Tags: west | africa | drugs | venezuelka

West Africa Easy Mark for Latin Drug Cartels

Wednesday, 18 Nov 2009 12:43 AM

As a senior police official, Edmundo Mendes' job is to arrest the South American cocaine traffickers who use his troubled West African country, with its starry array of remote islands, as a transit point for drug shipments bound for Europe. It hasn't been easy.

To demonstrate, Mendes walked a few steps from his office into the gritty mix of smoke and car exhaust in downtown Bissau. He fished a ring of keys from his pocket and made quick work of a rusty padlock. The metal door groaned open to a small courtyard. Across the way was a room, about 10 by 15 feet, where four men looked out drowsily from behind a barred, glass-less window.

This holding cell is the only jail in a country of nearly 2 million.

"We live in paradise and hell at the same time," said Mendes, a baby-faced 35-year-old with master's and doctoral degrees from France and Portugal. "In paradise, there are no prisons. In hell, there are no prisons. Without a prison, all the work we do is for nothing. At the moment, this is a paradise for criminals."

That's just one reason Guinea- Bissau has been an easy mark for the world's drug cartels.

The country's navy has a single aging ship to search for smugglers, and the head of the navy fled the country amid accusations that he was involved in the drug trade. When a Gulfstream jet from Venezuela landed last year at the Bissau international airport, its $250-million cargo of cocaine was whisked away in army trucks before police arrived. A judge freed the three Venezuelan pilots, including one wanted on an arrest warrant from Mexico.

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