A former navy chief of the small West African nation of Guinea-Bissau who is suspected of being a kingpin in the international cocaine trade was brought to the U.S. for trial on drug charges following his arrest at sea by federal drug agents, authorities said Friday.
Four other men apprehended in the operation also were brought to New York for trial, the Drug Enforcement Administration and federal prosecutors said in a joint release. Two more men were arrested in Colombia Friday as part of a related investigation and were awaiting extradition.
Rear Adm. Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto and two other Guinea-Bissau nationals were taken into custody Tuesday aboard a vessel in international waters in the eastern Atlantic Ocean while two others were arrested Thursday in a West African country and later transferred to U.S. custody, the release said. Na Tchuto was charged with conspiring to import narcotics into the United States. Three others were charged with conspiring to sell weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, to be used to protect the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, cocaine processing operations in Colombia against U.S. military forces.
The arrests were made based on evidence gathered by confidential sources who posed as representatives or associates of the FARC as they communicated with the defendants beginning last summer, authorities said. Prosecutors said the evidence includes a series of audio recordings and videotaped meetings over several months in Guinea-Bissau.
According to court papers, the defendants agreed to receive cocaine off the coast of Guinea-Bissau and to store the cocaine in storage houses there prior to their shipment to the United States. The U.S. government alleged that the defendants also agreed that a portion of the cocaine would be used to pay Guinea-Bissau government officials to provide safe passage for the cocaine through Guineau-Bissau.
Prosecutors said Na Tchuto discussed shipping ton-quantities of cocaine from South America to Guinea Bissau by sea, saying it was a good time to transport drugs because Guinea Bissau government was weak because of a recent coup d'etat. They said he also said his fee would be $1 million per 1,000 kilograms of cocaine received in Guinea Bissau for the use of a company he owned to hide the shipments before they were moved to the United States. If convicted, he could face life in prison.
DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart called the arrests "significant victories against terrorism and international drug trafficking."
She added: "Alleged narco-terrorists such as these, who traffick drugs in West Africa and elsewhere, are some of the world's most violent and brutal criminals. They have no respect for borders, and no regard for either the rule of law or who they harm as a result of their criminal endeavors. These cases further illustrate frightening links between global drug trafficking and the financing of terror networks."
All five defendants were ordered held without bail after brief appearances in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, where they seemed to struggle to understand Portuguese and creole translators.
Sabrina Shroff, an assistant federal defender, declined to comment after representing Na Tchuto.
The U.S. Treasury Department designated Na Tchuto as a drug kingpin in 2010 for his alleged role in the cocaine trade in Guinea-Bissau, freezing any assets he may have had in the United States. For at least a decade, Guinea-Bissau has played a key role in the drug trade. The country's archipelago of virgin islands has been used by Latin American cartels as a stopover point for ferrying cocaine to Europe, where prices have skyrocketed at the same time that demand for cocaine leveled off in North America.
A former navy chief of staff, Na Tchuto is believed to have played a role in the arrival of a plane carrying hundreds of pounds of cocaine from Venezuela to Guinea-Bissau in July 2008, according to a statement from the Treasury Department. He later fled to nearby Gambia in August 2008, returning to Guinea-Bissau over a year later. He apparently feared for his life and sought refuge inside the United Nations Peacebuilding Support Office in Bissau, the country's capital.
The U.S. believes the former navy chief also was involved in organizing an April 2010 attempt to overthrow the Guinea-Bissau government.
Fernando Vaz, the spokesman for the government of Guinea-Bissau, said he hoped America would provide Na Tchuto a fair legal defense.
Guinea-Bissau has been plagued by coups. The last few, including one last year, are believed to have been fueled by an internal power struggle over which wing of the military would control the drug trade.
A booming cocaine trade has turned Guinea-Bissau into a narco-state. Key members of the military have been named as complicit in the trade, including several army and navy chiefs who are now on the United States' drug kingpin list. The infusion of illicit cash has emboldened an already bloated army. Drugs, observers say, played a role in the recent coup.
The arrest of Na Tchuto comes amid rumors of another looming coup in the capital.
Antonio Indjai, chief of staff of the country's armed forces, told reporters Thursday that reports that a coup was under way were false.
"They're only speculation by people of bad faith that serve to destabilize the country," Indjai said in the capital of Bissau, according to comments reported by the Agencia Noticiosa da Guine-Bissau news agency.
Yost reported from Washington. AP writers including Lassana Cassama in Bissau, Guinea-Bissau; Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Portugal; Rukmini Callimachi in Dakar, Senegal, and Alan Clendenning in Madrid contributed to this report.