Guinea-Bissau: How Cocaine Transformed a Tiny African Nation
Photograph Courtesy of Marco Vernaschi—Pulitzer Center
Seven years ago, almost no one in Guinea-Bissau could imagine that just 1 g of a bland-looking white powder could be worth more than their average monthly salary
One morning in early 2005, the villagers of Biombo found hundreds of carefully sealed packets of white powder washed up on their mangrove flats on Guinea-Bissau’s Atlantic coast. The women discovered them as they checked their fishing lines; they had arrived, it turned out, from a simple-looking steel-hull cargo vessel that ran aground while trying to reach the shore. Some of the villagers thought the powder was Ajinomoto, a popular Japanese brand of MSG, and used it in their cooking sauces. One man mixed some with water and tried to use it to whitewash his house. Most people initially agreed it was fertilizer, but doubts grew when it seemed to be killing rather than invigorating the eggplant crop.
It took a Bissau-Guinean man who had been recently deported from Europe, known now by local legend simply as the Boy from Biombo, to realize exactly what the powder was: cocaine. Seeing calabashes filled with the stuff, he began buying it up for a few dollars a kilo and shipping it to the capital, Bissau. When one of the villagers, Joy, telephoned Guinea-Bissau’s City FM radio station, told them the story of the sacks of powder and asked them to contact the vegetable department at the Ministry of Agriculture on her behalf, a group of Nigerians arrived in Biombo and set about buying up whatever of the substance remained. By then, the Boy from Biombo was well on the way to establishing a small business empire. It was only after several months that the penny finally dropped for the police and the villagers. There were living in the middle of a new drug-trafficking highway running between Latin America and Europe.