A onetime bodyguard to a former navy chief of Guinea-Bissau was sentenced on Monday to five years in a U.S. prison for engaging in a scheme to import hundreds of kilograms of cocaine into the United States.
Tchamy Yala, an ex-aide to former Rear Admiral Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Richard Berman in New York after pleading guilty to a conspiracy count in April.
“I made a mistake,” Yala told the judge through a translator. “Nobody forced me to do what I did, and I did it willingly.”
Poverty-stricken Guinea-Bissau is viewed by the United Nations as a major waypoint for Latin American cocaine headed for Europe. U.S. and European authorities have long suspected the West African country’s military is involved in the drug trade.
In 2012, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration began an undercover investigation targeting drug trafficking in West Africa.
Confidential DEA informants who posed as representatives of Latin American drug traffickers met with Na Tchuto, Yala and another aide, Papis Djeme, to cut a deal to transport cocaine from South America to Europe and the United States through Guinea Bissau, prosecutors said.
Na Tchuto, a fighter in Guinea Bissau’s 1956-1973 independence war, and the two aides were arrested on a luxury yacht off the country’s coast in April 2013.
Yala briefly had been Na Tchuto’s head bodyguard starting in 2011 before he was imprisoned for six months for treason. He was released in June 2012, just prior to the start of the conspiracy, his lawyer said in court papers.
Na Tchuto pleaded guilty during a closed hearing in May, the transcript of which was immediately sealed, court sources previously said.
Djeme, who pleaded guilty to a conspiracy count, was sentenced in September to 6-1/2 years in prison.
The DEA sting also targeted Guinea-Bissau’s then-army chief, Antonio Indjai, who led a coup in 2012 that derailed elections in the former Portuguese colony. But Indjai, who has denied running drugs, avoided arrest by refusing to go offshore.
In September, Guinea-Bissau President Jose Mario Vaz dismissed Indjai, who had led the arms forces since 2009, without giving a reason.