A group of men accused of trying to set up a cocaine-smuggling route into Liberia from South America have been arrested in a US-led operation and will face charges in New York, officials say.
The eight men were attempting to make the West African state a base of operations from which to move cocaine to Europe’s highly lucrative market, US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) officials say.
Court documents unsealed yesterday in Manhattan federal court revealed the sting benefited from the undercover support of Fumbah Sirleaf, the son of Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. As head of the state security agency, he pretended to accept bribes and recorded conversations with the would-be traffickers, the documents showed.
“Drug-trafficking organizations based in South America, predominantly in Columbia and Venezuela, have increasingly exploited countries in West Africa as trans-shipment hubs for importing by air and by sea hundreds of metric tonnes of cocaine … worth literally billions of dollars,” US Attorney Preet Bharara told reporters.
Calling this a “very, very real, not aspirational, plan,” Bharara said the defendants were planning to ship a total of six metric tonnes of cocaine into Liberia.
Europe’s strong currency, growing demand and higher price per kilo (2.2 lb) have become strong incentives for drug groups in South America to increase sales there, DEA chief of operations Thomas Harrigan says.
More than 100 metric tonnes of cocaine per year is shipped to Africa from South America, he says.
But Liberia, unlike other West African states, alerted US authorities when in 2007 the suspects began setting up the transport route, DEA officials says.
Some of the organizations trying to send cocaine to Liberia received a portion of the drugs from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Bharara says.
Chigbo Peter Umeh, Konstantin Yaroshenko, Gilbrilla Kamara, Ali Sesay and Gennor Jalloh were arrested in Liberia’s capital Monrovia and transferred to New York on Monday, prosecutors said. Nathaniel French and Kudufia Mawuko were arrested in Liberia yesterday and another suspect, Jorge Ivan Salazar Castano, is in custody in Spain.
They are charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine and face up to life in prison if convicted. Five of the men had pleaded not guilty as of late yesterday, authorities say.
Pic: Boeing 727 drug loaded plane crash in the Mali desert