A Big Double Murder Jolts Africa's Cocaine Hub

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Left; John Thys / AFP / Getty: Jose Sousa Dias / EPA

Guinea Bissau President Joao Bernado "Nino" Vieira, left, was shot dead after a bomb attack killed country's military chief of staff General Tagme Na Wai, right, in the capital of Bissau, March 2, 2009.

Guinea-Bissau is one of the Colombia cartels' most critical points for smuggling cocaine into Europe and, just before dawn on Monday, the tiny West African country plunged into a political power vacuum. At that moment, the long-time president of the country was shot dead in his home just hours after an armed attack on the military headquarters killed his Army chief of staff. The two men were adversaries in a bitter power struggle, one that had fueled a civil war in the late 1990s.

Military officers close to the Army chief of staff General Batista Tagme Na Wai blamed those loyal to the president for the military leader's death as a massive explosion destroyed the building he was in on Sunday. Shortly after that incident, according to a Reuters journalist in the capital Bissau, Angolan diplomats took the country's First Lady into safekeeping while President João Bernado Vieira — known by his nickname "Nino" — apparently refused to flee his home. He was reportedly shot in the head by Na Wai's loyalists. (See pictures of Africa's cocaine hub.)

Residents in Bissau said on Monday that they had hidden inside their houses overnight, listening to gunshots resound across the city for hours, until they subsided at about 5 a.m. "Everyone is shocked," the former Minister of Finance Isifou Sanha said by phone from Bissau. "There must be a call to respect the constitution." Military leaders said on Guinea-Bissau radio stations yesterday that they would follow the constitution, by allowing the head of the parliament to run the country until new elections, which are supposed to be held within 60 days. Yet with billions of dollars of illegal drug revenues in the impoverished country some political analysts predict that instability will continue. "Rivalries over control of narcotics trafficking may be at the heart of the schism between military and the presidency," said Jonas Horner, Africa Associate of the Eurasia Group in Washington in a statement yesterday.

Viera had publicly criticized the drug traffickers yet seemed powerless to prevent them from opeating in his country — perhaps partly because of the involvement of some top military officers, according to regional sources. In an interview with TIME in Bissau in 2007, a high-ranking West African military officer who asked not to be named said Guinea-Bissau's government and mlitary allowed drug traffickers to operate "not because of a lack of resources but a lack of political will."

The deaths could rip the country apart along tribal lines. Na Wai came from the large Balante tribe, whose members fought in the war of independence against Portugal in 1974, and who have dominated the military ever since. Vieira came from the far smaller Pepel tribe. Soldiers drove Vieira from the country in 1999, but he returned in 2005 after he won a presidential election. "This is the final reckoning of accounts between two personalities who always fought each other," Antonio Mazzitelli, regional director for West Africa for the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, told TIME by phone from Senegal. "The fear I have is that it could generate an ethnic crisis."

The two men's killings come after months of turmoil among the country's neighbors, in a region which has been beset by Latin American drug traffickers, who are increasingly using West Africa as a way station for cocaine smuggling into Europe. Military officers in neighboring Guinea mounted a coup last December hours after that country's president Lansana Conte died. Conte's administration had been seen as particularly friendly to the foreign drug lords. Last week, Guinea's military coup leaders arrested several politicians and military officers in the capital Conakry, charging them with drug smuggling for the Colombian cartels. The late President's son Ousmane Conte — whom U.N. drug officials have long believed was involved in large-scale cocaine deals — went on national television to confess his involvement with his "Colombian friends."

Beginning around 2005, Colombian traffickers began arriving in Guinea Bissau, smuggling in cocaine worth about 10 times the country's annual GDP, according to U.N. officials. The cartels found ideal terrain for their massive trafficking operations. The dirt-poor country has few natural resources and only 1.6 million people. And there are dozens of remote tropical islands, with about 24 airfields built during colonial days. There the traffickers flew small aircraft, dropping hundreds of pounds of cocaine almost weekly direct from Colombia. According to European Union drug reports, the cocaine was then smuggled in small quantities into Europe. The government in Bissau has had little means to prevent the smuggling, and almost no patrol boats with which to watch its coastline.

When I visited Bissau in April 2007, members of the judicial police would speak to me only in secret, for fear of being attacked by drug traffickers. The small force — which had not been paid for four months — operated out of a cluster of crumbling buildings with no telephones or electricity. Four cars — the entire fleet of the judicial police — sat idle on the premises. The police had no money to pay for gas.

Two months ago the judicial police finally moved into new offices, funded by the E.U., with telephones, computers and cars, according to Mazzitelli. Drug Enforcement Agency spokesman Garrison Courtney said by phone from Washington that the agency is also increasing its involvement in West Africa. "We are working a lot closer with our African counterparts to share information," he said. "We are opening new offices in West Africa." Despite the upheaval Mazzitelli believes that the deaths of two men, who have wielded huge power in Guinea-Bissau for decades, could help to pave the way to democracy. "This could be a golden opportunity for the international community, and for Guinea-Bissau, to move ahead, get rid of the past, and reform the security sector," he says. That all depends, though, on who fills the power vacuum in the country. The drug lords of Colombia may well want to have a say.

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