Fighting crime without police or prisons

[Guinea-Bissau] An inmate sitting in the antechamber in front of his underground cell, 27 January 2007. The state of the cells is poor with no electricity, leaking pipes and graffiti. The prison was abandoned after the war of independence that ended in 19
Un détenu assis devant sa cellule, dans l’unique centre de détention de Bissau (photo d’archives) (David Hecht/IRIN)

Loosening organized crime’s grip on Guinea-Bissau is a priority, top government officials say. But the country has no prisons and the Bijagos islands, a drug-trafficking hub off of the capital Bissau, has no judiciary police and no communications or surveillance equipment.

The Bijagos continues to be “ideal ground” for disembarking large quantities of cocaine, said Mody Ndiaye of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Bissau. Traffickers move cargo between boats or land planes on clandestine runways built on the undeveloped islands, UNODC says.

The lack of police on the Bijagos islands makes it almost impossible to apprehend criminals, said Mario Coutinho, an inspector of the Portuguese judiciary police involved in police training in the former Portuguese colony. “There are no police and no surveillance of boats at all.”

When criminals are put in one of the country’s few detention centres, getting them before a court is rare, Justice Minister Mamadou Saliu Djalo Pires told IRIN. Cases are delayed which means many suspects are set free when they reach the pre-trial detention limit of one year.

Another potential snag in cases against suspected traffickers is that Guinea-Bissau has no forensic laboratory to verify drug tests used in criminal investigations, said UNODC legal adviser Manuel Pereira.

“Criminals know they can be arrested and go to a detention centre, but there are no conditions to keep them there,” Pereira said. “This undermines the credibility of the state which is unable to exercise one of its fundamental prerogatives: to ensure the security of its people and territory.”

The country’s only prison was destroyed during the 1998-99 civil war, Justice Minister Djalo Pires told IRIN. The detention centre in Bissau has no guards and no administrative staff.


The government and donors have long talked about the importance of law enforcement, security sector and judicial reform.

Reforms have been slow to take hold, partly because of political instability, the government’s inability to effect policy changes, and a reticence on the part of donors, said an observer who requested anonymity.

European Union spokesperson in Bissau, Miguel Sousa, told IRIN the EU has drafted a number of proposed bills to kick-start these reforms, but the National Assembly has yet to review most of them. 

[Guinea-Bissau] View of the Guinea Bissau’s so-called ‘high-security detention centre’, 27 January 2007.

Guinea-Bissau's 'high-security' detention centre (file photo)...
David Hecht/IRIN
[Guinea-Bissau] View of the Guinea Bissau’s so-called ‘high-security detention centre’, 27 January 2007.
Wednesday, February 7, 2007
Fighting crime without police or prisons
[Guinea-Bissau] View of the Guinea Bissau’s so-called ‘high-security detention centre’, 27 January 2007.

Photo: David Hecht/IRIN
Guinea-Bissau's 'high-security' detention centre (file photo)

Meanwhile some agencies are pushing ahead with projects. UNODC has US$900,000 to start rehabilitating two detention centres, in Mansoa and Bafata, and plans to build a prison in Bissau, pending more funds. Getting the prisons up and running by July 2010 will require recruiting and training guards, directors and administrators, UNODC's Pereira said.

The Portuguese government is training judiciary police units in international investigatory and criminal assessment standards, police inspector Coutinho told IRIN. Thus far it has trained 140 judiciary police of 200 planned by the end of the year, he said. 

The Brazilian government hosts some of the judiciary agents to give them complementary training. Portugal is also trying to improve surveillance equipment and radio and phone links between the principal Bijagos island of Bubaque and the mainland, said Coutinho.

“It is never enough but it is a very important part of building up an investigative police force which is basic in any democratic state,” UNODC’s Pereira said.

Coutinho said the training is starting to pay off, with better coherence and communication among police units.


Justice Minister Djalo Pires said his priorities are to reform prosecution laws, many of which date to colonial times; to build up the infrastructure of prisons and the courts; and to train judiciary police, court officials and magistrates.

“The government is striving to put an end to impunity,” he said.

UNODC’s Pereira said the justice minister is motivated and “very committed to change.”

But large-scale funding – mostly from international donors – is necessary to reform the judicial sector for good, one observer said. As yet few donors have outlined their long-term funding commitments to the sector.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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