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Tuesday, January 31, 2006

GUINEA-BISSAU: UN alarmed at rise in drug trafficking

BISSAU, 31 January (IRIN) - Drug trafficking gangs shipping South American narcotics to Europe are using the tiny West African nation of Guinea Bissau as a transit centre, drawn by the cash-strapped government's lack of capacity to tackle the problem, warned UN officials.

A five-day mission led by the head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in West Africa, Antonio Mazzitelli, found that the government's weak border security had attracted international criminal networks to Guinea Bissau.

"Guinea Bissau does not have the capacity to monitor its borders," leading to a dramatic rise in criminal activity, Mazzitelli said at a press conference on Friday.

Last October, Guinea Bissau's top drug enforcement official told IRIN that the country was the main West African transit point for drugs passing illegally to Europe.

The former Portuguese colony is ranked 172 of 177 countries in the UN's Human Development Index. The cash-strapped government has no coast guard, police have no cars and the navy no boats for patrolling national waters where scattered tiny islands make a haven for smugglers.

Even if criminals are caught, there are no high security prisons to house them, police chiefs complain.

Mazzitelli said that the prisons that he had visited were "practically inhuman," with prisoners bundled in cramped cells without electricity or water.

Guinea Bissau police chief, Quintino dos Santos, said that detainees are often released days after being arrested, as even the police consider cells too harsh to inhabit.

Prisoners in Guinea Bissau have to rely on food deliveries from family members because the prison service does not have money or facilities to feed prisoners, dos Santos explained.

Guinea Bissau's justice minister, Namuano Dias, who accompanied the UN mission in their investigations, said the government would like to do more to tackle criminal gangs and drug traffickers.

"The country has the will to tackle this problem, but we lack the means," he said, appealing to the international community for assistance.

Funds don't seem to be a problem for the drug cartels.

As Mazzitelli spoke in the seafront capital Bissau, police arrested four West Africans at the nearby international airport who had arrived from Brazil carrying among them 199 capsules of cocaine in their stomachs.
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