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Africa’s White Economy Part 2

A confidential source close to the Interpol, who spoke in condition of anonymity, tells me that a private jet arrived in Bissau on Thursday, February 26, three days before the assassination of army chief Tagme Na Wai. 

The plane landed and took off a few hours later from but strangely there is no record of such aircraft at the airport’s flight traffic office. This same day 200 kilos of cocaine disappeared from the Navy’s storage; some soldiers known to be loyal to President Joao Bernardo Vieira were spotted loading the flight, by the hangar where the plane was parked.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the Spanish Police confirm that it was July 12th when the N351SE Gulfstream proceeding from Venezuela jet landed in Bissau, loaded with 500 kilos of cocaine. The Guinean police immediately surrounded the jet and arrested three Venezuelans; they were  identified as Carmelo Vásquez Guerra, Carlos Luis Justiniano Núñez and Daniel Aguedelo Acevedo. Three policemen and two air traffic-control agents were also arrested and charged with complicity with the traffickers.

Five days later, the Interpol, in cooperation with the DEA and FBI, inspected the flight with a drug-sniffing dog, confirming that cocaine had been transported on the jet. But the drug had vanished. Antonio Maria Costa, Executive Director of the UNODC confirmed later that “hundred of boxes (containing cocaine) had been taken out from this jet” and opened an investigation on the case, with the FBI, Interpol and DEA.

The interesting issue in this case, which shows connections with the Mexican drug cartels, is that pilot Carmelo Vasquez Guerra was investigated by the Mexican Police (# PGR/SIEDO/UEIDCS/117/2006), for a DC-9 jet, N900SA, also proceeding from Venezuela and loaded with 5 tons of cocaine, that landed in Ciudad del Carmen, Campeche, Mexico, on April 10t, 2006. During this operation Miguel Vasquez Guerra, Carmelo’s brother, was arrested along with five other members of the jet’s crew. The crew is reputed to have been part of the Chapo Guzman criminal organization, the most powerful among the Mexican drug cartels.

Mexico’s most wanted man, “El Chapo”, or Shorty, heads the Sinaloa cartel, one of the biggest suppliers of Cocaine to the U.S. In 1993 was arrested in Mexico on homicide and drug charges. Escaped from federal prison in 2001, reportedly through the laundry, and quickly regained control of his drug trafficking organization, which he still controls today.

The cartel’s tentacles stretch from New York City to Buenos Aires and almost every major city in between. It has successfully penetrated government and security forces wherever it operates. It often opts for the bribe over the bullet and alliances over fighting, but it is not above organizing its forces to overrun areas that it wants to control by force. Its central bond is blood: many of its members are related by blood or by marriage. However, the cartel also often acts more like a federation than a tightly knit organization. The core of the group, the Beltran Leyva Organization, split from the rest in 2008. The Sinaloa Cartel has since created new alliances with former enemies in the Gulf Cartel and the Familia Michoacana. More shifts are to be expected as these alliances, even those formed by blood, are tenuous.

The state of Sinaloa has long been a center for contraband in Mexico, as well as a home for marijuana and poppy cultivation. Nearly all of the trafficking organizations in Mexico have their origins in the region. They were, in essence, a small group of farming families that lived in rural parts of the state. In the 1960s and 1970s, they moved from the contraband trade into drugs, particularly marijuana. One of the first to traffic marijuana in bulk was Pedro Aviles, who later brought his friend’s son, Joaquin Guzman Loera, alias “El Chapo,” into the business.

Aviles was killed in a shootout with police in 1978. In the latter part of the 1970s, the various families branched into moving cocaine for Colombian and Central American traffickers, and shifted their operations to Guadalajara, in the state of Jalisco. Their leaders included Rafael Caro Quintero, Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo and Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo. Working closely with the Honduran Juan Ramon Matta Ballesteros, the men came into contact with Colombia’s Medellin Cartel. Matta Ballesteros lived part-time in Colombia, where he operated as the main intermediary between Mexican and Colombian traffickers, particularly the Medellin and Guadalajara Cartels. They established the patterns that we see repeated today: movement of bulk shipments of cocaine via airplane and boat to Central America and Mexico, then by land routes into the United States. The boldness of the Mexican traffickers became evident when they murdered undercover Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent Enrique Camarena in 1985.

The death of Camarena was the beginning of the end of the Guadalajara Cartel. U.S. pressure forced Mexican authorities to act, and the leaders of the cartel fled. The remaining factions established bases in various parts of Mexico. The Arellano Felix brothers set up camp in Tijuana. The Carrillo Fuentes family moved to Juarez. Guzman and his partner, Hector Luis Palma Salazar, remained in the Sinaloa area.

The battles between these organizations began almost immediately. In November 1992, Guzman sent 40 gunmen to raid a Tijuana Cartel party in Puerto Vallarta, killing nine people. The Tijuana Cartel responded by trying to assassinate Guzman at the Guadalajara airport in 1993, killing a Mexican Cardinal instead. Guzman fled to Guatemala where he was arrested two weeks later. Palma Salazar was arrested in 1995.

The operations remained under the auspices of Joaquin’s brother, Arturo Guzman Loera, Ramon Laija Serrano, and Hector, Alfredo and Arturo Beltran Leyva. Guzman maintained some control from prison, passing messages through his lawyers. He escaped in 2001, anticipating a decision to extradite him to the United States. He quickly resumed full control of the organization and assumed legendary status for constantly eluding capture.

In 2008 Mexican and Colombian traffickers laundered between $18 billion and $39 billion in proceeds from wholesale shipments to the U.S. Shorty, an alleged tunnels expert, is believed to have directed anywhere from a third to half of that during the past 8 years.

Business has boomed since Guzman’s escape, especially following the incarceration and deaths of the Norte del Valle Cartel and Colombian paramilitary leaders, the two key suppliers of raw cocaine to the Sinaloa factions, and the incarceration and deaths of some of Guzman’s Mexican rivals. Indeed, since his escape in 2001, Guzman implemented an ambitious plan. This began with a meeting Guzman organized in Monterrey with, among others, Ismael Zambada, alias “El Mayo,” Arturo Beltran Leyva and Juan Jose Esparragoza Moreno, alias “El Azul.” The four men are more than trafficking partners, they are of the same blood: cousins by marriage, brothers in law, or otherwise connected via the small communities they come from, which is why their group is often referred to as the “alianza de sangre” (blood alliance).

El Chapo Guzman

Together they planned the death in 2004 of Rodolfo Carrillo Fuentes, who was one of the heads of the Juarez Cartel. The group of traffickers, who authorities used to call the “Federation,” now operates in 17 Mexican States, numerous cities in the United States, and from Guatemala to Argentina. By some estimates, it operates in as many as 50 countries.

In recent months the Sinaloa has suffered a number of blows, with rival groups eating into their territory. The Zetas may be trying to take Guadalajara, while Sinaloa breakaway groups Gente Nueva and Los Ms are struggling for control of Durango.

During the operation carried out in Bissau the Interpol was able to seize seven satellite phones. These were decrypted, providing important information about this net of drug traffickers. I meet Lucinda Barbosa in her office, at the Judiciary Police offices, to ask some questions about the jet that was seized in November.

“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 corrupted, they need to feed their families! How can we possibly compete with drug traffickers?” 

Then she locks the door, and picks up a folder from her desk.
“I want to show you the situation we have here. If you want to investigate, you need a clear picture.” Lucinda opens the folders, and shows 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 it 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 drug has gone, the trial is dead. I’m really sick of that and I feel alone.” 

From the day this plane was seized, the equilibrium between the Army and President changed and Bissau streets 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’etat. At least 15 people died in drug-related crimes. The assassination of the General and the President were just the last chapter of a series.

President Nino Viera was aware of the power that his generals were gradually gaining and began to feel isolated. The jet issue of November 2008 added more problems and so he decided, investigators believe, to eliminate all those who were putting at risk his business. 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 drug cartels that Guinea Bissau was still a convenient place for their business.

ieira, who was known for the brutality of his methods, decided to use his skills. The first to fall was the navy chief, who fled because he knew that if he stayed he would be killed. With Army chief Batista Tagme Na Wai the president knew there would be no room for mercy or for mistakes – which is why Tagme was blown to smithereens.
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