updated 7/31/2008 8:23:51 PM ET 2008-08-01T00:23:51

The justice minister of Guinea-Bissau said she received two telephone threats early Thursday for her investigation into the landing of a suspected drug plane, marking an escalation in the local drug war.

U.N. drug officials said the late-night threats, while worrying, are also an indication that the traffickers themselves feel threatened.

"You don't go to such lengths as to threaten a minister if you don't feel in danger," said Antonio Mazzitelli, West Africa director of the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime, who called a press conference in Dakar Thursday to address the development.

Carmelita Pires, Guinea-Bissau's justice minister, said she was awoken at around 1 and 2:20 a.m. Thursday by unidentified male callers. The first said: "Shut up. You talk too much. It's enough," according to a transcript of her statements to reporters at a press conference in Guinea-Bissau Thursday.

The second caller, a different man, said: "You think we're kidding? Put your hand in the fire and see. You're digging your own tomb. You can't say we didn't warn you."

Seized plane may have been carrying cocaine
Pires' office, helped by Interpol, the FBI and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, seized a plane that landed at the country's international airport July 12. Drug-sniffing dogs sent by Interpol indicated the private jet, believed to have originated in South America, had been carrying cocaine, said Mazzitelli.

No drugs were found inside the plane, most likely because the plane was left parked at the terminal for five days before authorities in Guinea-Bissau were able to arrange to seize it, said Mazzitelli.

Three Venezuelan crew members have been detained, one of whom is the subject of a previous arrest warrant in Mexico for smuggling over 5 tons of cocaine, said Mazzitelli.

"It's important to note that there was no seizure. Not one gram of cocaine was found," he said. "We are starting to touch the traffickers through our investigations. We are making them afraid through what we know."

Guinea-Bissau, a forested country ringed by an archipelago of deserted islands, is believed to be one of the main transit points for smugglers who ferry an estimated 40 tons of South American cocaine to Europe every year. Because the price of the drug in Europe is now double what it is in America, traffickers are increasingly transporting cocaine to Africa, where it can be parceled out to hundreds of individual carriers, or "mules," who ferry it north.

Guinea-Bissau too poor for prison
Guinea-Bissau is so poor it has no prison. Its police officers have no handcuffs nor enough money to pay for gasoline for squad cars. The country's poverty has made it a perfect partner for traffickers who are believed to have bought off key members of the government, say diplomats and drug experts.

The threats received by the justice minister come after similar threats were received by the country's attorney general, another key player in the ongoing plane investigation. Earlier this summer, a police officer was kidnapped and tortured to death. His body was dumped in front of the office of the Judicial Police, the unit in charge of anti-narcotics, said Mazzitelli.

Last year, a Western diplomat who had been outspoken about Guinea-Bissau's role as a narcostate, began to receive telephone threats. He and his family left the country after determining they were no longer safe.

"I will not turn my back on this fight. I will not relinquish my responsibility," Pires told reporters. "But I'm scared. Who wouldn't be?"

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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