Locals and Latin Americans long-accused of smuggling are operating
freely in the country, some with high-level protection from within
Conde's administration, according to Guinean and international law
enforcement officials and internal police reports seen by Reuters.
The growth of trafficking was overlooked as diplomats focused on
securing a fragile transition back to civilian rule after the 2008
Counter-narcotics agents from the United States and other countries,
meanwhile, concentrated on smugglers in neighboring Guinea-Bissau, a
tiny former Portuguese colony dubbed by crime experts Africa's first
However, the U.S. State Department's 2013 International Narcotics
Control Strategy Report said seizures in Guinea and cases abroad
traced back there show a spike in trafficking since Conde won power
at a 2010 election.
A lack of government figures makes estimating volumes tricky, but a
foreign security source said one or two planes landed each month
last year, ferrying in cocaine from Latin America mostly for
smuggling to Europe.
"Whatever the attitude of the head of state, it's clear that
traffickers can operate in Guinea. They have deep roots there," said
Stephen Ellis, researcher at the African Studies Centre, Leiden, in
Ellis said drug money was having a corrosive effect on attempts by
Conde's government to improve governance: "It's worrying because of
the effects not just on the politics of Guinea, but the whole
A July report by Guinea's top anti-drugs agency, seen by Reuters,
said traffickers were operating with protection of senior civilian,
military and police officials. It said proceeds from the trade are
laundered through various channels, including real estate, fishing
companies and local mining operations.
Guinea and Guinea-Bissau are at the eastern end of "Highway 10", the
nickname given by law enforcement officers for the 10th parallel
north of the equator, the shortest route across the Atlantic, used
by traffickers over the past decade to smuggle Latin American
cocaine destined mainly for Europe.
United Nations experts estimated last year that some 20 tonnes of
cocaine, mostly from Colombia and Venezuela, pass each year through
West Africa, which became an attractive transit point as U.S. and
European authorities cracked down on more direct routes.
Guinea's role has surged since last year, when an April U.S. sting
operation targeted Guinea-Bissau's military chief, prompting
traffickers to seek sanctuary in Conakry, law enforcement officials
The shift of the trade to Guinea raises the stakes. While
Guinea-Bissau is an unstable backwater of just 1.6 million people
that rarely attracts notice outside a small community of West Africa
watchers, Guinea has nearly 8 times as many people and a much larger
With vast reserves of iron ore, it has also secured billions of
dollars in pledges for investment from mining firms including Rio
Tinto and Brazil's Vale. A breakdown of law and order associated
with the drugs trade could have an impact on that investment.
In the moldy, potholed seaside capital, expensive restaurants,
gleaming hotels and new apartment blocks highlight pockets of
wealth. But they soon give way to teeming, rubbish-strewn
neighborhoods away from the center of town.
"People are frightened to take the lid off Guinea," said one foreign
official, who, like others interviewed for the story, declined to be
identified. "Authorities know traffickers are there but are
powerless to do anything. They need international help."
Part of the problem is that Col. Moussa Tiegboro Camara, Guinea's
top anti-narcotics officer, has been accused of involvement in a
massacre of protesters under the military junta in 2009, making it
impossible for Western nations to cooperate with him.
He did not respond to a request for comment, nor did officials in
Government spokesman Damantang Camara denied that trafficking was
rising or that the state was complicit: "There will be no compromise
with drug traffickers." (Camara is a common surname in Guinea and
several people in this report who share the name are not related.)
Those meant to keep order lack the resources to do so.
A Guinean anti-narcotics officer said his men are unarmed, need
money for fuel and are forced to buy second-hand laptops. The 230
anti-drug agents are too few to police the air strips, coastal
landing points or chaotic main port, making the country a smuggler's
Local and international officials with access to intelligence
reports say cocaine is increasingly landing by sea at unmonitored
ports or flown in by small planes using remote air strips. Shipments
then often receive military escort.
In July, Guinean anti-drugs agents were tipped off about a boat
landing carrying cocaine and tried to scramble officers to the scene
near Boffa, 80 km (50 miles) north of Conakry.
They didn't get very far. Before they left the capital, they were
ordered off the case by other security forces. Their men later found
a boat stained with dried blood and stripped of identification and
"We were shut out by the Navy and the Gendarmerie ... They were
hostile to our presence on the ground," said a Guinean
anti-narcotics officer with detailed knowledge of the case. "There
has been a total blackout on the incident."
[to top of second column]
Drug trafficking in Guinea flourished in the years leading up to
veteran president Lansana Conte's death in 2008. Political and
military elites, including the late president's eldest son Ousmane
Conte, secured the trade, according to Guinean legal documents and
foreign law enforcement officials.
Dadis Camara, the army captain who seized power in the chaos after
the end of Conte's 24-year rule, hauled senior civilian and military
figures before him to confess their roles in drug trafficking. The
inquisitions — known as the Dadis Show — became popular TV viewing
and were used to neutralize rivals.
In a signed police transcript, Ousmane Conte admitted in February
2009 to taking $300,000 from an alleged drug trafficker who used the
late president's son's name to secure clearance for planes ladened
In 2010, Washington nominated Ousmane Conte a drug kingpin. But,
like others accused of trafficking, the son of the late president
was soon free again.
He has said on national television: "I confess that I have
participated in the trafficking of drugs, but I am not a godfather."
Reuters was not able to reach him for comment.
He is now sidelined. But the Guinean anti-drugs officer said the
network, dubbed "The Untouchables", is back in action: "We fear
they've taken the president hostage. If we don't get international
support, we'll never be able to tackle them."
Dadis Camara, the junta leader who took over after Lansana Conte's
death, fled Guinea after an assassination attempt in December 2009.
Elections were held the following year, bringing to power Conde, a
longstanding figure in the opposition.
Conde took office after years in exile abroad. This has left him
vulnerable and reliant on figures who know the system, according to
a diplomat who follows Guinean politics.
"He doesn't know who to trust ... Once they realized that he barked
but did not bite, the networks reformed," the diplomat said.
Guinea's drug operations initially shifted to smaller Guinea-Bissau
during a crackdown after Conte's death.
But the July memo by Guinea's top anti-drugs unit, which reports
directly to the president, said traffickers had "tactically
withdrawn" back to Guinea after last year's U.S. sting operation in
the smaller country, which missed its target, Guinea-Bissau army
chief General Antonio Injai.
"They had never gone very far. For a number of years, they have been
in touch with Guinea's cocaine networks," the memo said.
IN PLAIN VIEW
In 2010, according to Guinean Supreme Court documents reviewed by
Reuters, the court seized two dozen buildings owned by suspected
traffickers. But legal cases subsequently fell through and the
buildings were returned. They now swell the property portfolios of
people accused by police of trafficking.
One, a half-finished, sky-blue building with a dry-cleaner
downstairs, has risen up just down the road from the drug unit's
headquarters, according to the local anti-narcotics officer.
Government spokesman Camara said cases against traffickers during
military rule had not been properly put together.
"Their lawyers had no problem in taking them apart," he said. "Not
all those traffickers were neutralized. That doesn't mean they are
operating again. I don't believe that."
According to a second international law enforcement officer, several
known foreign traffickers, many of them targeted in the 2008-9
crackdown, live in Conakry. They come from countries including
Colombia, Nigeria, Greece, Brazil and Suriname.
At a conference in Abu Dhabi in November, Conde touted the country
as "open for business" in a bid to woo Gulf investors. He won
billions of dollars in mining investment.
Yet Conde faces a tough battle for re-election in 2016. He must also
accomplish the delicate task of keeping in check the armed forces,
implicated in trafficking.
"We are dealing with a government that lacks the most basic forms of
governance ... If you are a narco, the conditions you would want are
all here," said a second Western diplomat.
The U.S. State Department report said officials tackling trafficking
had been threatened due to their work. A State Department spokesman,
however, said there appeared to be no significant threats to
Guinea's stability from trafficking.
However, the July 2013 memo from Guinea's anti-drug unit challenged
this, calling on Guinea's highest authorities to "neutralize"
traffickers operating in complicity with officials.
"The stability of the country depends on it," it warned.
(Editing by Daniel Flynn and Peter Graff)
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