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Africa’s White Economy Part 7

Colombian Cement
Organized crime and cement often go together, but in Guinea Bissau this happens in an untraditional way. The cement importing and sales company, SOMEC, was salvaged by Colombian Juan Pablo Camacho, a convicted drug trafficker who spent five years in prison in Miami on drug trafficking charges. He and his partner, Luis Fernando Ortega Mejia, bought the company that had been ruined in 1998 by Guinea Bissau’s civil war.

Camacho and Mejia were both detained in September 2006 in the biggest bust the country had ever seen. The Judiciary Police seized firearms, ammunition, grenades, laptops, 674 kilos of cocaine and $39 million in various currencies. Unusual, for a cement company. Carmelo Vasquez Guerra, a Venezuelan, was the DC9’s pilot who was said to have “escaped” from the airport while his airplane was being seized, 
and four other members of his crew were arrested.


But  Bissau isn’t the only country to arrest Vasquez Guerra for the presumably major offense of flying box-car sized loads of cocaine, 
only to be forced–or persuaded–to let him go. It’s happened in Mexico. and Mali, where he was released under mysterious and unexplained circumstances. 


The Colombians, were also able to walk away. The cocaine and money were stored in the treasury vaults, for safekeeping. The next day, the army seized both the drugs and the cash, and the evidence vanished. No evidence, no case. The Colombians were freed, thanks to Carlos Lopes Correira and Armando Mango, the same lawyers who defended Augusto Bliri.

Camacho denied every accusation and said that his wife and five children, who were still in Bogotá, would soon arrive in Bissau and that he planned to live there for the next few years. The Colombians are said to have left the country since, skipping bail, but the suspicion is that they still trade drugs, through a local network.

The Bissau-Conakry Strategy
Several years ago, two long-friends met in Guinea Conakry to talk about some business opportunities. They were Lasana Conte and Joao Vieira, the presidents of Guinea Conakry and Guinea Bissau. It was 2006 and cocaine trafficking in West Africa was at a development stage.


President Lasana Conte proposed that his counterpart Nino Vieira come on board, and then easily convinced him to allow Latin American traffickers to use Guinea Bissau as point of transit for their business. The profits would be huge, the risks minimal.

In late December 2008, Conte died, after almost forty years of dictatorship. A few hours after his death, a bunch of soldiers seized power in a coup d’etat. According to this new, untried military junta that has ruled Conakry since the coup, the overall goal is to clean up the country from corruption and extirpate cocaine trafficking — and to do so before the next scheduled elections, in 2010.

On February 26th, three days before Viera was killed, Lasana Conte’s oldest son Ousmane was arrested by the military on drug charges. He confessed on national television his involvement in drug trafficking, admitting his ties with some Colombian partners.


Ousmane Conte’s trial was broadcast on TV because the junta is trying to convince the Guinean people that they’re doing something necessary for their country, something good.  It is a sort of propaganda. But according to some analysts at the UN Office of Drug Control, this is really a strategy to put the South American traffickers out of the game — to open a new era of African drug trafficking organized by Nigerians and Guineans, in cooperation with Guinea Bissau and Conakry armies.

The vacuum left by the double assassination of Vieira and Tagme and the situation in Conakry opens a new scenario in West Africa. The big plan is to transform the whole region into a sort of traffickers’ paradise, a dangerous plan that may seriously destabilize West Africa, leading to new conflicts in a region that is trying to heal from bloody civil wars from the past decade in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ivory Coast.

Crack and Prostitution, Cocaine’s other Face
I drive through Reno, Bissau’s poorest slum, heading to Justino’s house. He’s 16 and a crack addict. Justino started to smoke quisa, as they call crack in Bissau, one year ago with his sister, Sadia. Now they both spend the whole day smoking the drug. Since they started, their old lives vanished. Justino lost his job and Sadia began to sell her own body. It’s 10 a.m. when I park my car in front of their house. Sadia waits by the door, holding her cachimbo, the crack pipe that has become her best friend. All around the house it’s garbage, rotten water and pigs.


This sounds like any other crack story, but there’s a difference: We are in Guinea Bissau, a place where crack was totally unknown until traffickers decided three years ago to target this country.

Sadia’s eyes are lost into the emptiness that surrounds her life. She waits for her brother to bring the drug. He comes with a friend and they immediately start smoking. I sit on the house floor with them. Sadia stretches out on a mattress while Justino and his friend feed the pipe; they start the ritual, which lasts at least 40 minutes.
They completely ignore me. They ignore everything but the cachimbo. Their entire lives revolve around the drug.


The situation in Bissau is particularly sad. There is no prevention, no rehabilitation. The issue is so new that there is no data available. It’s impossible to say how many people are lost in crack addiction. And mostly, there is no consciousness among the people about the long-term effects of this plague. 

I meet Sadia and her group of friends at Baiana’s, at night. They are all prostitutes, all crack addicts. They spend most of the time waiting for a client to take them to a brothel. At one point a white, brand new, four-wheel-drive Toyota parks in front of the restaurant. On the doors, the Portuguese flag and the logo from the Cooperacion Portuguesa. The driver and his friend sit to drink some beers when Nadi and Tusha, two of Sadia’s friends, join the men. They will leave a few minutes later, on the jeep.


Prostitution in Bissau is not for locals. Nobody can afford to pay a prostitute, and in the local culture, women cannot refuse a man. All the clients are foreigners. Sometimes sailors from anywhere, but mostly people who work for NGOs, the UN or Embassy employees. Almost every night I shared a coffee with Nadi, Tusha, Sadia, Fatima, Carolina and other prostitutes. They are somewhat proud of their work, and they see crack addiction as a minor issue. Smoking a cigarette or doing quisa – it’s just the same, to them.

They all dream of going to Europe – to Spain or Portugal or Italy. Nadi has a daughter who lives in Spain. She had the child with a Spanish businessman who used to travel to Bissau often: she doesn’t live with her child but says she is happy all the same, for the 250 Euros per month she receives from the father. At least she has monthly revenue.


Nuno (an alias name) is a Portuguese sailor. He used to work on a ship but was forced to stay in Bissau after he fought with the captain. He asked his family to send him money to come back, but then got lost into alcohol. He’s a usual client of the girls and he has AIDS. He’s always drunk and spends his nights at the Baiana before heading off with two or three girls. The alarming issue is that none of the prostitutes that I met use condoms.

Since cocaine arrived in Bissau crack has spread, prostitution has increased and so has HIV-AIDS. Drug trafficking has destroyed the precarious political stability of Guinea Bissau and destroyed the lives of thousands of people. They are paying the price of Europe’s voracious appetite for coke.
Marco Vernaschi

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