LONDON Thriller writer Frederick Forsyth is renowned for his meticulous research, and a fact-finding mission for his latest novel about the international cocaine trade landed him in the middle of a bloody coup.
Forsyth, whose books include "The Day of the Jackal," "The Odessa File" and "The Fourth Protocol," flew to Guinea-Bissau in 2009 to investigate its role in moving cocaine from South America to markets across Europe.
Dubbed a "narco-state," the tiny West African country has become a hub of the international drugs trade according to UN officials, and billions of dollars worth of cocaine are believed to pass through the mostly poor, weak nations of the region.
Forsyth, keen to discover more for his novel "The Cobra," posed as a bird-watcher and flew to the former Portuguese colony, only to find himself in the middle of political chaos.
"It was just my luck that I landed during a coup d'etat," the former journalist told Reuters in an interview.
"Someone had blown up the head of the army and the army were coming into town to avenge whoever did it and I landed about an hour before they came," added the Briton.
"I installed myself in a hotel, couldn't sleep, was reading and heard a hell of a bang down the street and I knew it was not thunder but an explosion."
The blast and subsequent noise were in fact an attack on President Joao Bernardo Vieira, who was killed apparently in revenge for the assassination of armed forces chief of staff General Batista Tagme Na Wai hours earlier.
On his return, Forsyth contracted septicemia in his left leg, presumably from a sting or scratch in Africa, and spent several weeks in hospital before resuming his research.
"WHAT IF?" SCENARIO
In The Cobra, Forsyth imagines what might happen if the U.S. president, in this case a character clearly based on Barack Obama, declared all-out war on the Colombian drug cartels and middlemen involved in getting cocaine to the market.
By declaring drug traders and cartel members terrorists, he immediately subjects them to greater judicial pressure, something the author believes would make hunting the criminals down significantly easier.
"In all these interceptions, there's a constant awareness of the drug traffickers' human rights," Forsyth said.
"They have to be caught alive and be brought before a judge, they can hire expensive attorneys who usually get bail ... This is ridiculous, it's a joke. If you reclassified them as terrorists you can do what you like. So far they haven't."
Brought in to lead the clandestine attack on the cocaine business is ruthless former CIA director Paul Devereaux, the man they call The Cobra.
He joins forces with former army hero Calvin Dexter to hit at the heart of the trade, which he identifies as cocaine's transportation by boat, and uses a budget of $2 billion to target vessels and corrupt officials in a global operation.
From covert special forces operations to blackmail, the plot jumps from one country to another.
By cutting off a large percentage of cocaine supply to key markets, Devereaux sparks civil war among rival gangs but when the violence spirals, U.S. government support begins to waver.
"Apparently, if you halved the supply (of cocaine) either by stopping it leaving Colombia or taking it mid-air or mid-ocean or at a port what would happen is, just as wolves do when they run out of fresh food, people would turn on each other.
"These are people who would wipe out an airliner to silence one man."
Readers may wonder whether Forsyth's ideas could work in reality, but he concedes they are unlikely ever to be tried.
The Cobra is released on Tuesday in the United States by G.P. Putnam's Sons, part of the Penguin Group (USA).
(Editing by Steve Addison)