Published: The New York Times
DAKAR, Senegal — For months, they met in hotel rooms and at an army base in Guinea-Bissau, plotting the exchange of thousands of pounds of cocaine and an arsenal of weapons between South America and West Africa.
The plans involved high-ranking Guinea-Bissau military officers, present and former; drug traffickers; would-be Colombian guerrillas; and, in the background, government officials of the tiny coastal country, a haven for narcotics smuggling.
The stakes were high. Millions in cash, guns and drugs were on the table, and a swaggering figure around town, the former chief of the Guinea-Bissau Navy, Rear Adm. José Américo Bubo Na Tchuto, was determined to claim his share: a cool $1 million for each 1,000 kilos of cocaine brought in under his front company. He would then store it in an underground bunker.
Mr. Na Tchuto did not know it, but some in the sweaty negotiations were Drug Enforcement Administrationoperatives. The trap had been set, and on Monday, the former admiral found himself in a Manhattan courtroom facingfederal drug trafficking charges, the culmination of elaborate American stings two weeks ago.
Mr. Na Tchuto — a veteran of his country’s war of liberation against Portugal in the 1960s and 1970s, which he joined at the age of 14 — was arrested by American agents on the high seas off West Africa on April 2, along with several other trafficking suspects.
The stings — a “very complex, very dangerous operation,” said Derek Maltz, special agent in charge of the D.E.A. special operations division — were the closing chapter of an American campaign in which Mr. Na Tchuto had been labeled a “drug kingpin” by the Treasury Department more than three years ago. At the end, the D.E.A. agents were “sitting out in the Atlantic Ocean, 30-40 hours, away from their families” to capture their prey, Mr. Maltz said.
The operations have also laid bare some of the inner workings of what has long been considered one of the world’s leading narco-states. Guinea-Bissau, an impoverished, tropical nation of 1.6 million, has a political history of nonstop coups and a seemingly endless array of coastal inlets and islands that have made it an ideal staging ground for Latin American cocaine bound for Europe.
Indeed, Mr. Na Tchuto told the operatives in August that times were quite propitious because of the weakness of the country’s government, installed with military backing after a coup a year ago, according to the indictments.
For much of the last decade, officials at the United Nations and elsewhere have suggested that the state itself, at its highest military and civilian levels, was implicated in the international narcotics trade. The stings go some way toward demonstrating it, for the first time.
The arrest of the former admiral appears to have shocked the authorities in the capital, Bissau. Last week, they dismissed the country’s top intelligence official, apparently for failing to spot the American operation unfolding under their noses over months.
“One can imagine that he was not able to provide information to his authorities about what was going on,” said the ambassador of the European Union in Bissau, Joaquin Gonzalez-Ducay, explaining the dismissal. The union does not recognize the current government, which has stalled on promised elections.
In the federal court documents, officials are depicted as demanding a cut of the imported cocaine — 13 percent; signing off on fake shipments of military uniforms to conceal the drugs; discussing the cocaine-and-arms scheme at high levels; accepting an upfront payment of 20,000 euros from the operatives; and setting up a front company to store the cocaine.
The D.E.A. operatives posed as members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the rebel group designated a terrorist organization by the United States. They met with ranking members of the Bissau military to import thousands of kilos of cocaine into the country. The Guinea-Bissau government would then buy weapons on FARC’s behalf and ship them back on the same plane that had brought in the cocaine, the indictments say.
The key intermediary in that scheme was described in the indictments as a current “high-level official in the Guinea-Bissau military,” and identified simply as “Co-Conspirator 1.”
Last July, the D.E.A.’s operatives met with him at a “military facility in Guinea-Bissau,” where the military official “acknowledged that the weapons procurement plan would go through him and the Guinea-Bissau government.”
The military official then “agreed with the proposal to ship FARC cocaine to Guinea-Bissau for later distribution in the U.S. and to procure weapons for FARC,” and he “stated that he would discuss the plan with the president of Guinea-Bissau,” the indictments say.
A spokesman for the Guinea-Bissau president, Manuel Serifo Nhamadjo, who took power last year after the military coup, has denied any involvement in the plot. For much of last year, the United States tried to work with Mr. Nhamadjo’s government, even as the D.E.A operatives were hatching their sting in the capital.
In August, one of the indicted traffickers, Manuel Mamadi Mane, “conveyed a request for military uniforms” — which would be used to hide the cocaine shipped into Bissau — “from the prime minister of Guinea-Bissau,” the indictments say.
Several months later, one of the D.E.A. operatives was shown “Guinea-Bissau government paperwork relating to the purchase of weapons,” which would have included surface-to-air missiles to shoot down American helicopters in Colombia.
The operatives who carried out the unusual stings are identified only as “confidential sources” in the indictments; no D.E.A. agents were in Bissau, said Mr. Maltz, the special agent. “It’s a narco-state,” he said. “There’s no way we would put any of our agents in Guinea-Bissau. It’s too risky.”
Mr. Maltz said there had “absolutely not” been any cooperation from the Guinea-Bissau authorities. But the arrests, particularly of Mr. Na Tchuto, may have shaken things up in Bissau.
“The era of impunity is over,” said Mr. Gonzalez-Ducay, the European Union ambassador.