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Ex-African navy chief accused in U.S. cocaine smuggling bust

By Laura Smith-Spark and Umaro Djau, CNN
updated 8:39 AM EDT, Sat April 6, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ex-Guinea-Bissau navy chief Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto is accused of smuggling cocaine
  • He and four other Guinea-Bissau nationals face charges in a U.S. court
  • They and two Colombians were arrested as part of a DEA undercover operation
  • They are accused of conspiring to smuggle FARC-owned drugs to the U.S. via West Africa

(CNN) -- A former African naval chief appeared in a New York City court Friday accused of being a drug kingpin involved in smuggling cocaine from Latin American paramilitaries into the United States.

Rear Adm. Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto, once head of Guinea Bissau's navy, was seized on a boat on the Atlantic Ocean by officials from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

Four other Guinea-Bissau citizens -- Manuel Mamadi Mane, Saliu Sisse, Papis Djeme and Tchamy Yala -- have also been detained.

Two more men, Rafael Antonio Garavito-Garcia and Gustavo Perez-Garcia, both Colombian, were arrested in a related operation Friday in Colombia. They remain there pending extradition to the United States.

The five African men appeared in a U.S. Magistrate Court in New York Friday.

DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart said the arrests were "significant victories" against terrorism and international drug trafficking.

"Alleged narco-terrorists such as these, who traffic drugs in West Africa and elsewhere, are some of the world's most violent and brutal criminals," she said in a DEA statement. "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."

According to the DEA, Na Tchuto, Djeme and Yala all face charges of conspiracy to import narcotics into the United States. If found guilty, they could face life in prison.

Na Tchuto was designated a drug kingpin by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2010, at which point he was chief of staff of Guinea-Bissau's navy. He was subsequently arrested over his alleged involvement in an attempted coup in 2011 and then freed after another coup in 2012.

The two Colombians, along with Mane and Sisse, were charged with conspiring to engage in narco-terrorism; conspiring to import narcotics into the United States; and conspiring to provide aid to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, as the guerrilla group is commonly known, by storing FARC-owned cocaine in West Africa.

Mane, Sisse and Garavito-Garcia were also charged with conspiring to sell weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, to be used to protect FARC cocaine processing operations in Colombia against U.S. military forces.

The arrests were the culmination of a long-standing undercover operation in Guinea-Bissau and elsewhere, the DEA said.

Na Tchuto, Djeme and Yala were detained Tuesday in international waters near Cape Verde, off the West African coast, the DEA said, while Mane and Sisse were arrested in a West African nation two days later and handed over to U.S. authorities. They were then flown to the United States.

Guinea-Bissau, a small coastal nation of about 1.6 million people sandwiched between Senegal and Guinea, has been wracked by successive coups and attempted coups since it gained independence from Portugal in 1974.

The current transitional government took over after the last military-backed coup in April 2012.

A U.S. Justice Department report in 2011 highlighted West Africa's growing role in the international drugs trade -- and put Guinea-Bissau at the center of that illegal activity.

"Due to its lack of law enforcement capabilities, its susceptibility to corruption, its porous borders, and its strategic location, Guinea-Bissau remains a significant hub of narcotics trafficking on the verge of developing into a narco-state," the report said.

"While many officials within the Government of Guinea-Bissau recognize the extent of the drug problem and express a willingness to address it, a crippling lack of resources and capacity remains a hindrance to real progress in combating drug trafficking."

The report pointed to Na Tchuto's then-position as navy chief as "likely to further entrench drug cartels in the permissive operating conditions prevailing in Guinea-Bissau."

According to the indictment unsealed Friday in New York, Mane, Sisse, Garavito-Garcia and Perez-Garcia "agreed to receive and store multi-ton shipments of FARC-owned cocaine in Guinea-Bissau" where it would be held before being shipped to the United States. Once there, it would be sold for the FARC's gain.

The defendants also agreed that "a portion of the cocaine would be used to pay Guinea-Bissau government officials for providing safe passage for the cocaine through Guinea-Bissau."

Na Tchuto, in discussions with undercover DEA sources, allegedly noted that it would be a good time to carry out the plan because the Guinea Bissau government was weak after the recent coup.

He allegedly offered to use a company he owned to help with the plan and said his fee would be $1 million per 1,000 kilograms of cocaine received in Guinea Bissau, the indictment said.

The FARC, designated a foreign terrorist organization by the United States, and the Colombian government have been at war since the 1960s.

Though it began as an insurgency and continues to champion leftist causes, the FARC is sometimes criticized for eschewing its beliefs in favor of running drugs. Colombia is one of the world's top cocaine producers, and the FARC is thought to make hundreds of millions of dollars from the illicit trade each year.

The five African suspects are due back in court later this month.

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