Pubdate: Wed, 02 Jun 2010
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2010 The New York Times Company
Authors: Benjamin Weiser and William K. Rashbaum


Over the past three years, United States authorities say, South
American drug traffickers have worked to build a base in the West
African nation of Liberia, where vast quantities of cocaine could be
sent by boat or plane and then reshipped to markets in West Africa and

As part of the plan, the traffickers met with two senior Liberian
officials, offering them millions of dollars in bribes to ensure safe
passage for the shipments.

But what the traffickers did not realize was that both of the
officials -- one of whom is the son of the country's president, Ellen
Johnson Sirleaf -- were secretly cooperating with the United States
Drug Enforcement Administration to help break the foothold of drug
rings in the region, a federal prosecutor in New York said Tuesday.

The prosecutor, Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in
Manhattan, announced the unsealing of narcotics conspiracy charges
against nine defendants in the case, underscoring the international
effort to combat a drug trade that "poses a serious threat to both

Russell Benson, who oversaw the investigation as the D.E.A.'s regional
director for Europe and Africa, said the traffickers "wanted a safe
haven that they could exploit as long as they could, and the best way
to do that down there is go to the highest level and penetrate the
government, and that's what they tried to do."

But what they did not think about was that the president's son "would
consider the rule of law more important than taking a bribe, and he
picked up the phone and called us," Mr. Benson said.

The takedown comes only days after President Obama met in Washington
with the Liberian president and described what he called the
"extraordinary cooperation" between the two countries in
counterterrorism and drug trafficking.

Building strong, uncompromised institutions was a major theme of Mr.
Obama's trip to Africa last year, and the stance taken by Liberian
officials suggested a significant step forward in what has often been
a halting effort to root out corruption on the continent.

The case also offered a very stark contrast to the fate of the son of
another Liberian president, Charles Taylor, who is on trial in The
Hague for crimes against humanity. Last year, a federal judge in Miami
sentenced Mr. Taylor's son to 97 years in prison for helping
orchestrate the killings and torture of his father's

In the joint operation announced Tuesday, federal prosecutors praised
President Sirleaf for putting "her own flesh and blood in the fight
and in the line of fire," as Mr. Bharara put it. "What greater resolve
could a leader demonstrate?"

The defendants in the case are a diverse lot, the authorities said,
and include a Russian pilot, a Nigerian narcotics broker, a Colombian
cocaine supplier and a Ghanaian maritime expert with expertise in sea
routes that could evade law enforcement radar. Another defendant and
his associates had partial ownership in a large commercial airline
that operates in the region, and they intended to use passenger
flights departing from Liberia's capital, Monrovia, to move cocaine
out of the country, an indictment charges.

Five defendants in the conspiracy were brought to New York over the
weekend, Mr. Bharara said, and they were arraigned in Federal District
Court on Tuesday. All pleaded not guilty.

Mr. Bharara said the case was the first time in more than 30 years
that the Liberian government had sent defendants to the United States
on narcotics charges. Some of the cocaine that was to have been
shipped to Liberia was to have eventually been smuggled to the United
States on a commercial airliner, Mr. Bharara said.

The defendants do not face terrorism charges, but court documents show
one planned shipment involved four tons of cocaine supplied by the
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, a rebel group that
the United States government has designated as a foreign terrorist
organization. The FARC is the world's largest supplier of cocaine, Mr.
Bharara said.

Mr. Benson said that over the past decade, there had been a huge
influx of Colombian drug organizations setting up operations in West
Africa. One technique, he said, which the groups had used throughout
Latin America, was to arrive "with a bag of cash" and see who could be
bribed for use of an airport or seaport.

"The defendants' brazen attempts to corrupt and exploit Liberia in
service of their drug business were caught on tape, both audio tape
and videotape," Mr. Bharara said, citing the undercover

In one recorded meeting last October, one conspirator met with the
president's son, Fumbah Sirleaf, who is also the director of Liberia's
national security agency, and with the deputy director to discuss
paying them an initial $200,000 in connection with a shipment of two
tons of cocaine, a complaint says. Once the shipment arrived safely in
Liberia, the document says, the officials would have received an
additional $1.4 million.

M. Nathaniel Barnes, Liberia's ambassador to the United States, said
Tuesday that the case "marks a watershed in the transformation" of his

"Just a few years ago," Mr. Barnes said, "my country was at war with
itself. Internationally, we were seen as a rogue state and a global

Now, Liberia was becoming "an active and vibrant member of the
community of nations," he said, adding, "We are warning you drug
traffickers, stay out of Liberia." 
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