A former navy chief of the small west African nation of Guinea-Bissau who is suspected of being a kingpin in the international cocaine trade was brought to the US for trial on drug charges following his arrest at sea by federal agents, authorities have said.
A spokesman for the Manhattan federal prosecutor's office told AFP news agency on Friday that Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto was in custody in the city.
"His arraignment will be today," the spokesman said on Friday.
The indictment against Na Tchuto - better known as Bubo in his deeply impoverished homeland - and four other defendants, Manuel Mamadi Mane, Saliu Sisse, Papis Djeme and Tchamy Yala, says they were middlemen in a huge drug smuggling operation originating in Latin America.
Guinea-Bissau's islands have been used for at least a decade by Latin American cartels as a stop-over point for trafficking cocaine into Europe.
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The five defendants were presented in a US Magistrate Court in Manhattan on Friday, according to a US Department of Justice statement.
Na Tchuto, Djeme and Yala face charges of conspiring to import narcotics into the US.
Mane, Sisse, and two Colombian men who were arrested in a separate action are charged with conspiring to engage in narco-terrorism, conspiring to import narcotics into the US and conspiring to provide aid to Colombia's FARC rebel group by storing FARC-owned cocaine in West Africa, the statement said.
Na Tchuto and two other Guinea-Bissau nationals were taken into custody on Tuesday aboard a vessel in international waters in the eastern Atlantic Ocean, the release said.
Stop-over to Europe
According to court papers, the defendants agreed to receive cocaine off the coast of Guinea-Bissau and to store the cocaine in storage houses there prior to their shipment to the US.
The US government alleged that the defendants also agreed that a portion of the cocaine would be used to pay Guinea-Bissau government officials to provide safe passage for the cocaine through the African country.
Prosecutors said Na Tchuto discussed shipping tonne-quantities of cocaine from South America to Guinea Bissau by sea, saying it was a good time to transport drugs because Guinea Bissau government was weak because of a recent coup d'etat.
They said he also said his fee would be $1 million per 1,000 kg of cocaine received in Guinea Bissau for the use of a company he owned to hide the shipments before they were moved to the US. If convicted, he could face life in prison.
The US Treasury Department designated Na Tchuto as a drug kingpin in 2010 for his alleged role in the cocaine trade in Guinea-Bissau, freezing any assets he may have had in the United States.
For at least a decade, Guinea-Bissau has played a key role in the drug trade. The country's archipelago of virgin islands has been used by Latin American cartels as a stop-over point for ferrying cocaine to Europe, where prices have skyrocketed at the same time that demand for cocaine levelled off in North America.
A former navy chief of staff, Na Tchuto is believed to have played a role in the arrival of a plane carrying hundreds of pounds of cocaine from Venezuela to Guinea-Bissau in July 2008, according to a statement from the Treasury Department.
Fernando Vaz, the spokesman for the government of Guinea-Bissau, said he hoped America would provide Na Tchuto a fair legal defence.
Guinea-Bissau has been plagued by coups. The last few, including one last year, are believed to have been fuelled by an internal power struggle over which wing of the military would control the drug trade.
A booming cocaine trade has turned Guinea-Bissau into a narco-state. Key members of the military have been named as complicit in the trade, including several army and navy chiefs who are now on the United States' drug kingpin list.