Guinea Bissau: Poor data and the rise of the ‘narco-state’ narrative


In recent years, the media has applied the contentious term ‘narco-state’ to a number of West African countries, including Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde, on account of the increased volumes of cocaine being trafficked through the region and the impact of this illicit activity on governance and security. The heightened prominence of West Africa in the trafficking of cocaine from South America to Western Europe follows from the strengthening of European interdiction efforts along the established cocaine routes in the Caribbean, which has led to a displacement of trafficking activity through the politically and economically fragile states of West Africa. However, as highlighted in a GDPO interview with Chief Inspector Daniel Carril, Attaché for Home Affairs in the Spanish Embassies in Bissau and Praia (Cape Verde) there is a paucity of data and empirical information on the volume of trafficking, with implications for the conclusions and recommendations that have been all too quickly drawn about the ‘threats’ facing West Africa, and the ‘narco state’ of Guinea Bissau in particular.

The interview began with Carril  outlining that there are only three Western European Embassies in Guinea Bissau: France, Portugal and Spain, with the Spanish Embassy only recently established in 2007. According to Carril Spain’s initial interest in the country was motivated by the significant increase in Sub-Saharan immigrants arriving on the Spanish coast during the so-called ‘cayucos crisis’ – cayucos referring to the small boats landing African migrants on the Canary Islands.

However, the attention given to this issue was quickly re-focused as a result of the increase in cocaine trafficking through Guinea Bissau. This alarmed Western governments in that it opened up new routes to West European drug markets, offsetting the ‘success’ of strengthened interdiction efforts in the Caribbean. The subsequent strengthening of radical Islamist movements in the wider sub region in turn produced a swift re-ordering of priorities. In Carril’s analysis: ‘’the concern about drug trafficking is more related to the financing of terrorism than with the problem of drug consumption in Western countries’. However, Carril continues that: ‘From my point of view, the international agencies do not have a big interest in understanding the problem in depth but at the same time they are interested in maintaining the high threat level in order to justify their presence and levels of funding’.

Information about the levels of drugs transiting West Africa remains scarce and existing material lacks reliability and consistency. Even the World Drug Report published annually by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) fails to give a comprehensive picture of the region (see, for example, sections focused on West Africa in the World Drug Reports for 2012 and 2013).  Acknowledging the paucity of data, the 2012 World Drug Report outlines that: ‘Considerable challenges also remain in the reporting of trend data on illicit drug use, production and trafficking. The main challenges continue to be the availability and reporting of data on different aspects of illicit drug demand and supply in Member States. The lack of data is particularly acute in Africa [emphasis added] and parts of Asia, where data on the prevalence of illicit drug use and trends remain vague at best.’ WDR 2012, Executive Summary pg. 3

Nevertheless, despite the lack of empirical quantitative or qualitative information, the 2013 World Drug Report forges a nexus between drugs, organised crime and state failure: The trends in new emerging routes for trafficking of drugs and in the production of illicit substances indicate that the continent of Africa is increasingly becoming vulnerable to the drug trade and organized crime, although data from the African region is scarce [emphasis added]. While this may further fuel political and economic instability in many countries in the region, it can also lead to an increase in the local availability and consumption of illicit substances. This, therefore, requires the international community to invest in evidence-informed interventions for the prevention of drug use, the treatment of drug dependence, the successful interdiction of illicit substances and the suppression of organized crime. The international community also needs to make the necessary resources available to monitor the drug situation in Africa.’ WDR 2013, Preface pg. iv

Carril noted that ‘most of the references to the levels of drug trafficking in Guinea-Bissau are speculative, not even estimates. None of the international agencies in the country seem to be conducting fieldwork. So I don’t really know where the data used by international bodies comes from.’

Carill is not alone in questioning the data and his analysis is in line with others such as the West African Commission on Drugs and also the UNODC itself, which support the call for better data gathering and analysis on illicit drugs in Western Africa. For example, one of the key objectives of the West African Commission on Drugs is to develop evidence-based policy recommendations, as set out by the Commission: In order to fully understand the scale and impact of trafficking and growing drug consumption, and to be able to make evidence based policy recommendations, the Commission will use available data and analysis, which will be compiled into a series of background papers to help shape the direction of the Commission’s work programme. New research work would only be initiated if gaps are clearly apparent in the currently available information.’

Unlike many journalists and international civil servants working in the region, Carril is reluctant to consider Guinea Bissau a ‘narco-state’: ‘Guinea-Bissau is not a ‘narco-state’ and drug trafficking is not the main problem in the country. What is happening in this country is not a consequence of drugs. The problems of poor governance and corruption occurred before drug trafficking organizations arrived, and will continue to happen in the future even if the level of drugs transiting through decrease or disappear’.

For Carril, labelling Guinea-Bissau a ‘narco-state’ deflects from serious scrutiny of the drivers of the country’s economic, political and security problems. Moreover the use of the term is highly politicised and discriminatory:  ‘If Guinea-Bissau is a ‘narco-state’, then Gambia, Senegal and Guinea (Conakry) could also be seen as ‘narco-states’ as well. Even Spain. I doubt very much that more drugs transit through Guinea-Bissau than Spain. This analysis seems to be self-interested’.

As Carril concludes:  ‘It’s easier to blame a little country for what is happening in the region while there is neither any solution on the table nor the courage to demand explanations from the more powerful states’.

This interview formed part of the research for GDPO’s forthcoming briefing ‘Telling the story of drugs in West Africa: The newest front in a losing war?’ that will be launched on 2nd December 2013 along with our new website.