The shipwreck at Ondame, 18 months ago, was just the first confirmation of what Western drug enforcement officials have long suspected: that impoverished west African states such as Guinea Bissau have become the key transit routes for Latin American cartels in their effort to flood Europe with their product.
Facing a saturated American market, traffickers have increasingly turned their attentions to Europe, where a kilogram of cocaine will fetch the equivalent of £23,000, nearly twice what it sells for in America.
Cocaine used to be brought directly into Europe via Spain and Morocco, and boats crossed the Atlantic carrying several tons at a time. But with stricter monitoring of Europe’s waters, especially since September 11, 2001, the established routes have become more difficult.
Traffickers were forced further south to the Cape Verde Islands and then on to the unpoliced deltas and deserts of Guinea Bissau, where the drugs are collected and then moved north to meet demand on the streets of London and Barcelona.
Yet if it is bad news for Europe, it is potentially disastrous for Africa, whose weak, cash-strapped governments may prove no match for the corrupting influence of drug money. Nowhere is that truer than in Guinea Bissau, a former Portuguese colony of 1.6 million, where a civil war nine years ago wrecked its governmental institutions.
With chronic poverty, rampant corruption and almost no police or customs force to speak of, Western drug enforcement officials fear it could soon become Africa’s first “narco-state”.
“There is an absolute risk of that,” said Antonio Mazzittelli, the west and central African representative for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. “It cannot control its own territory, and if someone is arrested it is easy to buy impunity. It’s not just drug trafficking that you risk either, but all kinds of criminality. Osama Bin Laden could be here and nobody would know.”
Western officials estimate that the value of cocaine pouring through Guinea Bissau in just one month is equivalent to the country’s entire £150 million annual GDP.
Since 2005, there have been more than 50 large seizures of cocaine in Guinea Bissau, although most, like that at Ondame, have been by accident rather than design.
The geography is perfect for smuggling: the coast is a delta of thousands of islands, rivers and swamps, many inaccessible by road.
There are also hundreds of landing strips for light aircraft, built by the Portuguese during the 13-year war for independence from 1961.
A tour round the cluster of white-walled shacks that passes for the judiciary police department shows just how heavily the scales of justice are weighted in favour of the traffickers. Its officers juggle the fight against trafficking along with murders, robberies and other crimes, yet they are just 70-strong, operating with ancient typewriters, no radios, and only four cars, two of which are broken down.
Nor, in the unlikely event that they arrest someone, is there anywhere to put him. Guinea Bissau’s only prison was burnt down during the civil war, and there are only a few makeshift cells in the former ministry of commerce, so squalid that the police are unwilling to put long-term prisoners there.
“We have the will to tackle the problem of drugs, but not the means,” said Orlando da Silva, the director of the judiciary police, whose secretary has no seat for her desk.
The judiciary police are also up against officials in their own navy, army and government, many of whom are on the drug barons’ payroll.
The cartels have purchased such impunity that gangs of pony-tailed Colombians wander openly on the streets of the capital, Bissau, drive luxury cars and carouse in restaurants. “Often they don’t even bother going armed when they are transporting drugs here – that is how confident they feel,” said a foreign diplomat.
The results of the police’s few drugs busts illustrate their problems. Last September, they intercepted 674 kg (1,485 lb) of cocaine, only for it to mysteriously “disappear” from the treasury building after men in military uniforms had opened the vaults for “counting”.
Meanwhile, the two Colombians caught smuggling the consignment were freed by a judge, with no explanation.
Then, two months ago, police intercepted a convoy of vehicles carrying nearly three tons of cocaine which had been flown into a military airstrip, but seized less than a quarter because their cars did not have enough petrol to chase the traffickers. This time, 635 kg (1,400 lb) of intercepted cocaine did find its way as far as an official burning ceremony.
“During the burning, seven or eight cops tried to wander off with blocks of cocaine and under their jackets,” said another foreign diplomat. “But it’s hardly surprising, given that they haven’t been paid for months.”
Guinea Bissau’s prime minister, Martinho Dafa Cabi, insists that because cocaine is a vice only among feckless Westerners, their own governments should lead the fight against it. “Nobody here makes it or consumes it, and we are too weak to fight the problem alone,” he said.
In fact, there is also a growing addiction problem on his own doorstep. Not far from Ondame is the country’s only drug treatment clinic, where growing numbers are addicted to qisa, a form of crack cocaine. At £3 a hit, it gives locals a cheap, but addictive, taste of the goods passing through their country.
“Until 12 months ago I had never seen this stuff, but in the past year I have had 50 boys who are addicted,” said the clinic’s director, Pastor Domingos Te.
The true scale of the country’s first crack epidemic remains unknown. But nobody doubts how it began. “We first saw qisa here after the fishermen found all that cocaine in the sea,” said Nils Cassama, 22, a recovering addict who stole from his family to fund his habit. “I am clean now, but half of my friends are using it.”