200kg and are stored in three warehouses, from where they are sent to Europe. Two European countries have satellites pointed to the region and international investigators know that one of these warehouses is in a military area. “I even know that a flight is landing this week,” says Biague [Director of Police Investigation in Guinea-Bissau], without any money for a drug bust. With an estimated cost of €115, the reporter decided to finance the trip. In the end, it was a failure.

Satellite image of Guinea-Bissau in January 2003. The Islands are known as Bijagos Archipelago. Image in the public domain.

Satellite image of Guinea-Bissau in January 2003. The Islands are known as Bijagos Archipelago. Image in the public domain.

Meanwhile, another mainstream media article, this time by Portuguese daily Público [pt], revealed the heroic efforts of two women, Lucinda Barbosa Ahucarié and Carmelita Dias, to enforce the rule of law in Guinea-Bissau. Barbosa Ahucarié, the country's ex-director of police investigation, told Público that captured drug kingpin Bubo Na Tchuto threatened her, accusing her of feeding information to US investigators.

The article seems to have fallen between the cracks, generating very little comment in social media and in the blogosphere, even though it was republished in Brazil and beyond.

Written in collaboration with Janet Gunter.


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