1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Guinea Bissau: Mafia, drugs and a former president's son

July 11, 2023

The son of a former Bissau-Guinean president is suspected of being linked to global drug trafficking — and has even been accused of being behind the February 2022 coup attempt.

A soldier patrols the government palace area in Guinea-Bissau
Guinea-Bissau is an important hub for drug trafficking — especially for cocaineImage: AFPTV TEAMS/AFP/Getty Images

November 27, 2021: A group of suspected drug dealers and members of the infamous Italian 'ndrangheta mafia organization, along with a man from Guinea-Bissau drive through Frankfurt's city center on their way to a suburban pizzeria. On the way, they openly discuss "major deals" and "jobs between South America, Africa and Europe" — without realizing that the car in which they're traveling is bugged. 

Italian authorities, who are investigating the powerful Calabrian crime syndicate, have been targeting two clans in the greater Frankfurt area for years. The German city's organized crime police department is also monitoring the meeting. And, now, the man from Guinea-Bissau — whom the Calabrians refer to as "Il Politico" ("the politician") — has also attracted the investigators' attention.

A shipment of cocaine seized from a large clandestine laboratory in Colombia
South American cocaine is stored in West Africa before being transported to EuropeImage: Guillermo Legaria/AFP

Journalistic investigation in Germany

A research team from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) and the German broadcaster Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk (MDR) had access to the investigators' files, as well as dossiers from the Frankfurt police. The team provided these files to DW.

According to the investigation, "Il Politico" returns to Frankfurt a month later, on December 27, 2021, to clarify further details of the deals with the Calabrians.

During his trip to Germany, he is stopped by police officers to whom he presents a Bissau-Guinean diplomatic passport that identifies him as Malam Bacai Sanha Junior, the son of former President Malam Bacai Sanha.

Bacai Junior — known as "Bacaizinho" in Bissau — had held several government positions and served as an adviser during his father's presidency.

Meanwhile, in the United States, Bacaizinho is being investigated for drug-trafficking offenses after being arrested in Tanzania in 2022 by Drug Enforcement Administration agents. 

Several conversations between Bacaizinho, drug dealers and undercover DEA agents were wiretapped and transcribed to support the charges against Bacai Junior during a court hearing in the US state of Texas. A verdict is expected later this year.

Klaubert, journalist at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, looks into camera
David Klaubert, journalist at Frankfurter Allgemeine, was part of the team that investigated the story of Malam Bacai JúniorImage: F.A.Z.

Are mafia and Bacaizinho behind coup attempt?

The research team also had access to the DEA agents' statements that contain specific indications that Bacaizinho may have been connected to the February 2022 coup attempt in Guinea-Bissau.

"Malam Bacai Junior reportedly repeatedly told DEA undercover agents that he was personally involved in the coup attempt and still aspires to take over the presidency of Guinea-Bissau one day to establish a drug regime there," FAZ journalist David Klaubert told DW.

"Mr. Malam Bacai Junior stated that he provided funds from drug operations to the coup plotters to finance this coup," according to the transcript of a statement given to a court in Texas by an undercover agent on September 6, 2022.

"The defendant stated that the coup plotters initiated the coup attempt earlier than planned. He said that, if everything had gone according to his plan, the coup would have been successful. Question: What did the defendant consider as success? Answer: Success for him would have been the overthrow of the incumbent president, who was against drug smuggling, and the restoration of a narco-friendly state in Guinea-Bissau, similar to during his father's reign between 2009 and 2012," the statement said.

Former Guinea-Bissau President Malam Bacai Sanha wears glasses and a headset
Malam Bacai Sanha was Guinea-Bissau's president between 1999-2000, and 2009-2012Image: dapd

Klaubert said there was indeed much indication that Malam Bacai Junior is a major player in international drug smuggling.

"When you read the documents from the Italian police and the American DEA agents, it is easy to conclude that Malam Bacai Sanha Junior was a very active person in the drug trade, dealing with both heroin and cocaine," Klaubert said. 

"It is mentioned that he may have mediated deals between guerrillas in Colombia, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Italian Mafia."

Guinea-Bissau: Transit country for drugs

The Bacaizinho case highlights the complexity of the drug problem in Guinea-Bissau and the connections between drug trafficking, organized crime and political actors.

Guinea-Bissau is considered a major hub for drug trafficking — particularly for cocaine — and has experienced nine coups and attempted coups, as well as several political assassinations since gaining independence from Portugal in 1974.

Some of them can be attributed to drug cartels that have had a firm grip on the West African country since at least 2005. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Guinea-Bissau has become one of the most significant entry points for cocaine from South America on its way to Europe.

Infographic showing transit routes across Africa for cocaine trafficking

After Guinea-Bissau's most recent coup attempt, in February 2022, President Umaro Sissoco Embalo hinted to reporters that the attackers could be linked to drug trafficking.

"This coup also involves individuals against whom investigations for drug trafficking are ongoing. The fight continues!" the president declared a day after the attack.

But Embalo did not present any evidence at the time, leading to speculation that the attack may have been orchestrated by the president himself to conduct a witch hunt against dissidents.

Calls for a probe into the Bacaizinho case

"The information compiled by journalists in Germany sheds a completely new light on the coup attempt of February 1, 2022," Fode Mane, a lawyer and chairman of Guinea-Bissau's National Network for Human Rights, told DW.

He demands that the Attorney General's Office of Guinea-Bissau investigate reports regarding the involvement of Malam Bacai Sanha Junior in the coup attempt.

"This would require cooperation between the Guinean prosecutor's office and investigative authorities in the United States, Italy and Germany," Mane said.

It seems unlikely that the attorney general's office will investigate the case. In response to DW's inquiry, Guinea-Bissau's Attorney General Edmundo Mendes said that he could not comment on the case.

Drug Enforcement Administration DEA at work
The US Drug Enforcement Agency lured Malam Bacai Junior into a trapImage: KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images

Legal processing of coup is being delayed

The main suspect in the trial against the alleged coup plotters is the former chief of the Guinea-Bissau Navy Vice Admiral Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto, who has also been accused of drug smuggling by the United States in the past. In 2013, Bubo Na Tchuto was arrested by DEA agents along with four other Guinea-Bissau nationals on a boat in international waters and served a prison sentence in the United States.

"Until now, Bubo Na Tchuto has been considered the mastermind behind the February 2022 coup attempt. The emergence of Malam Bacai Junior as a new alleged ringleader is a very interesting detail. However, this information comes too late for my clients," said Marcelino Ntupe, lawyer for Bubo Na Tchuto and 25 others who were imprisoned in connection with the coup attempt.

The lawyer considers it more important that the trial of the detainees take place soon, as his clients have been in prison for over a year — some without formal charges.

Meanwhile, Malam Bacai Junior is awaiting trial in the United States. Investigation results and testimonies — including from Germany — are still being gathered.

FAZ journalist Klaubert said the proceedings were expected to be completed by the end of this year. Until then, the presumption of innocence applies regarding the accusation of drug smuggling and the accusation of being a ringleader in the coup attempt in Guinea-Bissau.

This article was originally published in German 

DW has reached out to Malam Bacai Junior's assigned counsel requesting a statement about the issues raised in this article. No response was received before publication.

While you're here: Every weekday, we host AfricaLink, a podcast packed with news, politics, culture and more. You can listen and follow AfricaLink wherever you get your podcasts