This report has been translated from Portuguese. To read the original report in Expresso, click here.
The farm is on the outskirts of Mansoa, a town two hours inland from Bissau. It’s a cluster of modest houses made of adobe, where three men seem to be standing guard, sitting on plastic chairs. They have no firearms with them. Nor do we see the walls or barbed wire that would be reasonable to find in the refuge of a paramount drug lord.
The guards tell us that general Antonio Indjai is not here. The former Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces is on another farm. We have been looking for him for several days for an interview. The man who led the 2012 "cocaine coup" in Guinea-Bissau prefers to move frequently between his several properties, avoiding the capital whenever possible, despite having a home there. Perhaps this constant change of whereabouts is his way of protecting himself from unwelcome visitors. DEA is interested in him. After failing to capture Indjai in 2013, the US counter-narcotics agency announced last year a $5 million reward to anyone who could provide information leading to the general's arrest and conviction.
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However, it is not for the reward that we have come to Mansoa. It is only because of a portrait. A much-talked-about photograph among the Guinean elite sums up how the country's current president, Umaro Sissoco Embaló, came to power.
The photograph was taken on February 29, 2020, two days after Sissoco proclaimed himself head of state with the support of the military and without waiting for the confirmation of the election results by the Supreme Court of Justice. The picture shows a small group of high-ranking officers on the steps of the presidential palace next to the new head of state and a new prime minister of his choice, Nuno Nabiam. Three of these officers have been indicted in the United States for drug trafficking and placed on European Union and United Nations sanctions lists. One of them, the only one in civilian clothes, is Indjai.
The two largest cocaine seizures ever in Guinea-Bissau happened within six months. And they opened a new clue about drug trafficking.
This appearance in the palace was a big surprise. When the general's number two, Navy Chief Bubo Na Tchuto, was arrested in 2013 in international waters by undercover U.S. agents, Indjai decided at the last minute not to attend the DEA's entrapment but was eventually exposed. Shortly after that, he was removed as Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces and announced that he would devote himself to farming. Indjai would retire from public life and also from the trafficking scheme. At least, apparently. With his self-exile, there were no longer any major cocaine seizures in Guinea-Bissau, and the label of narco-state with which some experts had identified the country since 2007 seemed to have lost its raison d'être.
But was it like that? Months before that photograph on the palace steps, signs of the existence of a vast corridor for cocaine began to surface again, breaking a long period of invisibility. The two most significant cocaine seizures ever happened within six months, and with that, an unexpected light showed just how far this corridor goes.
The horse mackerel problem
In early March 2019, the French intelligence services noticed the strange behavior of a Nigerian businessman, Mohamed Sidi Ahmed, who had settled in Bissau a few days ago, renting a villa and establishing a tire import company in a warehouse. They saw Ahmed install in a five-star hotel a Senegalese driver of a refrigerator truck and a young man who just had arrived from Mali. Why was this businessman being so generous?
When two other individuals from Mali, Oumar Ould Mohamed and Mohamed Bem Ahmed Mahri, joined the group a couple of days later, this convinced the French agents that something serious might happen. Parliamentary elections were scheduled for the following week, March 10, and there would be rallies happening all over the country.
The French warned the Judiciary Police and the Guinean government. "I thought it was a terrorist activity, an attack on European expatriates, on a hotel, as had happened for example in Burkina Faso," recalls then Prime Minister Aristides Gomes. Several other hypotheses were raised. "We are in a refuge area for terrorists pursued in the Sahel region."
The day before the elections, the driver went with the refrigerator truck to a fish store in the historic center of Bissau and loaded 500 boxes of horse mackerel, which is known in Portuguese as carapau. "They were going to transport the fish having Mali as their destination," recalls Filomena Mendes Lopes, then director of the Judicial Police. "But after we set close surveillance, we were able to find out that it wasn't about buying and selling horse mackerel. They were traffickers."
Hours later, just outside Bissau, Judicial Police inspectors intercepted the truck. Four suspects were arrested, including the Nigerien tire entrepreneur. But Oumar Ould Mohamed and Mohamed Bem Ahmed Mahri, the two Malians who most intrigued the French agents, managed to escape.
There was a more pressing concern for the police. The inspectors took the truck to a warehouse in the fishing port of Alto Bandim, on the northern edge of the city, and had to face a dilemma. If they took out all the boxes of horse mackerel and the cocaine was not hidden in the refrigerator, the fish might thaw, and they would have no money to compensate the suspects for this loss. So they decided to stay overnight at the warehouse and wait for a solution to pack the horse mackerel in coolers.
Rouggy, who is behind the cocaine seized in Operation Horse Mackerel, is the uncle of "El Chapo du Sahel," the biggest trafficker in this African region.
The Ministry of the Sea was willing to refrigerate the fish, but that took time, and the long waiting meant they had to address other risks. The Judiciary Police had set up Operation Carapau without ever informing the Public Ministry because they had indications that some prosecutors were involved with the drug trafficking network. The news, however, spread quickly, and a prosecutor appeared on the scene accompanied by a defense attorney. They wanted to release the truck.
The pressure was high. According to sources who took part in the operation, an aide to the back-then President José Mário Vaz called an inspector to inform him that the truck contained boxes with filled ballots. Aristides Gomes admits the President himself called him to unblock the situation and let the car continue its journey. The former Prime Minister doesn’t want to say more. "That's for historians to tell one day."
The police officers eventually unloaded the 500 boxes of fish at the Alto Bandim fishing port, within the city limits. The structure of the refrigerated truck had been modified. They took hundreds of small packages from a concealed compartment. The packages had a mark inscribed on them. "TBE - The Best Ever." In all, they found 789 kilograms of cocaine hidden.
Sidi Ahmed, the businessman who had lodged the driver and his Malian helper in the Ledger Hotel, had a diplomatic passport, and a card identified him as special advisor to Niger's national assembly president. It was not the only surprising fact to come to light. A report by the Lusa news agency, based on an unidentified police source, said that the truck owner was linked to Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, AQIM. But there would be no further references to this terrorist group.
At the end of the Operation Carapau trial in November 2019, Sidi Ahmed was sentenced to 15 years in prison, while the truck driver and his helper coming from Mali took 14-year sentences. The judgment did not explore the possible relationship of the case to the president of Niger's parliament. More intriguing than that: the two other Malian suspects followed by the French secret services were left out of the criminal case. Who were these characters? And what connection could they have with Al-Qaeda?
The answer to that is no longer in Guinea-Bissau.
Silence by the riverside
Bamako is a sprawling city, crossed by a river, the Niger, and dominated by heavy motorcycle traffic. With almost three million inhabitants, where squares and a place that could be called the center are lacking, life is invariably spent under the trees. Their wide canopies shade open-air restaurants. At night, darkness spreads through the city's southern neighborhoods, interrupted only by lightning.
White people are rarely seen walking around. There has been a recent coup d'état led by a military junta, and the political scene is unstable and unpredictable. It is the second coup in less than a year. Travel to the country has been advised against by the United States and the European Union. Although the situation is especially dangerous outside the capital, the terrorist threat is also high in Bamako, “in public places frequented by westerners," where there is a risk of kidnapping, according to the Portuguese consular services.
David Dembele, a local reporter, sets us up with Amadou Bamba Niang, who is in charge of the Network of Investigative Journalists against Drugs and Organized Crime, RJIDC. Amadou welcomes us in the courtyard of a small building that is the headquarters of several newspapers. In a crowded office and documents, Amadou shows us the map of the country and points to northern Mali in the Sahel. "This is a no man's land, where the state has virtually no control."
"In the drug dossier and other dossiers related to organized crime, that is the region where the problems exist," Amadou explains. The desert makes everything harder. "The criminals have a strong connection with the rebel groups. They are often linked to the MNLA [National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad], or to the AAD [Ansar al-Din], a movement very close to Al-Qaeda."
Before traveling to Mali, we gathered some information from police sources about the two suspects who disappeared from Bissau during Operation Carapau, including their places and dates of birth. Oumar Ould Mohamed was born in 1977 in Gao, and Mohamed Bem Ahmed Mahri, better known as Rouggy, was born in 1979 in Tabankort.
Gao and Tabankort are cities in northern Mali. They are beyond Timbuktu, on the way to Algeria, in the middle of the Sahel desert. "Everyone knows that trafficking exists in the region, but no one can say that they have investigated it and have been able to track it accurately," admits Amadou. "If you travel there, it's clear that you won't be able to come back. The proof is that we have two recent cases. One of our journalist colleagues was kidnapped on the edge of the Mopti area, and recently another French journalist working with an organization in Mali was kidnapped because he wanted to go to gather information in Gao."
But some information has been produced, despite the enormous difficulties on the ground. In 2020, more than a year after the seizure of cocaine hidden behind boxes of horse mackerel in Bissau, a report on Mali by a UN Security Council panel of experts identified Rouggy as being linked to that and other cases.
The Guinea-Bissau police sent an arrest warrant for Rouggy and Oumar to Mali, but it was later cancelled.
According to that report, the trafficker was linked not only to the cocaine found in Bissau, but also to other drug seizures in West Africa, including 2.5 tons of cannabis seized in Niger's capital, Niamei, in June 2018, and another 12-ton shipment intercepted in Morocco in April 2019. The hashish cargo seized in Morocco was found inside a truck and was bound for a company in Bamako, Sanfo Commerce et Service (SCS), with the same name as the company established in Bissau by Sidi Ahmed, the man arrested by the Judiciary Police with a Niger diplomatic passport during Operation Carapau.
Rouggy was identified as being behind several front companies in Mali and some countries in the region, including Morocco, Niger, and Algeria. These include Tilemsi Distribution, which is based in Gao and is also present in Niger under that name and in Algeria under a slightly different name, Tilamsi.
Since July 2019, Rouggy has been on the United Nations sanctions list, not only because of drug trafficking, but also for human trafficking and arms trafficking. According to his file on the sanctions website, the businessman uses the money from drug trafficking to finance Al-Mourabitoun, a movement described as being linked to terrorism by "participating in the financing, planning, facilitation, preparation or perpetration of acts or activities, in conjunction with, on behalf of, on account of, or in support of" Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI).
The Security Council's panel of experts also found that Rouggy has very powerful allies in the state of Mali. In the August 2020 report, the then head of the all-powerful Directorate General of State Security, the DGSE, General Moussa Diawara, and his number two, Colonel Ibrahima Sanogo, responsible, ironically, for counter-terrorism, were named as having received bribes to put pressure on the government of Niger to secure the release of Rouggy's network members arrested in that country, as well as Islamist fighters, suspected of terrorism. Diawara was fired when the report came out, and was eventually arrested a year later, a few days before we arrived in Mali, albeit for other reasons.
This web of close relations with the state explains, in part, why no one seems very enthusiastic in Bamako about the prospect of coming forward on anything that might be linked to drug trafficking schemes. After months of preliminary contacts made with the help of Dembele, who is my colleague at the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the ICIJ, and although appointments were made and we even spent one day at the public prosecutor's office and another at the national police headquarters waiting for interviews, they did not materialize.
After a few days, however, our stay turns out to be productive. Some information comes to us off the record, helping us to understand the true scope of Operation Carapau in Mali.
According to one of the sources we met, Rouggy is the uncle of Sherif Ould Tahar, an individual with dual Algerian and Malian nationality, known in some circles as El chapo du Sahel, and considered the biggest trafficker in the entire West African region.
The proximity to El chapo du Sahel is, moreover, recognized by the Security Council's panel of experts. Both Rouggy and Tahar are part of the Lemhars tribe in the Tilemsi valley.
The Lemhars created the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) in 2011, which was once part of al-Qaeda. MUJAO's spokesman, Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, later became head of the al-Mourabitoun movement – which Rouggy is currently associated with, according to his sanctions file. In 2015, al-Sahrawi left this group to found the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, and was killed in a drone strike by French special forces in August last year.
When we did a stopover in Dakar to meet the director for the Sahel of the International Crisis Group, Jean-Hervé Jezequel, we were warned not to be too quick to catalog the chaotic situation in which northern Mali and its characters find themselves. "The Sahel is a space in crisis. It is an area where there are many political-military groups, including jihadist groups," Jezequel admits, stressing that competition among them to capture resources is great. "The competition introduced by drugs may not be the main reason why there is an epidemic of violence in the Sahel, but it is part of those reasons and there are links between the traffickers and the armed groups."
The intersection and overlaps between rebels, terrorists, traffickers, middlemen, and government members make it impossible to draw rigid boundaries.
In Bamako, they finally decide to welcome us to the OCS, the central counter-trafficking agency. The building is on a muddy street. It has the appearance of a neighborhood police station. In an inner courtyard, there are motorcycles parked and a few policemen walk around the corridors in plain clothes. One of the deputy directors, Tiantio Diarra, gives us a formal interview, assuring that "the fight against drugs is a major concern of the authorities" and that this fight is "fierce”.
A decade after the Sinaloa cartel emerged in association with an airline pilot arrested in Bissau, Operation Navarra exposed a Mexican drug trafficker.
That statement doesn't seem to match the lack of results that Diarra has to present. The police occasionally intercept passengers with small amounts of drugs at the airport – known as mules – but there are usually no large seizures of cocaine carried by land.
The OCS deputy director, on the other hand, is unaware of the connection to Guinea-Bissau and does not seem very interested in talking about Rouggy, although his entire history with trafficking is no secret. At the end of the interview, however, there is a note of hope: we are allowed to talk to the head of the OCS intelligence department.
Contrary to what we might expect from someone in his position at the head of an intelligence department, Colonel Ag Dahmane agrees to answer our questions openly, with the tape recorder on. According to him, the Guinean authorities issued arrest warrants against Rouggy and Oumar right after the cocaine seizure in Operation Carapau. "We looked for them, but they were not here. What we found out is that Rouggy was in Mauritania at the time," says the colonel.
The case was being followed by DEA from Dakar. "But what happened was that after two weeks at the most, Interpol sent a new information from Guinea-Bissau cancelling those previous warrants," Ag Dahmane says. "From that point on, there wasn't much we could do. Our investigation here was dependent on the criminal case in Bissau, and without that, we were no longer able to continue. We knew that they traveled from Bamako to Dakar and from Dakar to Bissau at the time of the events, but we had no concrete evidence that they were part of the trafficking scheme." We also learned that Oumar, the man who traveled to Bissau with Rouggy, is a sort of guide. "He speaks Portuguese and other languages. He is a polyglot. From what I understand he bridges the gap between people from different places."
The colonel also clarifies that Rouggy has never been in prison in Mali and that officially he is just a businessman. "He has a cargo and passenger transport company," Telemsi Transport, which is well known in the country. In addition, he is an important point of contact between the government in Bamako and Al-Qaeda or other movements, whenever hostages need to be released. "They turn to him when it is needed. Not only the Malian government, but even European governments, when they want to negotiate the release of people."
Rouggy's tribe has been smuggling for many years and controls an ancient route between Mali and Algeria. "Before the drug trade existed, they already had all the logistics set up for business with tobacco, fuel and supplies," the colonel frames. Cocaine came to bring just one more source of income, although much more lucrative than the previous ones.
The OCS intelligence chief says that the drugs end up arriving quietly and unchallenged in Mali because the "borders are porous." They use two routes. Either it comes from Guinea-Bissau through Guinea-Conakry and from there goes on to Mali, or else it comes via Senegal, as in the case of Operation Carapau, passing through Tambacounda, an inland city. "We have knowledge that there are many Nigeriens settled in Mali bringing cocaine from Guinea-Bissau by land, although in relatively small quantities, 100, 200 kilos."
At the end of the conversation we had in his office, the colonel makes one last revelation to us. The information he has, albeit informal, is that the route is controlled by the Sinaloa cartel in Mexico. "What we know is that they are behind the logistics of transporting large quantities." Ag Dahmane admits, however, that there is no cooperation with the Mexican authorities to clear up these suspicions.
Sinaloa is, for now, just a name on the table.
An archipelago in the dark
In Bissau, we missed our ride to Bubaque, one of the main islands of the Bijagós archipelago. The owner of a hotel told us that we could go on a speedboat scheduled to take several guests, but the arrangement is cancelled at the last minute, and we are left hanging on the pier with all our filming equipment on a late Saturday afternoon, without any prospects.
After a desperate search among the companies set up at the port, we find someone who agrees to take us, albeit at three times the price. Instead of the hour and a half we were promised, the sea's rough state makes the trip drag on for four hours, more than half of it in total darkness. Water enters from all sides, while the two sailors remain silent, focused on steering the boat.
When we arrive in Bubaque, we realize that what happened to us is not unheard of. Speedboats also do services when the weather is bad, and sailing in the dark between the islands is customary.
The port of Bubaque has a small market of sheet metal stores under a giant ceiba tree, where all the birds in the vicinity seem to concentrate at the end of the day, along with a large number of young people looking for work opportunities. Many of them are available to help carry suitcases and bags ashore. The luckier ones have their own cargo motorcycles, equipped with a trailer.
A local contact arranges for us to meet someone willing to talk off the record about how things work with the drug trade. He shows up at the hotel where we are staying, for a conversation at the table. "They usually recruit speedboat pilots here in Bubaque. They are very well paid. The service is simple: they have to drive at night, lights off, between the islands."
There are also rumors regarding the involvement of some of the foreign hotel owners in trafficking, but there are no criminal cases to attest to this, nor is there any news about it.
Before we came to the archipelago, Luís Vaz Martins, a lawyer and activist who was once president of the Guinean League for Human Rights, explained to us in Bissau how, in any case, there is no control of what goes on in the islands. "It is a lost territory" and "permeable" to drug trafficking, he says.
The lack of surveillance, the exuberant nature of the islands, capable of hiding anything, and the proximity to the mainland make the Bijagós the main entrance for cocaine in Guinea-Bissau. Because of this, the Judiciary Police decided to install an outpost in Bubaque. The project is from the time of Filomena Mendes Lopes, before she resigned as director of the corporation following Sissoco's inauguration, but international experts we spoke to who follow the situation in the country have doubts about how effective this post on the islands will be in curbing trafficking. Because there is nothing else. There is a boat anchored at the port that was offered in 2017 by the Spanish authorities to monitor the waters of the archipelago, but it never goes out to do patrols. We are told it is broken down.
On the island opposite to Bubaque, Rubane, the owner of one of the most famous hotels in the archipelago, a French woman, Solange Morin, de-dramatizes the scenario about the presence of trafficking. "We are in the heart of the archipelago, and I can tell you that it has been 17 years since I have been here and I have never seen anything. So if something is going on, it might happen somewhere else, but certainly not in the archipelago." With an extensive golden sandy beach and surrounded by a dense forest, the Ponta Anchaca hotel is regularly sought after by Bissau's elite. Despite this constant movement of Guineans and expatriates, Solange says she has never heard of Operation Navarra, the largest ever seizure in the country.
Operation Navarra unfolded six months after Operation Carapau and led to the discovery of almost two tons of cocaine. Part of the traffic took place at a distance of 30 nautical miles from Bubaque, on an island called Caravela.
"Operation Navarra was triggered in my own office," reveals Aristides Gomes. "The origin came from SIS, the State Intelligence Services, which I was tutoring as prime minister." The information was then passed to the PJ, which tracked the activities of the group of Guineans and Colombians throughout 2019.
One of the main suspects, Braima Seidi Bá, a 42-year-old Guinean also with Portuguese nationality, had been known to the authorities for quite some time. Seidi Bá had been identified in 2007 for the first time by the police as the owner of a car that supplied fuel to the airplanes used by Colombian traffickers in Cufar, in the south of the country, according to the director of the Judicial Police at the time, Lucinda Barbosa, whom we interviewed in Bissau: "I think he served as a frontman for the Colombians."
"There was an airstrip in Cufar, which was the national road used for the planes to land," recalls Ruth Monteiro, a lawyer who was Minister of Justice during Operations Carapau and Navarra. "All of that was commanded by General Antonio Indjai."
In August 2007, according to a report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, several Colombian traffickers were arrested in a warehouse rented to Seidi Bá, but he was left out of those arrests.
Lucinda Barbosa recalls that the investigation then underway on Seidi Bá was not carried through to the end. This coincided with other important events that also had no clear outcome, when a Gulfstream II jet with a US registration plate was seized at Bissau's international airport in July 2008. The pilot and the copilot, two Venezuelans, were arrested at the time. "We received information that a cocaine unloading was done, but we didn't find the drug in the plane, only traces of it, and we brought sniffer dogs."
Carmelo Vazquez Guerra, the pilot, had been involved in a transport of five and a half tons of cocaine for the Sinaloa cartel seized two years earlier, in 2006, on a DC-9 plane that landed in Ciudad de Carmen, Mexico, from Venezuela. Carmelo's brother was arrested at the time, but not him. The Mexican authorities thus had a new opportunity. "The extradition request from Mexico had just arrived in Bissau when the judge ordered the individuals released," Lucinda Barbosa recounts. "They left."
Later, the Gulfstream was eventually taken by a Senegal-based company, Africa Air Assistance, which, according to a report by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, was linked to a Boeing 727 that was found in 2009 abandoned with 10 tons of cocaine in northern Mali, in a case that became known as Air Cocaine. The director of Africa Air Assistance, Senegalese Ibrahima Gueye, is described in a study by the Criminology Center at the University of Cape Town, in South Africa, as a middleman who regularly visited Bissau and paid the local elite to protect his Latin American clients.
Now, a decade later, one of the names of those inconclusive investigations, Seidi Bá, re-emerges again. But with this new case came a new face. In a list of four Colombians identified during the investigation of Operation Navarra, there was one who acted as the leader of the group, Ricardo Ariza Monje, who was referred to by the nickname Ramon.
With dual Colombian and Mexican nationality, Ricardo Ariza Monje – or Ramon – set up several front companies in Bissau, with the help of Seidi Bá, in a building on the avenue of Combatentes da Liberdade da Pátria, not far from the French embassy and the Ledger hotel. The Palmeiras Company Import & Export Business Center was created in January 2019 and employed three Colombians under Ramon's orders: Armando Forero, John Valencia and Pedro Mahecha. In addition, Seidi Bá had two companies, GB Fenix, SARL and GB Intercontinental, SARL, which gave work to half a dozen Guineans. The companies officially imported juice, beer and wines. Ramon also owned an ice factory that was being built in Varela, near the border with Senegal.
Although the trial of the case, which ended in March 2020, did not find out much about the backgrounds of the group members, some interesting details did come out. According to the ruling, Armando Forero told the court that he became friends with Ramon in 2004 and it was in that year that he moved to Guinea-Bissau, when he was given a farm in Saltinho, in the southern region of Bafatá.
The group accumulated property, half a dozen off-road cars, and several boats, including speedboats. They also had satellite phones, to avoid being intercepted.
They had been under surveillance for at least six months, but it was on August 30, 2019, that things precipitated. The three Colombians working for Ramon showed up in a Nissan Navarra on a river arm in an area known as Mar Azul, 45 minutes from the center of Bissau, and took a pirogue to the island of Caravela, 40 kilometers from the coast. Hours later, in a speedboat, Ramon and Seidi joined them. The group left at night to the high seas, where a fishing boat was waiting for them.
The cocaine was transported by speedboat to Caravela during the early hours of the morning, and from there it went the next night by pirogue to Ponta Pedra, a small port at the mouth of the Djita River, where the group transshipped the almost two tons of drugs in several cars.
After returning from the Bijagós, we follow this route described in the trial. Almost an hour away from the landing site, in a village called Binhante, we find the house of a car mechanic, Avito Domingos Vaz, where 55 out of a total of 58 bales of cocaine were seized.
It is the last house in the village and, contrary to what one might assume, there are no outward signs of wealth. The huts have no glass in the windows and the children play barefoot. We find Avito's brother sitting on the porch. To ensure his children's subsistence, his sister-in-law has gone on a cashew picking trip. Sentenced to eight years in prison, Avito was caught with 8500 euros in his bank account, paid a few days before the operation. An example to how cheap it is to recruit local people.
Later on, most of the punishments would be substantially reduced by the Bissau Court of Appeal. The sentences of Ramon and Seidi Bá were cut from 16 to six years – and in Avito's case, from eight to three years.
In Caió, Seidi Bá's hometown, a short distance from the coast opposite Caravela, we find his family home unoccupied. Nobody in the store across the street wants to talk about him or the three bundles found behind a fake bathroom wall. Surely, because they know he will be back. During the operation mounted in those days, 10 members of the group were arrested, including a Malian, but Seidi Bá and Ramon managed to escape.
According to our sources, Seidi Bá fled to Gambia. And Ramon went into hiding in Mexico.
A meeting with “el pariente”
The newsroom of Proceso newsmagazine is in a small building in Colonia del Valle, a relatively short distance from the iconic Roma neighborhood. The barring on the windows, the surveillance cameras and the permanent presence of police at the door show how dangerous life can be for journalists in Mexico City. Proceso is one of Mexico's most reputable 'media' and has published some articles in the past about drug trafficking in Guinea-Bissau. The director, Jorge Carrasco, has agreed to make his team available to collaborate with us on the leads we have accumulated in recent months.
One of the mysteries in how Guinea-Bissau quickly gained fame as Africa's first narco-state is the fact that there have always been, for more than a decade, basic questions for which no answers have been found. Which drug cartels in Colombia or Mexico are behind this magic corridor that has allowed cocaine to reach the Sahel and, from there, Europe?
In the Operation Navarra criminal case file, Ramon, the leader of the group of traffickers, is identified as having been born in Mexico, something unheard of in the cases known so far in Bissau, in which the Latin Americans residing in the country have always been Colombians.
The documents give him as born on July 18, 1965, in a place called Florencia. There is a village with that name in the municipality of Benito Juárez, in the state of Zacatecas, 800 kilometers away from Mexico City, north towards Sinaloa. But there is no other reference in the file.
Detailed open source searches help situate Ramon in Mexico in 2008, when he was apparently making some money from renting houses. The next references are already in Colombia, where in March 2012 he obtained a yacht captain's license from a nautical foundation. In 2016 his name appears associated with a traffic ticket in Barrancabermeja, a town halfway between Medellín and the Venezuelan border.
"El pariente," which sets up new routes for the Sinaloa cartel, sees advantages in using Africa: shorter distance and lower costs.
But it is the fact that he opened two branches of Colombian companies in Mexico City that caught our attention the most. We are going to visit them with Mathieu Tourlière, an investigative journalist from Proceso.
One of the companies, Gitanos Diving Center S.a.d E C.v., seems to be in line with Ramon's interest in the sea. It is supposedly a diving school. The office is on a street parallel to Paseo de la Reforma Avenue in the heart of the Mexican capital, in a building behind the offices of the oldest and most important national daily newspapers in the country, the Excélsior and El Universal. It is a dead run, however. The building is unoccupied and the doorman who maintains security has no idea of either the company or its owner.
The scenario is not much different at the headquarters of Global Services Meladi Importadora & Exportadora S.A., which is located on Monterrey Avenue in the Roma neighborhood, in a building that is no longer in use after an earthquake in 2017 damaged its structure. The company had as a representative Ramon's wife, Martha Ortegon, with whom the trafficker apparently has two daughters in Colombia.
Since the seizure of the nearly two tons of cocaine from Operation Navarra in 2019, the arrest warrants against Seidi Bá and Ramon have remained active. But is this taken seriously by the Mexican authorities?
At the Attorney General's Office, we are met by Edgar Guerrero Centeno, director of the Information Analysis Center of Mexico's Criminal Investigation Agency, who confesses that there are no ongoing investigations. What they know about Ramon is from the media. He is not wanted and there is no particular interest in him. "The information we have is that he was not born in Mexico, but was naturalized Mexican. So it makes more sense to us that it is a Colombian organization that is coordinating this kind of route."
Guerrero Centeno admits that the prosecutor's office has no cooperation with the authorities in Guinea-Bissau, Mali or any other country in Africa. "A route that goes through West Africa is not something we are focused on, nor has there been to date any request for support from the authorities of African countries," says the director of the Criminal Investigation Agency. "We don't doubt that there is a route that can cross Africa," he clarifies, but "collaboration has been greater with South American countries and in relation to routes or traffic that goes from south to north on the American continent."
Although the panorama on the criminal investigation into West African connections is bleak, considering what we heard in Bamako from the mouth of the head of intelligence of the police fighting drug trafficking, our colleague Mathieu puts us in contact with someone who opens our horizons a little.
Oscar Báez Soto, a former prosecutor and academic researcher at the National Institute of Criminal Sciences, grew up in Sinaloa and studied drug trafficking controlled from the region. Báez Soto says that after the fall of Pablo Escobar in Colombia, "Mexican organizations began to control the business from production, through transit sites, to consumption spaces."
In the case of Sinaloa, this researcher guarantees that the organization is present in Africa, without necessarily "having to find Sinaloans" in African countries, since "the new directors of the organization have been innovating, not only by looking for new routes, but also by finding new ways to organize themselves", including with the establishment of franchises. "These are alliances that the organization makes with local groups. Either with local criminal groups or with authorities and businessmen, with those who already operate a business of an illicit nature there."
The Mexican press has even reported some references to the use of the Guinea-Bissau corridor over the years. In 2017, El Universal newspaper quoted a former director of the Mexican PGR's Specialized Organized Crime Unit, Samuel González Ruiz, who said that the cartel led by Joaquim "El Chapo" Guzmán uses the Guinea-Bissau route.
With no further leads on Ramon's trail and Sinaloa's involvement hanging in the air, an intermediary is bridging the gap with the cartel. We want someone in the organization available to give an interview. After a few days of waiting, we receive confirmation. There is an individual responsible for setting up new routes willing to talk.
It's a surgical journey. We take a late afternoon flight to Culiacán, the capital of the Sinaloa region, 1200 kilometers away from Mexico City, at the entrance to the Gulf of California.
The tarmac at the airport is packed with private jets. Culiacán, a city of one million inhabitants, is the political and social heart of the region's criminal organizations. Its weight was made apparent in 2019, when hours after arresting one of Guzmán's sons, police were attacked by 700 armed men from the Sinaloa cartel, forcing authorities to release him and give up his extradition to the United States.
We booked a room at the Lucerna, the best accommodation in town, next to the Tamazula River. The location was indicated at the request of the interviewee. In the large hotel lobby, a group of men arrive a little after us. They wear sports clothes and talk loudly. It is easy to imagine that they might be part of the organization, but we don't get to find out.
The meeting is arranged in the hotel room and the interviewee appears accompanied only by a local contact of our intermediary. In order not to be recognized while being filmed, he has brought a balaclava to the interview. He is a relatively short man, just over 40 years old. He does not appear to be cosmopolitan, but he does not have the aggressive look of the group we have just seen downstairs. He seems thoughtful and reasonable. And he has some sense of humor. "I can say I'm ‘el pariente’ [‘the relative‘] . It's a very common name here. We all become ‘parientes’." The interviewee says that the main role he has in the organization is to negotiate. He handles matters "when you are going to open a new route and start working with a new customer."
Confronted with Ramon's name and face, he admits that he has read about the case in the news but does not know him. "Pariente" explains that Sinaloa is the organization that "has more alliances, more partners, more relationships, more clients, more routes, more transport, more logistical capacity, more power and more money." And West Africa is included in those routes – "the countries on the Atlantic coast, mainly Senegal, but also Morocco and Guinea. The destination is Europe and also Australia”, he says.
For Sinaloa, there are two advantages to using the African continent as a "stepping stone" to other continents: the geographical position and the prices. "If you look at the map, you see that Africa is not too far away. That's the shortest distance from South America, from Brazil. And then there are the costs. Because they're poor countries, it's usually cheaper to find a way to get there."
Negotiations take place before the drugs begin to be transported, according to "Pariente." These agreements are usually made during meetings that take place in other countries, in neutral territory. "An understanding is reached and everyone then goes about their business." When the cocaine leaves Colombia, where it is produced, permits for passage in transit countries are already secured from local authorities, with the intermediation of local mafias. These alliances are "indispensable," he clarifies. "We don't interfere in their affairs, just as they can't come here and interfere in our affairs. It's their territory and that is respected." The important thing, "Pariente" stresses, is not to wait for them to close one door to open another.
And, if possible, grow the business.
Back to Bissau.
General Antonio Indjai is not the only trafficker in the photograph on the palace steps. There are two other names referenced by the United States in that portrait with President Sissoco. Also there is Ibraim Papa Camara, the Air Force Chief of Staff, who the Treasury Department has classified as a trafficker for his connection, along with Na Tchuto, to the Gulfstream affair in July 2008. And then there is Mamadu N'Krumah, deputy Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces. Both N'Krumah and Papa Camara have been included on European Union and UN sanctions lists for being implicated with Indjai in the April 2012 cocaine coup.
Since Sissoco took power, the cocaine seizures halted. The Judiciary Police's national director, who had been fired in 2017 when Sissoco was prime minister and reinstated in 2018 by Aristides Gomes, believed she was not fit to continue in the post and left the country, having been living in Portugal for the past few years. "It was as a matter of principle. But I don’t want to talk about that subject."
In late February 2020, the president dismissed the government and appointed a Prime Minister of his liking, Nuno Nabiam. A few days later, Ramon's number two, Braima Seidi Bá, was back in Bissau, despite being formally wanted by the authorities and having been sentenced in absentia to 16 years in prison. "He went to stay at the home of an individual [Danielson Francisco Gomes] known and referenced as a drug trafficker, armed bank robber, and who has charges for swindling, but who was appointed director-general of Petroguim," Guinea-Bissau's state oil company, former Justice Minister Ruth Monteiro told Expresso in an interview in May 2020. "Agents from the Judiciary Police were monitoring Seidi Bá's movements in the vicinity of the house, and the Interior Ministry arrived there and expelled those agents, so that you could enter and leave freely."
Once he was dismissed as Prime Minister and they took away the military who were protecting him, Aristides Gomes recalls that he even had drug dealers in front of his house. He felt threatened by Seidi Bá. "Right after the proclamation of the new president, he showed up in Bissau and was being protected - much more than I was. He had security forces behind him." The former head of government took refuge at the United Nations mission, where he stayed for a year until he was able to get his flight out of the country negotiated.
A few days before an official visit by Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa in May 2021, Sissoco welcomes us to his palace, refuting any connection to drug trafficking. "I am not a bandit. A bandit's place is in prison." The president downplays the presence of General Indjai in the photograph ("he is Nuno Nabiam's cousin. He came to give his brother a hug") and the fact that he is wanted by the United States as a trafficker. "The Americans cannot come here and dictate what I do. I am a very independent and dignified man."
Sissoco assures, moreover, that he is fighting drug trafficking, while de-dramatizing the importance of the phenomenon. "This is not Colombia or Venezuela, with all due respect to those countries. Drugs can pass through here just like they pass through Portugal, France, or the United States. It's the Guineans who make that bad reputation."
Seidi Bá disappeared from circulation again, but the trafficking did not stop. Although there have been no major seizures again, the signs about suspicious movements have been accumulating. "We are witnessing in Guinea an almost uncontrollable upsurge in drug trafficking," Ruth Monteiro denounces. "To the point where the islands are much less used for receiving the product, because they can go directly to Bissau and from Bissau they leave for their destinations. At the airport the planes land and take off with permits for that."
"I am not a bandit. A bandit's place is in prison."
Guinea-Bissau President Umaro Sissoco Embaló, who refutes any connection to drug trafficking.
In October 2021, an Airbus A340 landed in Bissau with a special authorization from the president's office. According to police sources, the plane had not been registered since 2017 and the crew members on board – three Turks – proceeded directly from the airport runway to the palace. The plane has become the center of much speculation and some tension between Sissoco and Prime Minister Nuno Nabiam, whose relations have deteriorated.
Another incident, which occurred three days before the Airbus A340 landed, allows us to understand how the trafficking scheme evolved. The Judiciary Police detained five people and discovered five kilos of cocaine in a car. One of the detainees, Ivan Sampaio, an employee of TAP airline in Guinea-Bissau, and his accomplice were kidnapped by a former army captain, Amadu Lamine Conté, after 900 kilos of cocaine that were in their custody allegedly disappeared. According to police sources, Conté works for Antonio Indjai and was carrying out orders from the general. He needed to recover the drugs.
In Operation RED, as the criminal inquiry was named, an officer of the Rapid Intervention Police, superintendent Carlos Ely, was also arrested days later. He was suspected of stealing the 900 kilos of cocaine from the TAP employee's house, in an apparent dispute between rival groups. The case has not been solved, but sources connected to the investigation believe that the cocaine was hidden in military installations and that Ely was working for Interior Minister Botche Candé and his son, the commander of the Rapid Intervention Police. In the month following the incident, Botche Candé launched his own party, the Guinean Workers' Party (PTG).
In a clear symptom of deepening internal divisions over power, an assault on the presidential palace on February 1 this year left 11 people dead. The coup attempt involved military personnel and agents, including the Rapid Intervention Police. The president has publicly accused Na Tchuto, General Indjai's former number two, of being behind what happened. "Most of the people involved are on the investigation list for drug trafficking," he said at a press conference the day after the attack.
For lawyer Luís Vaz Martins, a vicious circle has been created in the country, in which "certain governors are appointed through the influence of criminal groups linked to drug trafficking," generating competition between politicians and the military. This makes "narco-trafficking both the cause and the consequence of instability." But how far does the weight of cartels like Sinaloa and Islamic movements like Al-Mourabitoun go in changing and maintaining power in Guinea-Bissau? Perhaps that is something only General Indjai is in a position to answer.