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Caring through crime: ethical ambivalence and the cocaine trade in Bissau

  • Henrik Vigh

This article examines the way young men in Bissau, the capital of Guinea-Bissau, make sense of and engage in the transnational cocaine trade, which has established itself on the Upper Guinea coast. It describes Guinea-Bissau's emergence as a regional centre for the trafficking of cocaine from Latin America to Europe, and shows how the illegality and volatility of the commerce are socially assessed and valued. The drug connection impacts on the lives of the young men in the city in a variety of ways. While it is seen to have brought with it a range of political and societal insecurities and uncertainties, it is also perceived to offer potential livelihoods and prospects. On the one hand, cocaine is positioned as an ethically dubious commodity; on the other, its revenue and concomitant social effects are seen as morally reasonable and required. The article therefore centres on the ethical dimensions of the trade, as seen from the perspective of the youth in question, and argues that it needs to be understood in terms of situational obligations rather than abstract ideals. It approaches ethics from a relational point of view and shows how the moral evaluation and ascription of the cocaine trade are defined inter-subjectively and understood in relation to social responsibility, care and accountability.


Cet article examine comment de jeunes hommes de Bissau, la capitale de Guinée-Bissau, donnent un sens et participent au commerce transnational de la cocaïne qui s'est établi sur la côte de la Haute-Guinée. Il décrit l’émergence de la Guinée-Bissau en tant centre régional du trafic de cocaïne d'Amérique du Sud vers l'Europe, et montre comment l'illégalité et la volatilité de ce commerce sont socialement évaluées et estimées. Le trafic de drogue impacte la vie des jeunes de la ville de manières diverses. Il est perçu comme ayant apporté des insécurités et incertitudes politiques et sociétales diverses, mais aussi comme ayant le potentiel d'offrir des moyens de subsistance et des perspectives. D'un côté, on juge que la cocaïne est une marchandise éthiquement douteuse ; de l'autre, on considère que les revenus qu'elle génère et les effets sociaux concomitants sont moralement raisonnables et nécessaires. L'article se concentre donc sur les dimensions éthiques de ce commerce, perçues du point de vue des jeunes en question, et soutient qu'il faut le comprendre en termes d'obligations situationnelles plutôt que d'idéaux abstraits. Il aborde l’éthique d'un point de vue relationnel et montre comment l’évaluation et l'attribution morales du commerce de la cocaïne sont définies de manière intersubjective et interprétées au regard de la responsabilité, de la prise en charge et de l'imputabilité sociales.

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  • ISSN: 0001-9720
  • EISSN: 1750-0184
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