Guinea-Bissau ex-navy chief held on US drug charges

Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto pictured in Gambia on July 12, 2008..  By  (AFP/File)

Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto pictured in Gambia on July 12, 2008.. By (AFP/File)

NEW YORK (AFP) – The former navy chief of Guinea-Bissau and four others were ordered detained in New York after being arrested for an alleged trans-Atlantic cocaine trafficking plot.

The highest-profile member of the alleged gang was Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto, a US-designated drug “kingpin” who is alleged to have exploited political chaos in his West African homeland to establish himself as a major middleman in the international narcotics trade.

The five were presented before a Manhattan federal judge and ordered detained without bail, but did not enter pleas, the US prosecutor’s office said in a statement.

Separately, two more men in the alleged plot were arrested in Colombia, where they are alleged to have been in league with the country’s narco-guerrilla organization FARC.

The indictment against Na Tchuto — better known as Bubo in his deeply impoverished country — and two other defendants, Papis Djeme and Tchamy Yala, alleges they plotted to aid cocaine shipments from Latin America reach their markets in the United States and Europe.

They “worked together to receive ton-quantities of cocaine, transported by vessel from South America to Guinea-Bissau, and then to store the cocaine in Guinea-Bissau before its shipment to other locations, including the United States,” the indictment says.

All three were detained after an undercover sting operation that began about last August and culminated in dramatic arrests by US agents on a boat in international waters off West Africa on Tuesday, the federal prosecutor’s office for Manhattan said.

According to prosecutors, the sting operation persuaded Bubo and his alleged accomplices that they were dealing with a cocaine broker and a cocaine supplier from Latin America. Both were actually working for the DEA, or US Drug Enforcement Administration.

During the sting, the three defendants allegedly discussed receiving shipments of cocaine of 1,000 kilograms at a time — first helping it arrive from Latin America, then moving it from Guinea-Bissau to Western markets. Bubo set his fee at $1 million per shipment, the indictment said.

The two others appearing before the judge on Friday were Manuel Mamadi Mane and Saliu Sisse.

They were charged along with the two men still in Colombia — Rafel Antonio Garavito-Garcia and Gustavo Perez-Garcia — in the related alleged conspiracy of aiding the FARC.

The prosecutor’s office said those four were charged with “storing FARC-owned cocaine in West Africa. Mane, Sisse and Garavito-Garcia are also charged with conspiring to sell weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, to be used to protect FARC cocaine processing operations in Colombia against US military forces.”

DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart said: “These DEA arrests are 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. They have no respect for borders.”

The government in Bissau said it was aware of Na Tchuto’s arrest and vowed to ensure he was properly defended in the United States.

“The government knows that rear admiral Bubo Na Tchuto is under an international arrest warrant. We do not have enough details about the conditions of his detention,” Communications Minister Fernando Vaz said.

Bubo was accused of being the leader of a coup attempt in December 2011. He was arrested and later released with 18 others in June last year on orders of the country’s current army chief.

Guinea-Bissau, a country of just 1.5 million people, has suffered chronic instability since independence from Portugal in 1974 due to conflict between the army and state.

Political instability and mismanagement have undermined the legal economy, which is mostly based on primary crops and subsistence agriculture.

Guinea-Bissau suffered its latest military-backed coup a year ago, and the current transitional government does not have full international recognition.

The United Nations Security Council last year said that drug trafficking in the troubled state had grown since the junta seized control in April.