A reported coup attempt brings to the fore how cocaine trafficking continues to shape Guinea-Bissau’s politics.

The Bissau-Guinean government has officially stated to the media that an armed attack on the government building in Bissau on 1 February is linked to the country’s lucrative cocaine transit trade.1 The three arrests made following the incident, have shone the spotlight on a long-standing protagonist in Guinea-Bissau’s cocaine politics: Admiral Bubo Na Tchuto. Yet in Bissauan political and civil society circles there are rumblings of unease and uncertainty regarding the exact nature of the February attack.2 Why the incident failed, the identity of the well-armed assailants and their motives are shrouded in mystery – as explored in greater detail in the GI-TOC’s earlier article, ‘A very strange coup attempt’.3

According to government statements, three men were arrested in connection with the attack – Tchuto, former navy chief Tchamy Ialá and an aide, Papis Djeme. This is not the first time these figures have been fingered as threats by the political establishment. On 12 February 2021 President Embaló reported an attempted coup to journalists, and Tchuto was named as the ringleader by the press, supported by Ialá.4 There were no ensuing arrests, and the nature or indeed veracity of the alleged coup attempt remains unclear.

The arrest of these three individuals – all previously convicted in a New York court for conspiring to traffic drugs following a US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) sting operation in 2013,5 and some of them more recently implicated in cocaine trafficking investigations in Bissau – would at first sight appear to underscore connections to the cocaine trade. Their notorious past involvement in cocaine trafficking would also make them perfect scapegoats for the government – if the intent was to posit cocaine as the motive for the ‘coup’.

Whether these men were genuinely behind the attack or were wrongfully arrested, Guinea-Bissau’s murky cocaine politics helps contextualize the unfolding events.

The evolution of cocaine politics in Guinea-Bissau

Tchuto’s involvement in the country’s cocaine trade can be traced to his time as the head of the navy in the early 2000s, a period when the cocaine trade through Bissau escalated under political and military protection and Guinea-Bissau rose to notoriety as a transit country on international cocaine trafficking routes between producing countries in Latin America and end markets in Europe.

By 2007, cocaine trafficking through the country had reached its peak, senior military figures had gained control over the bulk transit trade, syphoning off a large share of profits,6 and state involvement was brazen.7 The degree of state penetration in drug trafficking was evidenced by a sketch found during a 2007 Judicial Police raid in which 635 kilograms of cocaine were seized. Five names were legible on a whiteboard: João Bernardo Vieira, then president, Tchuto, and three other senior political and military figures.8 Tchuto was one of only two named individuals to survive the subsequent spree of political violence that engulfed Bissau.

The year 2007 marked the end of the bulk transit trade. Strong evidence suggests that the military began stealing from the Latin American traffickers, leading them to shift their operations to neighbouring countries.9 This displacement of the cocaine transit trade drastically diminished the profits available to the military from cocaine trafficking. This fed into wider political tensions within the elite, leading to a number of high-profile assassinations, including the murder of Na Waie, the military chief of staff, and the revenge killing of President Vieira in 2009.10

Having fled Bissau for Gambia in 2008 in murky circumstances (some alleged that he was behind a failed coup attempt), Tchuto returned from exile the following year, entering the country disguised as a fisherman. In April 2010, the US designated Tchuto a drug kingpin because of his ‘significant role in international narcotics trafficking’.11 This appeared to have had little impact on his domestic influence, and he was reportedly present at that month’s controversial inauguration of General Antonio Indjai as chief of staff of the military.12

Competition for control of the cocaine trade was reportedly an important factor behind the 2012 military seizure of power, led by Indjai, and dubbed the ‘cocaine coup’ by some.13 Indjai joined Tchuto on the sanctions lists of the UN Security Council, EU and US for his involvement in cocaine trafficking and his role in destabilizing Guinea-Bissau since the 2012 coup. Indjai has reportedly remained close to Tchuto, and was named by a government spokesperson following the February incident.14

Once in power, starved of alternative sources of revenue by sanctions, and desperate for bigger returns from cocaine trafficking, the military, led by Indjai with Tchuto at his side, was drawn into the US DEA sting operation in 2013.15 The climax of that operation, which resulted in the arrests of Tchuto, Ialá and Djeme (but not Indjai, who had been the DEA’s main target) spooked traffickers and triggered a further decline in the cocaine transit trade in Guinea-Bissau. Tchuto, Ialá and Djeme returned to Guinea-Bissau after serving their US prison terms; all three were placed under arrest once again following the February incident.

In the years following the DEA operation, the high-level protection around cocaine trafficking shifted as the military’s hold on the trade weakened. However, since the coming to power of the current administration in February 2020, and the partial exile of a prominent cocaine trafficker, Braima Seidi Bá, following his conviction in absentia in Bissau courts, the power-play between actors in the country’s cocaine markets seems to be once again in flux.16 Yet Tchuto appears a resilient player in the country’s cocaine politics.

A web of cocaine connections: Post-2020 dynamics

Recent investigations into cocaine trafficking continue to point to the same set protagonists in Bissau’s lucrative cocaine markets. Law enforcement and civil society stakeholders in Bissau report that Ialá was allegedly implicated in Judicial Police investigations into cocaine trafficking in October 2021. That investigation was triggered by reports that two individuals had been kidnapped. Preliminary investigations revealed that the kidnappings were linked to the cocaine trade: the victims were in possession of cocaine stolen from their military partners, and had been kidnapped as a result. On 26 October, the Judicial Police seized 5 kilograms of cocaine, and detained five people on suspicion of drug trafficking, organized crime, money laundering and kidnapping. Ialá was called in for questioning. The kidnapping victims also reportedly pointed to General Indjai’s alleged involvement in the incident.17

Those 5 kilograms seized in possession of the kidnapped victims are believed to be part of a far larger consignment. The subregional network believed to be behind this consignment is also suspected to have coordinated other bulk imports in the region, including one that led to a seizure of 2 026 kilograms of cocaine on the vessel La Rosa, in waters off Dakar in October 2021.18

The trial of the five men arrested in connection with the October incident, who remain in jail, started in February. The investigation has reportedly been divided into two strands, each lead by a separate prosecutor. The first focusses on the kidnapping victims, the second on the broader investigation into the other individuals arrested, and the wider implications. The former, which concerns small fish unconnected to the state, may progress. However, the latter may well implicate members of the military and is almost guaranteed to stall. Notably, the Attorney General, Bacari Biai, appointed to the role in November 2021 is unlikely to take any steps that would displease the political establishment.19

In the wake of the February attack: Political repression escalates

The governmental palace in Bissau. An armed attack on the building in February has been linked by the Bissau-Guinean government to the country’s cocaine trade.

The governmental palace in Bissau. An armed attack on the building in February has been linked by the Bissau-Guinean government to the country’s cocaine trade.

Photo: AFP via Getty Images

While the nature of the February incident remains murky, the administration has clearly leveraged the attack for two purposes. Firstly, by arresting three men long linked to the cocaine trade, the administration has positioned itself as a bulwark against cocaine trafficking in Guinea-Bissau. This rhetoric is not borne out by practice: law enforcement focus on cocaine trafficking has waned under the current government.20

Secondly, the administration has escalated repression of critical voices, framing this crackdown as part of the required investigation into the attack. This has led a number of organizations, including the International Federation of Human Rights, to express concern over the ‘deteriorating security situation in Guinea-Bissau and its impact on human rights defenders, independent media and civil society organisations’.21

Similarly, on 7 February, the Bissau-Guinean Human Rights League issued an open letter expressing concerns regarding the escalating crackdown on critical figures in the wake of February’s attack. The letter, sent to the UN Secretary-General, the President of the Commission of the EU and the President of the African Union warns that the country’s democratic journey ‘has been heavily compromised since the installation of the current political regime, whose main purpose is the gradual confiscation of fundamental rights and freedoms …’ It highlights how the authorities are deploying ‘illegal methods’, including kidnapping, and assaults on journalists and other critical voices.22 Opposition political figures have been among those targeted as part of the investigation, while the administration has been at pains to stress that the military, behind the four successful coups in Guinea-Bissau’s history, was not involved.23

The investigation into the attack is being spearheaded by the Interior Minister and the military, with Biague N’Tam, chief of the armed forces, at the head.24 This runs counter to the legislative framework, which stipulates the investigation should fall within the mandate of the Judicial Police, who appear not to be taking an active role.25

The military have searched citizens’ houses at night, allegedly for evidence of involvement in the February attack. Attacks on critical voices have spiked – on 7 February, armed men (wearing military uniforms) attacked the house of outspoken political analyst Rui Landim, using live ammunition and tear gas.

On the same day, armed assailants attacked Radio Capital’s offices in Bissau leaving at least four people injured. The broadcaster is highly critical of the current administration.26 Landim, and speakers on Radio Capital, had labelled the February attack as stage-managed by the current administration.

The attacks on Radio Capital are an eerie echo of events in Bissau following Embaló’s coming to power in 2020. On 28 February 2020, the day after the president’s self-inauguration, the national broadcaster was suspended. In July 2020, Radio Capital’s offices were vandalized by men allegedly commanded by Embaló’s head of security.27

Although Fernando Vaz, government spokesperson, issued a statement shortly after the attacks on Radio Capital and Landim pledging to investigate the perpetrators, such investigations, if launched, are unlikely to yield results.28


According to the manner in which government couched its statements and made the arrests, February’s attack on the government building was the latest in a long line of political upheavals linked to cocaine trafficking. Yet the motivations for, and sequence of events during, the attack remain shrouded in mystery.

What is clear is that the incident has triggered an escalating crackdown on critical voices in Guinea-Bissau. While it is crucial to gain greater clarity around the incident, investigations should be pursued in line with the country’s legislative framework, and without constituting an attack on social and political space.


  1. In official statements immediately after the attack, President Embaló made the link to cocaine trafficking explicit: ‘Some individuals involved in this cowardly and barbaric act were already being investigated for drug trafficking.’ See Henrique Almeida and Yinka Ibukun, Drug traffickers blamed for latest coup attempt in Guinea-Bissau, Bloomberg, 2 February 2022, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-02-02/drug-traffickers-blamed-for-latest-coup-attempt-in-guinea-bissau; France 24, Guinea-Bissau president says many dead after ‘failed attack against democracy’, 1 February 2022, https://www.france24.com/en/africa/20220201-gunfire-heard-and-armed-men-seen-near-seat-of-government-in-guinea-bissau

  2. These are detailed further in Lucia Bird and A Gomes, A very strange coup attempt, GI-TOC, 4 February 2022, https://globalinitiative.net/analysis/coup-attempt-guinea-bissau

  3. See Lucia Bird and A Gomes, A very strange coup attempt, GI-TOC, 4 February 2022, https://globalinitiative.net/analysis/coup-attempt-guinea-bissau

  4. E-Global, Guiné-Bissau: Militares em prevenção devido a rumores conspiracionistas, 8 February 2021, https://e-global.pt/noticias/lusofonia/guine-bissau/guine-bissau-militares-em-prevencao-devido-a-rumores-conspiracionistas. The Public Ministry is conducting an ongoing investigation into Tchuto for alleged money laundering and tax fraud; see RFI, Guiné-Bissau: Bubo Na Tchuto suspeito de branqueamento de capitais e fraude fiscal, 11 March 2021, https://www.rfi.fr/pt/guiné-bissau/20210311-guiné-bissau-bubo-na-tchuto-suspeito-de-branqueamento-de-capitais-e-fraude-fiscal

  5. Tchuto received a four-year prison sentence, Tchamy a five-year sentence and Djeme a six-and-a-half-year sentence. 

  6. The price at the time was between €11 000 and €12 000 per kilogram, and the military took approximately €1 650 per kilogram for their facilitation. That comes in at around €1.6 million per tonne of cocaine that moved through Guinea-Bissau. Other interviews generally refer to a lower amount – approximately €1 million per tonne, and it is possible that this was the ‘protection fee’ agreed for earlier transfers. In the DEA sting operation, a 13% fee was negotiated, which may have been lower because the military were desperate for a deal at the time. It is difficult to judge exactly how much cocaine was moving through the country, but between November 2007 and January 2008, an insider to the trade estimated there to have been at least six shipments, with a minimum total of between six and eight tonnes. Interviews with individuals close to trafficking networks at the time, Bissau, July 2019; interviews with senior local law-enforcement officials, Bissau, July 2019. 

  7. While, initially, clandestine runways were used for aircraft trafficking cocaine into and out of the country, these shifted to the main international airport during this period. Evidence from a series of law-enforcement seizures of cocaine underscore the active role of government officials in protecting the trade. Interviews, law enforcement officials, civil society representatives, Bissau, 2015. 

  8. The other names were Baciro Dabo, Minister of the Interior, Tagme Na Waie (Chief of Staff of the armed forces) and Hélder Proença, Minister of Defence. Mark Shaw, Drug trafficking in Guinea-Bissau, 1998–2014: The evolution of an elite protection network, Journal of Modern African Studies, 53, 3, 2015, p. 347. 

  9. Interviews with a senior law-enforcement official, Bissau, July 2019; Mark Shaw, Drug trafficking in Guinea-Bissau, 1998–2014: The evolution of an elite protection network, Journal of Modern African Studies, 53, 3, 2015, p. 347; Lansana Gberie, Crime, violence and politics: Drug trafficking and counternarcotics policy in Mali and Guinea, Brookings Institution, Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, Latin America Initiative, 2016, p. 10; BBC, Liberia in record cocaine seizure, 1 February 2008, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/7222809.stm

  10. In February 2009, Na Waie was killed by a bomb blast in the main headquarters of the armed forces. On 2 March 2009, a group of soldiers loyal to the assassinated chief of staff attacked the president’s house and Vieira was killed. Defence Minister Hélder Proença and Interior Minister Bacro Dabo were also assassinated during this period. Judicial Police sources remain convinced that the killings, which once again plunged Guinea-Bissau into a period of profound instability, were linked to control of the drug trade. Interviews, representatives of law enforcement, state and civil society, Bissau and Lisbon, 2012, 2015 and July 2019. 

  11. The listing occurred days after a military mutiny led by Indjai; see US Department of the Treasury, Treasury designates two narcotics traffickers in Guinea-Bissau; Treasury targets emerging West African narcotics transit route, 8 April 2010, https://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/tg633.aspx

  12. Indjai had led an unsuccessful mutiny in the military mere weeks before his inauguration, and the international donor community protested his appointment; see BBC, Guinea-Bissau mutineer General Indjai made army chief, 30 June 2010, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10460564

  13. Interviews with civil-society leaders and political commentators, Bissau, July 2019. 

  14. See Lucia Bird and A Gomes, A very strange coup attempt, GI-TOC, 4 February 2022, https://globalinitiative.net/analysis/coup-attempt-guinea-bissau

  15. Shortly after the coup, the DEA initiated an investigation ‘to identify organisations and individuals from Colombia that had knowledge of trafficking routes into West Africa specifically Guinea Bissau’; see testimony from Stephen Casey, DEA Special Agent, Special Operations Division, 12 CR 839 (JSR), Case 1:12-cr-00939-JSR Document 75, Filed 04/24/15, p. 46. Once information had been gathered over the subsequent months, the investigation targeted a series of individuals, including the subject of the trial, Rafael Garavito, but importantly, also General Indjai, the leader of the ‘cocaine coup’; see Testimony from Stephen Casey, p. 49. 

  16. Braima Seidi Bá, a Bissau-Guinean businessman, is believed to have been behind the March 2019 operation that resulted in a 789 kilogram seizure in Bissau. He was convicted in absentia of coordinating the import resulting in the September seizure of 1 869 kilograms in Guinea-Bissau, the largest in the country’s history. Although he was never arrested, Bá appears to be spending more time outside the country, and his prominence in the trade may have diminished. 

  17. Telephone interviews with stakeholders close to the investigation, October 2021–February 2022. 

  18. Interviews with security officials in Guinea-Bissau, Senegal and Gambia, October–December 2021. 

  19. Voice of America Português, Guiné-Bissau: Bacari Biai substitui Fernando Gomes na Procuradoria–Geral da República, 2 November 2021, https://www.voaportugues.com/a/guiné-bissau-bacari-biai-substitui-fernando-gomes-na-procuradoria-geral-da-república/6321733.html

  20. Interviews with persons close to law enforcement, February 2020 – February 2022; Analysis of law enforcement investigations, February 2022. 

  21. International Federation for Human Rights, Guinea-Bissau: Serious deterioration of the security situation of civil society amidst the attempted coup, 3 March 2022, https://www.fidh.org/en/region/Africa/guinea-bissau/guinea-bissau-serious-deterioration-of-the-security-situation-of

  22. Publico, ONG de direitos humanos diz que a Guiné-Bissau está a caminho de se tornar ‘um regime totalitário’, 10 February 2022, https://www.publico.pt/2022/02/10/mundo/noticia/ong-direitos-humanos-guinebissau-caminho-tornar-regime-totalitario-1995050

  23. On 4 February, the government extended the country’s state of Alert, citing rising COVID-19 cases, which prohibits political gatherings. This forced the postponement of the national elective conferences of the main opposition party, the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), scheduled to begin on 17 February. RTP Notícias, Guiné-Bissau declara estado de alerta e proíbe eventos políticos e culturais, 4 February 2022, https://www.rtp.pt/noticias/mundo/guine-bissau-declara-estado-de-alerta-e-proibe-eventos-politicos-e-culturais_n1382129. Prime Minister Nabiam has been quick to state that there was no involvement of current military officers in February’s attack. Prime Minister Nuno Gomes Nabiam stated on 17 February 2022 that no serving members of the country’s armed forces were complicit in the unsuccessful coup launched against his government and that of President Umaro Sissoco Embaló on 1 February. 

  24. General Biague N’Tam issued a directive on 18 February criticizing the military’s poor handling of the attack and ordering the military to investigate and pursue all individuals complicit. This effectively grants institutional backing to ongoing persecution of opposition voices. 

  25. The mandate of the Judicial Police is set out in Lei de Organização da Investigação Criminal and includes the exclusive mandate to investigate crimes ‘Against State Security, namely those listed in Title VII of the Special Part of the Penal Code and any others committed against the President of the Republic, the President of the National People’s Assembly, the Prime the Prime Minister, the Presidents of higher courts and the Attorney General of the of the Republic the exercise of their functions or because of them’; see Article 9(e), https://www.pjguinebissau.com/lei-de-organizacao-e-investigacao-criminal

  26. Media Foundation For West Africa, Guinea Bissau: Radio station attacked by armed men in uniform, 8 February 2022, https://www.mfwa.org/radio-capital-attacked-by-armed-men-in-uniform; AllAfrica, Guinea Bissau: Armed Men Again Raid Guinea-Bissau Broadcaster Radio Capital FM, Destroy Equipment, 9 February 2022, https://allafrica.com/stories/202202090209.html

  27. https://www.dw.com/pt-002/guiné-bissau-sissoco-embaló-tem-esquadrão-de-repressão-acusa-ong/a-55249497; RVQ, Guiné-Bissau: Jornalistas manifestam pela liberdade de imprensa e de expressão junto à Rádio Capital FM, 6 August 2020, https://vozdequelele.com/2020/08/06/guine-bissau-jornalistas-manifestam-pela-liberdade-de-imprensa-e-de-expressao-junto-a-radio-capital-fm

  28. RTP Notícias, Guiné-Bissau, Governo condena ataque contra Rádio Capital e residência de analista politico, 9 February 2022, https://www.rtp.pt/noticias/mundo/guine-bissau-governo-condena-ataque-contra-radio-capital-e-residencia-de-analista-politico_n1383271