[Opinion] When thinking about the war on drugs, the African nation of Cape Verde is not a name that usually springs to mind, but maybe it’s time that changed.
As one of Africa’s smallest nations, Cape Verde is far from the first nation that comes to mind when thinking of the war on drugs.
Boasting a 160-strong Judicial police, five patrol boats – only one of which can operate beyond coastal waters – and a sole decrepit surveillance plane that has been out of action for years, the nation is hardly equipped to be any power against the trafficking of illegal substances.
Yet, over the past decade, the small archipelago nation, located around 350 miles off the African west coat, has made impressive efforts against the movements of illegal drugs, particularly into Europe.
As such, it may be time to reconsider the nation’s position in international opinion, and give it more credit that it currently receives for its anti-drug trafficking operations.
Cape Verde has had a growing problem with drug trafficking for some time. By the 1990s, the small nation has become a major traffic hub for a fast-growing international narcotics industry. The country’s jagged coastlines, and 300,000 square mile maritime zone resembled something of a smuggler’s paradise for the drug traffickers.
However, in the past decade, the country has looked to dramatically change that, and it seems to be working.
Located some 350 miles off the coast of Senegal, Cape Verde stands out both as a pocket of relative stability in West Africa, and for its firm action against the networks channeling Latin American cocaine to Europe. However, while it has been lauded as a model for the region by some European and US law enforcement officials, engaged in the same struggle against drugs, for most the country is little more than an unknown entity sitting off the coast of Africa.
Nevertheless, that has not stopped the Cape Verde police forces from conducting their operations.
In 2011, the Cape Verde police force dismantled a drugs network that was preparing to smuggle tens of millions of dollars of cocaine into the European continent.
The operation was hailed as a rare victory against international crime, and represented the success and work that Cape Verde was having in the combating of illegal drugs, but for the majority the nation’s anti-drug efforts soon faded once more into obscurity.
It was at this point though that the drug traffickers began to take notice. Senior officials began receiving threats, and it would have been easy for the nation – given its vastly outnumbered dedicated police force – to simply give up its anti-drug trafficking operations.
Within two years of the monumental drug bust, the small African nation had yielded a series of convictions against those involved, and conducted further seizures of cash and real estate. Cape Verde officials arrested and jailed nine people, and showed that they not afraid of targeting even the most powerful people in the country’s society.
Among the arrested were the former head of the local stock exchange, Verissimo Monteira Pinto, and prominent real estate investor Paulo Ivone Pereira. Police also confiscated cash, vehicles and property worth tens of millions of dollars in the operation, including a glass-fronted office building that now serves as Cape Verde’s armed forces headquarters.
Last November, authorities seized another 500 kg (1,100 pounds) of cocaine in an operation that led to the jailing of six people including Swiss, Spanish and Cuban nationals.
Cape Verde, and the country’s anti-drug trafficking intelligence, has even been used as a launching platform for US drug enforcement operations in the African continent, such as the seizure of a Guinea-Bissau former naval chief and war hero, Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto, who US investigators claim was a kingpin of West Africa’s drug trade. Na Tchuto was allegedly hoping to seal a deal involving millions of dollars and tons of cocaine.
However, their role in combating drug trafficking both domestically, and in the region, has led to some retaliation from the drug gangs.
This problem of retaliation from the drug traffickers hit critical mass around September 2014. A gunman, believed to have been working for the drug trafficking gangs, shot dead the 56-year-old mother of Katia Tavares, Cape Verde’s top anti-drugs investigator, at her home in the capital, Praia.
In a separate shooting, a few months later, the son of Prime Minister Jose Maria Neves was wounded.
Both attacks have been linked by police to a drugs probe, as the drug traffickers test the tiny country’s determination to continue its crackdown on powerful smuggling gangs, ahead of elections early in 2016.
In a pre-election year, the shootings have fueled anxiety about a broader crime wave, often blamed on US-style gang culture imported by young citizens returning from Cape Verde’s large diaspora.
However, as much as Cape Verde and its population – of just under 500,000 people – are anxious of increased crime, they are not willing to walk away from the drug people, and let it get a foothold back in Cape Verdean society.
The Cape Verde anti-drug forces are careful to learn from other examples, namely Mexico, and use the North American country’s trouble with drug gangs as a cautionary tale.
“The Mexicans lost vast swathes of territory to the criminals. We have to fight the groups swiftly, before they get installed,” the Cape Verde government say, talking of how to prevent a similar control by drug trafficking gangs in their own nation.
Although the Cape Verde police forces have won some key battles, the 160-strong Judicial Police remain far outmatched in the war against traffickers.
The country needs support and assistance to truly combat, and eradicate, the problem of drug trafficking in their nation. If this problem is removed, and drug trafficking is ended in Cape Verde, then Europe and the rest of the international community benefit. Another major trafficking hub, and a crucial stopover in the transportation of South American drugs to Europe, is shut down. It would be a major blow to these international drug gangs, and one that would be a powerful statement in the international war on drugs.
Even despite their role in the apprehension of supposed drug kingpins such as Na Tchuto, Cape Verde and their own anti-drug operations have been overlooked. If they hadn’t been, and were provided with support, the likes of the US and European drug enforcement agencies wouldn’t be as needed in West Africa, because the Cape Verdean forces could do the job to an equal standard.
As a result, I do believe that Cape Verde and its anti-drug efforts need a greater acknowledgement from the international community, as well as a larger offer of support in assisting them in combating the problem.
The country has the one thing that cannot be provided in assistance, a desire to combat the issue. All it needs is assistance in the one remaining problem, the resources to implement its desire.