Home / Africa / Europe’s back door left wide open: The role of Guinea-Bissau in drug trafficking

Europe’s back door left wide open: The role of Guinea-Bissau in drug trafficking

2 March, 2021

By Mette Kaalby Vestergaard – Research Assistant

A history of political instability

On December 31, 2020, the United Nations Secretary-General issued a statement noting the “closure of United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Guinea-Bissau after completing its mandate.” While the mission has primarily supported political stability in the country, its activities also included work against drug trafficking. The UN Secretary-General’s strategic assessment of the organization’s role sets out that there will now be a turn towards a larger focus on development and human rights. Moreover, it concluded that political stability has improved since 1999 and determined that the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) will now play a bigger role in “strengthening the capacity of the citizens.”

Dating back to 1999, the UN has been assisting the country in establishing a stable and secure political and social environment through peacekeeping missions. Since independence in 1974, the country has struggled with political instability, and from just 2015 till 2021, Guinea-Bissau had 8 different prime ministers, which exemplifies the level of political unrest. The main causes for these switches have been coup d’états. While the focus in the closing words on the mission was on the political improvements, it was also written in the strategic assessment that “…there has been modest signs of progress towards a national commitment to countering drug trafficking and transnational organized crime.”

A transit hub

Located in West Africa, Guinea-Bissau, with its 1.8 million people, constitutes what has for many years been a fragile state located in between Senegal and Guinea. Since its independence from Portugal after more than 10 years of civil war, the country has suffered from bloody political crises at regular intervals and a civil war similar to those which occurred in other West African states in the 1990s. Beside the overshadowing problem of not being able to sustain a stable governing system, the country is struggling with networks of drug trafficking – a problem that is not new, but has proven hard to combat in the given security context. Consequently, Guinea-Bissau has, for the last two decades, also been referred to as a narco-state by several media outlets.

In 2020, cocaine was the leading illegal stimulant used in the Americas and Western Europe, along with a number of West African states. It is in the Andes mountains in Columbia that the primary part of this production takes place. In the 1990s, the main transport route on the sea to Europe ended around the now heavily policed waters of Spain and Morocco. For this sort of organized crime, the main goal is to maximize profit at the lowest risk of being captured. As such, a change was seen at the beginning of the 2000s. Hereafter, the drugs were transported overseas to the West African Coast and continued north-east to Europe through the Sahel region. Since then, the route has only increased in popularity. The smuggling methods identified in the region have primarily been both by air and by sea, using persons, shipping containers, live animals and the mixing of drugs and petroleum products. For these operations, Guinea-Bissau has not only been the perfect geographical location, but also provided institutional and structural conditions enabling the activities. Furthermore, recent armed conflict in the Sahel region, involving Islamic terror groups, points us towards alliances that make the fighting of these networks complex.

Context: Political and military elite involvement

Besides the perfect geographical location, several structural conditions have contributed to the development of smuggling networks over the past 20 years. Back in 2007, The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) underlined the increasing role of Guinea-Bissau in the drug trade in West Africa, due to its poor levels of law enforcement and its role as an ungoverned space for smugglers. As such, Guinea-Bissau fulfils the conditions perfectly to lay the ground for undisturbed criminal activities. Due to the lack of a stable political system, and consequently a well-functioning and organized security sector, the criminal networks have found a safe haven. There are two elements that contribute to the enabling of this situation, both centred on the government. Firstly, the main threat for the sitting head of state has been the challenge from political rivals and a coup d’etat – the problem of drug trafficking has not had the chance to gain its place as a first priority. Secondly, as will be elaborated on, it has often been proved that the political and security elite is involved in and has gained from the trafficking of drugs.

This leads to the issue of corruption and the role of the Guinea-Bissauan elite in the smuggling of cocaine. It is common that the bigger seizures of drugs involve arresting government officials, who are later convicted for having played central roles in the organizing of the smuggling activities. It is also likely that the combating of this problem in the country will remain low down the list of priorities as long as some of the people in power have an interest in continuing to gain from the trade. It has additionally been argued that this option for the political and military elite to gain from illicit trade is what has led to civil war in the past. Back in the 1990s, it was weapons smuggling by government officials which led to the disruption of the political stability – this today being replaced by drug trafficking. Both before and today the set-up is a protection economy, created around the source of income that is supposed to ensure economic resources for the given government to hold on to power in an unstable environment.

External enablers: The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)

As already noted, the networks involved in drug trafficking are global to an extent that makes the fights against them very complex. An example of this is seen in the case of Guinea-Bissau – namely the relationship between the Colombian rebel and terrorist group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). FARC has several times been connected to the cases of drug smuggling identified by Guinea-Bissauan officials – hence this is not a new phenomenon. More noteworthy is that, in 2013, US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officials arrested FARC members along with members of AQIM.

FARC is, therefore, thought to have an important role to play in the smuggling network. FARC was established in 1964 as the armed forces of the Colombian communist party, but they have beside its armed activities in the country played a crucial role in both production and trafficking of drugs in Colombia and globally. Following the ceasefire agreed upon with the Colombian government, a change has since 2014 been identified in their activities switching from more conventional warfare against the Colombian army to smaller scale attacks and other actions. Linked to this is that, since 2013, there has been a constant increase in the coca cultivation in Colombia.

AQIM is a Salafist group formed in 1998 during the Algerian civil war, and has since then developed into an Islamic terror group working throughout the Sahel region, though primarily present in Mali. Like FARC, AQIM has a history of participating in criminal activities and especially in engaging in relationships where protection of smugglers in the region has been exchanged for money. The relationship between AQIM and organized smugglers is additionally strong due to the weapons that the smugglers can offer. Here it should be noted that the smugglers of weapons and drugs are often engaged in the same networks.

From Guinea-Bissau through the Sahel region

The past ten years of conflicts in the Sahel region, especially in Mali, have only created better conditions for the cocaine trade, as money is needed to finance the wars. Since the 2011 Libyan Civil War, there has also been an increase in the involvement of smugglers with AQIM due to the weapons available after the conflict. This trafficking has enabled other goods to be smuggled as well due to the large amounts of weapons afloat to utilize as a currency.

Some of the largest amounts of cocaine were found in the country in 2019, including a pair of shipments of 800 kilos and 1.8 tonnes. According to the government officials of Guinea-Bissau, the drugs were intended for terrorist groups in the Sahel region. Despite the fact that FARC and AQIM do not share ideologies, it can still be argued that there are good transactional reasons for collaborating on the basis of shared goals. It has been documented that the most typical set up is that AQIM charges FARC a fee, in exchange for protection through the Sahel region. As such, many of the activities included in drug trafficking, such as weapons trading and money laundering, can benefit both groups. Moreover, it should not be ignored that FARC and AQIM share a hatred of the US, although for the most part, this ideological aspect is very much a secondary concern within the drugs trade.

Local impact

Often, involvement in drug smuggling can mean quick and easy money, especially for the youth who have few other economic opportunities. In Guinea-Bissau, these conditions are very much met and can have huge consequences for the citizens. One of the most notable outcomes is that the involvement can lead to young people dropping out of school to engage in drug trafficking. As a trafficking environment makes it easier to gain access to the drugs, it has also led to more abuse among the local citizens caught in the midst of the trade. Beside this, local violence can also rise due to conflict between the criminal groups engaging in the trade, along with the counter-initiatives taken by the government, which involve raids and arrests.

The rise of illicit businesses will also often have an impact on the already existing economy due to money laundering. With the extreme amounts of money that the people in charge of the criminal networks possess, they can start to buy their way into different sectors in the society, which ultimately can lead to a take-over. Though this partial take-over may outwardly look like economic prosperity, few benefits are likely to accrue for normal citizens, and living standards may even fall as wider institutional problems such as corruption grow. This increasing poverty then again make the population easier victims for attraction to entering business involving illicit trade, creating a dysfunctional circle of effects.


While this article does not elaborate on all the dynamics affecting drug trafficking through Guinea-Bissau, it points to some of the major two beside the general regional instability: a corrupt political and military elite and a very experienced and solid South American partner with a lot of experience and know-how. The latter has as such also proved to be a relevant partner for already established armed groups in West Africa.

Due to the nature of officials’ involvement, there is a high level of impunity, which requires changes and training within evidence gathering and law enforcement. For this to be done there is a need for a stable government, which prioritizes the development and integration of such a system. The involvement in the criminal activities by people in power, all the way from military generals to civil society leaders, makes it very tough to combat through campaigns constituted by exactly those groups. To push back against this issue, the international community should therefore assist in better boarder control, both by sea and air as already seen. Subsequently, this should also include more assistance and surveillance by an external body, which can undertake observation targeted at pointing out internal issues of corruption. This, along with a better system of punishment, can reduce incitement for Guinea-Bissauan officials to engage in the trading of drugs. While the UN mission has contributed to the development of capacity, it is now for 2021 to show how much change is left to happen with the mission leaving.

Lastly, it has been warned that a wave of repercussions will follow the withdrawal of the UN mission which took place on the last day of 2020. Prominent will be a fall in international financial support as missions formally handled by the international community will be passed to the national government, along with the after-effects of COVID-19 in the country. This creates further risk for the local population, who will be the ones suffering from the consequences of economic insecurity and potential violence.

About Mette Kaalby Vestergaard

Mette Kaalby Vestergaard holds a MSc. in International Security and Law from University of Southern Denmark and an undergraduate degree in Market and Management Anthropology. She has basic military training, acquaintance with teaching and experience from a peace building NGO in Ghana, where she worked with early warning systems in West Africa. Her research focus is on Sub-Saharan Africa and cross-border conflict dynamics and subsequent risk analysis. Additionally she provides research on topics such as genocide prevention, peace building, R2P, cultural conflicts, civil-military collaboration and military operations.