Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Strikes and the Narco State

So, it seems that right now is the season of strikes in Guinea-Bissau. I told you about the strike that happened a few weeks ago with the drivers protesting against the police. About two weeks ago we had a teachers' strike. I am not sure if it was country-wide but it was in at least all of Bissau. After that there was a hospital workers' strike and then right around that time there was a rice strike. This week the postal workers are on strike, and since there is only one post office in the country this one is definitely country-wide.

I don't think that the strikes usually get good results here, but a few of these recent ones have, so I think that is what is spurring the increase. The drivers got the police to let them pay taxes one time downtown instead of paying the police any time the police happened to ask for it. The teachers had a strike because basically they haven't been paid for almost two years. During their strike the teachers finally got two month's pay and a promise of back pay.

With the rice strike basically what happened was that all of the people who import or sell rice in Bissau hid most of their supplies and told the government that they wanted to be able to sell the 110 pound bags of rice for $30 instead of $25 (the price for several things like that is fixed by the government). The government refused, so after a few days the vendors brought the rice back out and everything is normal now. Pretty much every family here buys a 110 pound bag of rice each month to feed their family, so they all still had rice (or their neighbors had some) so no was starving or anything like that, but people were starting to get a little panicked.

The hospital workers' strike was the saddest. The workers had not been getting paid for a while so they went on a strike. The government would not listen to them and many people started dieing in the hospital so they just ended the strike without getting any money or even the promise of it.

I am not exactly sure the nature of the postal worker's strike, but as near as I can tell it is because they have not been getting paid by the government (have you noticed a theme here...). The last few weeks that Jason and I have gone to the post office we have noticed big bags of mail sitting back in the room where we pick up packages, and we have not had any packages to pick up. All of the bags have country names on them, but we don't know if they outgoing or incoming. We know that many packages have been sent to us and should have arrived by now, so our guess is that they are all sitting in those bags, and since the workers knew that they were going to strike they just have not been working for a few weeks. It almost makes me want to run in there screaming like a crazy woman so that people will be afraid of me and then lock myself in that room so that I can look through the bags and get our stuff. Erica has one package that she has been waiting on for three months. She is leaving in two weeks, so I am sure she would appreciate finally getting it. Jason wants to volunteer to work as a scab in the post office, but I don't think that would be a good idea. J

Moving on to something totally unrelated, the other day I was looking around for something on the internet and I came across an article with an attention-catching headline. It was really interesting, so I thought I would share with you guys.

(Here is the URL: )

Drug barons turn Bissau into Africa's first narco-state

By Jonathan Miller in Bissau

Published: 18 July 2007

Welcome to Africa's first narco-state, a country with just 1.5 million people but a roaring drugs trade. Every day an estimated one tonne of pure Colombian cocaine is thought to be transiting through the mainland's mangrove swamps and the chain of islands that make up Guinea-Bissau, most of it en route to Europe.

Western intelligence sources describe it as "the worst drugs trafficking problem we've ever encountered on the [African] continent", and admit they have been blind-sided by the sheer scale of it. "The more we learn, the more we're shocked by the numbers involved. We've all been slow off the mark," said one top US Drug Enforcement Agency official in Europe.

Conservative estimates suggest monthly cocaine trans-shipments through this tiny former Portuguese colony on the West African coast are worth more than 10 times its gross annual national earnings, which mostly come from the export of unprocessed cashew nuts. The World Bank ranks Guinea-Bissau as the fifth poorest country in the world, yet flash cars with no plates brazenly cruise the streets of the crumbling capital, Bissau.

Western narcotics and intelligence agencies believe that up to two small twin-engine aircraft carrying up to 800kg of cocaine are landing on airstrips in Guinea- Bissau every night, having crossed the Atlantic from South America. The street value of a tonne of cocaine on the streets of European capitals is roughly £50m.

From the mangrove swamps and inlets that line its 400-mile Atlantic coast, and from an archipelago of 90 offshore islands, the cocaine is shipped northwards. Some leaves by ship, hidden in timber or containers. Some goes by light aircraft; some relies on the organised crime networks used to smuggle illegal immigrants into Europe; and some is carried by "mules" .

Last week, the country's leading human rights advocate, Mario Sa Gomes, launched a scathing attack on state complicity in drugs trafficking, which he said was "threatening the dignity of the people of Guinea- Bissau and our territorial integrity".

In a national radio broadcast, he said: "The quickest way to find a solution is the immediate dismissal of the heads of the armed forces and the police." Within an hour, an arrest warrant had been issued for Mr Gomes, who went into hiding. Interior Ministry police repeatedly visited his family home. His father, Jean Gomes, said: "I am worried because I think if they catch him they will kill him." We later interviewed Mario Sa Gomes in secret. He said: "What I say is true; everybody knows that in Guinea- Bissau the power is with the military. This is an international war we are fighting. We need protection." He said that he knew he was risking his life by speaking out.

And if the size of recent cocaine seizures by police in Senegal are anything to go by, the tonnage getting through must be enormous if, as enforcement officials say, the drugs being intercepted represent only a small proportion of the total.

The most frequent visa stamp to appear in passports recently seized in Senegal from three Colombians was that of Guinea- Bissau. An identity card, found with the passports, provided one Colombian with residency in Guinea- Bissau. It was issued by the Ministry of the Interior.

Guinea-Bissau's Interior Minister, Major Baciro Dabo, and the head of the navy, Jose Americo Bubu Na Tchutu, are alleged by multiple sources to be key facilitators of the trade.

The Interior Minister denies that his country is the newest narco-state, and the navy chief says he is not involved in any drugs trade.

"I just sit there waiting for evidence," Admiral Na Tchutu said. " Whether today, tomorrow or in a thousand years, I will never be a drugs trafficker."