The first indication that the men cutting down cashew trees and filling in the ditch outside Quinta's house in central Guinea-Bissau were not, as they told her, evangelicals making a clearing for a Christmas Day parade came at 9 p.m. on Dec. 18, when they returned in several cars accompanied by four white men and with a truck loaded with drums of aviation fuel. At 11 p.m., 20 soldiers arrived on a second truck and divided themselves into two groups. After setting up two checkpoints 2 km apart in Quinta's village, Amedalae, the soldiers began unloading hundreds of large aluminum cooking bowls and placing them between the roadblocks, down both sides of the road. Then they filled the bowls with paraffin and lit them. "The light was amazing," says Quinta, 62, who asked that her last name be withheld for her safety. "You'd have thought you were in Europe."
At midnight Quinta heard a plane approaching. The twin prop touched down on the road, taxied up to Quinta's house, then turned side-on, its nose and tail just fitting inside the clearing. The pilot cut the engines and threw open the cargo door. Pulling up in the two trucks, the civilians pumped fuel into the plane's tanks while the soldiers formed a human chain to unload the plane. "The plane was full of big, white sacks the kind you take to sell secondhand clothes at market," says Quinta. "They filled one truck, then the other, then covered both trucks with tarpaulins." The entire operation landing, refueling and off-loading perhaps two tons of cocaine took 30 minutes. As soon as it was done, the pilot started his engines, took off and banked away. The soldiers and civilians left immediately afterward.
The tiny nation of Guinea-Bissau today is the most brazen example of what happens when Latin America's cocaine traffickers notice that halfway to Europe and just a four-hour flight across the Atlantic are a series of small, corruptible West African countries with scant airport security and no air forces or navies to speak of. In the time since smugglers moved in eight years ago, cocaine shipments to Europe have quintupled, to 350 tons a year and the effect on West Africa has been disastrous. Since 2008, even as much of the continent has exploded economically, West Africa has seen five coups (Guinea-Bissau, Guinea-Conakry, Mali, Mauritania and Niger), two attempted coups (Gambia and Guinea-Conakry), two civil wars (Ivory Coast and Mali) and several assassinations. "Because many of these countries are emerging from serious civil wars and conflicts, they have no capacity to protect themselves against illicit drug traffic," says Yuri Fedotov, executive director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). "[Then cocaine becomes] another factor for destabilization [and an] impediment to their development."
The impact is felt far beyond Africa, however. While the harm to Europe's health from drugs is obvious, the real danger may be to global security. In early 2011 the U.S. Treasury accused the Lebanese Shi'ite militants Hizballah a U.S.-designated terrorist group of financing itself via West African cocaine smuggling. This year cocaine cash helped Mali's Islamist militants, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the group's North African franchise, buy up large parts of Muammar Gaddafi's arsenal after the former Libyan dictator was deposed. They then seized the entire north of Mali, establishing a de facto al-Qaeda state just a three-hour flight south of Europe. The Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in the Libyan city of Benghazi in which local militants with ideological and personal links to Mali's Islamists killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens underscored just how unstable the region has become and highlighted the threat posed by North Africa's suddenly well-armed and well-financed Islamists.
In our globalized world, the idea of a part of the map so off the grid as to allow cocaine, Islamists and Gaddafi's weapons to meet and fuse may come as a shock. But this is the surreal reality now confronting the West. "This is not a small game," says a Western diplomat in Guinea-Bissau who requested anonymity because he is concerned for his own safety. "This is about financing terrorism on Europe's southern border, about drug money from Guinea-Bissau and Mali being used for a bomb in London." Adds another diplomat based in Mali's capital of Bamako: "The mission for the international community is to keep this from moving from where it is now, a really bad dream, to a total nightmare."