Two suspected Colombian cocaine traffickers arrested in Guinea-Bissau's biggest drugs haul have been allowed to walk free
Two suspected Colombian cocaine traffickers arrested in Guinea-Bissau's biggest drugs haul have been allowed to walk free, revealing serious weaknesses in the country's ability to fight crime, security experts and diplomats said on Thursday.
They said the unexplained release ordered by a local judge this month highlighted the government's fragile law enforcement capacity ahead of a major foreign donors conference that will focus on the tiny West African state's vulnerability to organised crime gangs.
The two suspects, who told police they were Colombians and gave their names as Juan Carlos Teran Figueran and Pedro Marino Vega, were detained on Sept. 24 after police seized 674 kg (1,486 lb) of cocaine following a tip-off from the international police agency Interpol. The drug was valued at $25 million.
The arresting officers in the former Portuguese colony, which is one of the world's poorest countries, also seized arms and sophisticated communications equipment.
But barely a month after the arrests, hailed by local and foreign police officers as a major milestone in Guinea-Bissau's fight against international drug trafficking, a Bissau regional court judge ordered the release of the two on Oct. 13.
"It was an unpleasant surprise. The order gave no explanation. Now the police don't know where they are," one foreign law enforcement expert, who has followed the case but asked not to be named, told Reuters.
"I think there is corruption here. This is not a good sign."
Clearly embarrassed by the releases, which had not been made public, Justice Minister Namuano Dias Gomes told Reuters the surprise move by the judicial branch was "regrettable".
Gabriel Madjanhe Djedjo, the judge who signed the Oct. 13 release order, a copy of which was seen by Reuters, was not immediately available to comment.
Guinea-Bissau's government intends to ask foreign donors at a Nov. 7-8 conference in Geneva for millions of dollars to fund reforms of the armed forces, police and judiciary.
"This is just another confirmation of a weak justice system that needs support," a European diplomat, who also asked not to be identified, said.
The security experts said the head of Guinea-Bissau's judicial police, Orlando da Silva, who had proudly announced the record drugs seizure and the arrests in September, had since received death threats. He declined to be interviewed.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says international drugs cartels are using Guinea-Bissau's remote and inaccessible coastline as a transit route from Latin America to Europe.
The UNODC says the traffickers take advantage of the fact that local security forces have virtually no planes, boats, radios or forensic laboratories. The country does not even have a proper prison.
"There is no police control. There is corruption in the government, the armed forces and the police," the law enforcement expert said.
Diplomats said an official from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration had recently visited but was not allowed to inspect the cocaine haul despite repeated requests.
Foreign officials were urging the government to publicly destroy the cocaine, which had apparently been transferred to the Finance Ministry for safe keeping, diplomats said.
Tiny African state in danger from international crime