When I first lived in Ghana in 1993, my social circle included about a dozen fellow Fulbright scholars, working on a variety of research topics. Most were ones you’d have guessed at – tribal and family structures in Ewe society, the music of brass bands (an unusual legacy of Britain’s colonial presence in the country), traditional wood-carving techniques.
Ghana Fulbrighters in 1994, posing with a large gold statue of Bill Clinton, which graced the road from Accra, where we lived, to Legon where many of us studied and worked. The sculptor told us that the statue was a commission – I never found out who’d paid for the piece or where it ended up.
But my friend Jessica Vapnek (second from left, above) had an unusual topic – the drug trade through Ghana and how to combat the problem of young Ghanaians being used as drug mules. South American cocaine was making its way into Ghana via ship, and Afghan heroin came in overland. Ghanaian couriers were being offered plane tickets to the US and a few hundred dollars in exchange for swallowing condoms filled with drugs. As American police wised up to the plan, it became increasingly common for unlucky couriers to be arrested, imprisoned and then deported. The truly unlucky ones didn’t survive the trip – if a condom filled with high-quality drugs explodes in your stomach, you tend to die quite rapidly.
Jessica had two ideas for combatting the trade. One was to convince the US and Ghana to begin extraditing smugglers back to Ghana. The logic for this? The families of arrested drug smugglers would frequently explain the abscence of an arrested courier saying, “Oh, she’s studying in the US.” The embarrasment of arrest turned into the pride of a child studying abroad. By sending Ghanaians home and putting them in local prisons – where the family has to be responsible for feeding the prisoner – authorities would guarantee that being arrested for smuggling would have social consequences. Her second plan had to do with speaking directly to less-educated, rural audiences and convincing them of the dangers of drug smuggling. That second plan is how I ended up in the village square of Dzolo-Gbogame, a small town in the Volta Region, delivering lines as a drug dealer, trying to convince a young Ghanaian girl to carry drugs to the US. I remember waiting a few seconds after each line for it to be translated into Ewe and then enjoying the laughs they received.
I was thinking about my history with African drug smuggling as I read an excellent piece from the Guardian on Guinea-Bissau, an unlucky nation to the northwest of Ghana that now serves as a major hub for drug traffic from South America to Europe. It would be extremely stupid to transit drugs through Ghana right now – local police are pretty effective, the country has control over its land and sea borders, and the judiciary is functional and if not incorruptible, a long ways better than it is in many neighboring countries.
Guinea-Bissau, on the other hand, is one of the very poorest nations in the world. They’ve got a judicial police force of 70 people and no jail to detain people in – the only prison designed to hold prisoners for a long period of time was burned down during the country’s long and destructive civil war.
Even when the police manage to arrest drug traffickers, they haven’t had much luck prosecuting them. When two Colombian traffickers were arrested with over $25 million worth of cocaine, one might have expected swift prosecution. The drugs were deposited into the national treasury – soliders came to “count” the drugs in the treasury, and they somehow disappeared. The GB Army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Arsénio Baldé offered reassurances that his men could never, never be tempted to steal millions of dollars worth of cocaine – “Maybe some people wearing army uniforms came but they were not real soldiers.” Perhaps because the evidence had been stolen and sold, or perhaps because he’d been paid off, the traffickers walked free.
The UN’s IRIN and British newspapers have been making increasingly panicky noises about Guinea-Bissau for the past year. Earlier this year, the Daily Mail observed that cocaine has “never been cheaper or more readily available” in Britain, with the street price of a gram halving in the past decade and more than four times as many people using the drug as ten years ago. Much of that cocaine comes over sea from Colombia to Guinea-Bissau on boats camoflagued by blue tarps to make them less visible to satellites. The boats dock in the cluster of islands that surround the Guinea-Bissau coast and smaller craft transfer the drugs to land. From there, they’re transfered to other boats to make the voyage to Europe, over land to Morocco, or into Europe via drug mules. The Guardian reports that a single flight from Bissau to Amsterdam in December 26th carried 32 mules… and those are only the ones who got arrested.
The arrival of Latin American drug barons is transforming the local economy, according to reporters who’ve recently been to Bissau. Nightclubs and high-end restaurants cater to dealers and their guards; new mansions are being built on the outskirts of town. The value of cocaine passing through the nation dwarfs the legitimate economy of Bissau. In the same way that natural resources can destroy an economy, cocaine appears to be having a similar effect. Any economically rational Bissauan is getting into the drug game, leading to increased corruption and, likely, a decay of the existing, fragile legitimate economy.
And Bissauans are using the drug as well. Almost every newspaper story on the nation talks about an incident in 2005 where packets of cocaine washed ashore on a rural island. Locals applied the powder to their crops (less absurd than it sounds when you learn that it’s often marked as “chemical fertilizer” to fool particularly stupid customs officials) before enterprising smugglers came to the area to “buy back” the drug. Some evidently began using the drug as well. A Bissauan dealer explains that, these days, only Europeans and South Americans snort powdered cocaine – the Bissauans smoke “pedra”, cocaine that’s been baked into less expensive rocks. He also notes that Bissau’s increasing reputation as a narco-state means that smugglers are looking for new routes: “Nowadays there is less cocaine here because Guinea Bissau has gotten a reputation as a narcostate so many big traffickers are now shipping it to Guinea Conakry instead. But some still come to Bissau from Conakry by canoe but not as much as before.”
Bissau meets most definitions of a failed state. It can’t effectively control its borders, enforce its laws or provide social services to its citizens. It’s the perfect target for people whose business requires them to violate international laws, much as Nauru became a center for international money transfers in the 1990s, allowing billions of dollars of money stolen in the firesale of Russian state industries after the fall of the Soviet Union to be secreted away.
The international community knows that failed states are bad things, that they enable drug smuggling, terrorism and illegal financial transfer. But we’re curiously bad developing the will to intervene. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime suggested a budget of a few hundred million dollars to secure Guinea Bissau and allow it to effectively fight trafficking – donors weren’t interested in the proposal. A much less ambitious plan put forward last year requested $19 million to build a jail, buy some petrol for the nation’s police cars and perhaps some guns. Donors chipped in a total of $6.5 million.
That old saying about an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure? The UK’s new drugs strategy estimates that costs to the government from crime and health issues related to heroin and cocaine use total more than $30 billion a year. Spending to stop the spread of drugs in Britain has cost more than $60 billion over the past ten years.