Cocaine Country

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By Francisco Santos Calderon, Vice-President of Colombia
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“Cocaine Country.” For most readers these two words, presented as the headline to a special feature in an international news magazine, would bring one very specific Latin American nation to mind. Reputations, after all, are hard to shake.

But, you may be surprised — as I was — that the country in question is not Colombia. And, you may be dismayed — as I certainly am — that the story is about Guinea-Bissau, the fifth poorest country in the world, now turned into a major drug-running hub.

Here is some general information on Guinea-Bissau. The life expectancy for its 1.6 million inhabitants averages at 45 and GDP per capita hovers above 700 USD per year. Lack of money for fuel keeps the judicial police’s four cars, in need of repair, parked, and there is no prison. Now, the bad news. Local journalists report that many Guineans consider cocaine to be a “blessing from God” that will help them escape poverty.

Anyone who has had the opportunity to fly over what once was the lush tropical forest of the southern Colombian state of Putumayo, swathes of which have been axed to make way for coca plants, or who has met the family of an imprisoned drug mule, or who has seen institutions crumble under the weight of drug dollars, can easily defy the notion that cocaine in any way constitutes a sign of hope.

The future for Guinea-Bissau, and other West African nations who are fast becoming cocaine cruxes, looks grim, especially because in many cases significant evidence exists linking national institutions to the drug trade.

My country is only too familiar with what happens when drug trafficking impregnates the organisms charged with keeping it at bay. Corruption, violence and terrorism ensue, while time, resources and capable people are siphoned away from solving the conditions that keep countries in poverty – and, thus, vulnerable to drug trafficking. Cocaine, at best, is a frayed band-aid.

At worst it is the Andean edition of a conflict diamond, defined by the UN as: “diamonds that originate from areas controlled by forces or factions opposed to legitimate and internationally recognized governments, and are used to fund military action in opposition to those governments, or in contravention of the decisions of the Security Council.” Today, conflict, or blood, diamonds are regulated, and the public’s consciousness has been pricked as to their origin. But, what many might not realize is that the political and public attention allotted to this issue owes much to media reports (published in the wake of 9/11) that placed these precious gems in Al Qaeda’s coffers.

Global Witness, a London- and Washington-based think-tank that played a significant role in getting blood diamonds regulated, now has its eyes set on another natural resource responsible for kindling violence in Africa– cocoa. In its June 2007 report, Global Witness writes: “The chocolate industry has a responsibility to ensure that the products it sells are conflict-free; it cannot remain a passive actor…Companies should use their influence to ensure that money from cocoa levies is not misused or diverted.

The nation, or “cocoa country” — if you will — that the report is about is the West African state of Cote d’Ivoire, located on the Gulf of Guinea. However, “hot chocolate,” as the report baptizes conflict cocoa, is not the only worrying trend taking place here; Cote d’Ivoire’s 515 km coastline is also starting to lure shipments of cocaine.

If influential think-tanks aim to hold consumers of diamonds and cocoa accountable for performing due diligence on the source of these products, then it does not seem unreasonable to ask consumers of cocaine to reflect on the repercussions of their habit. In the case of Cote d’Ivoire, for example, cocaine stands to cause just as much harm as cocoa.

My hope is that civil society will reflect on cocaine’s role in creating strife in developing nations around the world soon. Indeed, reports increasingly support the theory that the Madrid 3/11 terrorist attack was financed by hashish smuggling operations based in Morocco, the world’s first smuggler of cannabis and a growing cocaine transit hub. The implications deserve urgent attention.

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