How NSA Head Fombah Sirleaf helped American DEA agents to break a huge narcotic trade
Using undercover agents, the DEA spent four years trying to bring down a cocaine trafficking gang in Liberia. Was the operation a triumph in the global war on drugs or a case of American overreach?
Monrovia - Liberia has in recent years been considered a major transit point for drugs from South America to mainly Europe and the United States of America. Top Liberian security officers stand accused of allegedly aiding and abetting drug kingpins from Nigeria and other countries to use the country for their operations.
Several people have been arrested both at the Roberts International Airport and other ports of entry transporting drugs with some currently facing court trial. In December 2013, Shirat Nalwadda, 24, a Ugandan business woman, was intercepted with 2.5KG of Heroin by joint security officers on another Kenyan Airways flight at the RIA.
Prior to The Ugandan arrest there were other instances of individuals arrested with drugs, including another arrest made on December 9, 2013 when a Nigerian national identified as Uzochukwu Francis Madunagu, was intercepted at the Roberts International Airport with 8.5 KG of Heroin. Accordingly, the Nigerian was aided by one David Forkpah, an officer of the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization. Several reports, including the United Nations of expert report have all indicated how Liberia is susceptible to drugs trade.
The United Nations Panel of Experts in its November 2013 report to the UN Security Council indicated that there is increase in trade in narcotics through Liberia, noting that this can also increase demand for illicit weapons. According to the Panel’s sources, senior officials of the Government of Liberia have prevented the arrests of heroin couriers on at least two occasions in 2013.
“Although the deputy director of the Drug Enforcement Agency was dismissed on 2 August 2013 for violations of the policies and ethics of the Government of Liberia, the Panel remains concerned that networks of higher-level Liberian government officials continue to be influenced by criminal networks smuggling narcotics”, the Panel stated in its report.
Such influence, the UN Panel noted can weaken the state further and increase corruption and infighting; in particular as ranking government officials can obtain significant payments for facilitating or protecting the operations of such criminal groups.
“This can in turn drive the demand for the import of illicit weapons by individuals directly involved in the narcotics trade or by government officials seeking to maintain their lucrative profits by facilitating this trade or protecting it from competing trafficking networks” noted the report.
Good side to the Story
While some Liberian security officials have been accused of aiding and abating drugs trade, a recent publication in a British Newspaper, the Guardian indicates that the head of the National Security Agency, Fombah Sirleaf played a major role in an uncover operations by the Drug Enforcement Agency officers from the United States of America which resulted in the arrest of a Nigerian and another accomplice in Liberia who are now facing jail sentence in the US.
The publication indicates that Sirleaf uncover operations led to a business discussion for Liberia to be used in the transportation of a huge consignment of drugs from South America to Europe.
See full story as published on The Guardian
By Yudhijit Bhattacharjee
On a sultry May afternoon in 2009, a car stopped at the end of a dirt road in the Liberian capital of Monrovia. Guards toting Kalashnikov rifles opened the gate to a large house, and the vehicle rolled into the driveway, setting off a chorus of barking by a group of mastiffs caged inside the compound. A muscular Nigerian named Chigbo Umeh stepped out of the car with two Colombians, both members of a drug cartel. The three were led into an elegantly decorated living room, where one of the most powerful figures in the Liberian government was waiting.
Their host was Fombah Teh Sirleaf, the stepson of Liberia’s president and director of the country’s National Security Agency. After Sirleaf had greeted the visitors, the men sat down to talk. Chigbo, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt that showed off his biceps, opened the conversation with a line that summed up his worldview. “In this life,” he said, smiling, “you have to make some money.” He then spelled out the cartel’s proposition: it would pay Sirleaf handsomely in exchange for his help in using Liberia as a transit hub for smuggling cocaine from Colombia into Europe. The traffickers would bring the cocaine into the west African country by air and sea; from there, they would move it to cities across western Europe, where the drug fetches as much as £34,000 per kilogramme.
Sirleaf assured them of his cooperation before sitting back and letting his representative, who called himself Nabil Hage, take over. Hage, a balding man of Mediterranean descent, laid out the terms of the deal, fiddling with a pack of Marlboro Lights as he spoke. Sirleaf’s men would take care of security arrangements at the airport and at ports. For bringing in a tonne of cocaine, the traffickers would have to pay $1m upfront and provide 50kg of cocaine that Hage said would be smuggled to the United States. He was very insistent on this final point.
The meeting went on for two hours, with Chigbo and Hage doing most of the talking. Chigbo, blustery and keen to control the negotiations, cut Hage off when Hage began conversing directly with the Colombians in Spanish. “These are my people,” he told Hage sternly. “You don’t talk to them. You talk to me.” Worried about eavesdropping, Chigbo would pause the discussion every time Sirleaf’s housekeeper came in to serve drinks or empty the ashtray. One of the Colombians took notes on a tablet computer. The two sides eventually agreed to an advance payment of $200,000; the balance would be paid after the traffickers had brought their first shipment into the country.
Shortly after the visitors had left, three agents from the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) arrived. One of the agents was Sam Gaye, a friend of Sirleaf. Every minute of the meeting had been recorded by cameras hidden inside the room. What the traffickers had taken as the closing of a deal was in fact the opening of a sting operation planned by the DEA and the Liberian National Security Agency.
Reviewing the videos of the meeting, Gaye thought Chigbo’s face looked familiar. Later, when he saw a mug shot of the Nigerian, familiarity turned into recognition. “I know this guy,” Gaye said. “I arrested him in the 1990s.”
In the decades since President Richard Nixon formally declared a “war on drugs” in 1971, naming drug abuse “public enemy number one in the United States”, that war has evolved from a primarily domestic effort into an offensive that crisscrosses the globe. The DEA, formed in 1973, partnered with law enforcement agencies in Mexico and Colombia through the 80s and the 90s to help destroy marijuana plantations and cocaine labs in those countries.
Under the Ronald Reagan administration, DEA agents trained with the military and entered South American nations such as Bolivia to aid local police fight drug cartels. The argument for these incursions was straightforward: a significant portion of the drug supply into the United States originated in or passed through these countries. Disrupting the supply near the source, before it crossed over into the US, was a desirable solution.
Over the past decade, the DEA has taken the fight to other parts of the globe in the belief that breaking up drug trafficking organisations anywhere in the world benefits the United States. Elite DEA squads of commandos trained by the US military have been deployed in Afghanistan, where narco-trafficking helped fund the Taliban, as well as in Haiti, Honduras, Belize and the Dominican Republic. In recent years, the DEA has increased its presence in Africa, primarily in response to the growing footprint of Colombian and Venezuelan drug cartels in west African countries. DEA agents based in Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, Kenya and Egypt have conducted a series of investigations in the region, exercising extra-territorial authority to pursue charges against individuals overseas.
As a result, several drug traffickers arrested in West Africa have been extradited to the United States and prosecuted under US law. The trend has created the distinct impression that the DEA is, increasingly, assuming the mantle of global cop. Appearing before the US Senate caucus on international narcotics control in 2012, the DEA’s deputy administrator, Thomas Harrigan, explained the rationale behind the agency’s extended reach. “The cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, chemical, money laundering and narcoterrorism threats in Africa have an impact on the US,” he said, “particularly since some of the drug trafficking organisations that smuggle illicit drugs in the US are the same as those using Africa as a base of operations for smuggling drugs in Europe and the Middle East.”
Sam Gaye, one of the three DEA agents who led the operation to nab Chigbo and his associates, has served as a foot soldier in this expanded war. He is a bald man with kindly eyes and a quiet demeanour, closer in image to a laid-back school principal than a cop. Despite that unassuming persona – or perhaps because of it – Gaye has successfully navigated danger time and again throughout his career, having run dozens of undercover operations for the DEA. He has often played the role of a drug dealer himself.
Born in Liberia, Gaye moved to the United States when he was 20, and went to college in Philadelphia before joining the DEA 11 years later, in 1987. In one of his first cases, he posed as a corrupt African diplomat and negotiated a fake drug deal with a Dominican drug trafficker and his aide, a Washington, DC cop, at a parking lot in DC. In 1989, upon instructions from his supervisor, Gaye had an informant show up near the White House and sell him a bag of cocaine. He learned later that the operation had been requested by White House officials who wanted the bag as a prop for a speech by President George HW Bush about the nation’s fight against drugs.
In the early 90s, Gaye was posted to Nigeria to track down fugitives and leads relating to cases the DEA was pursuing in the United States. A decade later, in 2005, after stints in Haiti and Puerto Rico, Gaye returned to Nigeria for a second posting to help the DEA fight an alarming trend. Once considered a backwater of the international drug trade, West Africa was quickly becoming a hub for cocaine smuggling. Colombian cartels had already established safe passage for their contraband through Sierra Leone, Guinea Bissau and Guinea by bribing top government and military officials. In an increasingly interconnected world, these new trafficking routes were seen by the DEA to be as much of a threat to the United States as to Europe and Africa.
In the autumn of 2007, Gaye received a phone call at his office in Lagos. It was from Fombah Sirleaf, who had spent part of his childhood in Philadelphia and got to know Gaye when he was there. Sirleaf’s mother was at the time married to a distant cousin of Gaye, and Gaye often came over to their house to visit. Sirleaf, who was not yet a teenager, came to regard Gaye as a big brother. Through the decades since, their friendship had grown.
Sirleaf told Gaye he had something important to discuss with him that he couldn’t mention on the phone. Gaye flew to Monrovia for a meeting. Sirleaf said he had been approached by a cocaine trafficking organisation that wanted to use Liberia as a base. Gaye suggested that the DEA could help Sirleaf’s national security agency identify the traffickers and stop them. If Sirleaf simply turned them away, they were likely to target other officials in the Liberian government. Preventing traffickers from making inroads in Liberia wouldn’t just be an act of goodwill by the DEA – the operation would further its goal of disrupting global drug trafficking networks.
After Sirleaf’s stepmother, President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson gave her approval, the DEA and the National Security Agency began planning a sting. Leading the effort, along with Gaye, were three agents from the DEA’s special operations division in Chantilly, Virginia: Lou Milione, a former movie actor who helped capture the international arms dealer Viktor Bout, and two of Milione’s younger colleagues, James Stouch and Ryan Rapaszky.
Supervisors at the DEA suggested that Gaye play the role of Sirleaf’s assistant, but Gaye felt uneasy because he had heard that a Nigerian was involved. “I had this intuition,” he told me. “Something told me it could be somebody that could recognise me because I have put Nigerians in jail.”
The special operations division ended up assigning the primary undercover role to a Greek-American named Spyros Enotiades, a flamboyant, talkative personality who had worked with the DEA on dozens of cases before. With his Mediterranean looks, Enotiades was a natural fit for the part he’d been given: that of Nabil Hage, an ostensible member of the Lebanese expatriate community, which controls several businesses in Liberia. Picking Enotiades for the job – rather than Gaye – proved to be a prescient choice. If Gaye had been the one to represent Sirleaf in negotiating with Chigbo, the sting would have ended in an instant.
Chigbo got into the drug trade in the early 1990s, when he was a student in Lagos, studying business administration. The university shut down because of a strike just as he was getting ready to take his final exams. Frustrated by the delay in graduating, the enterprising Chigbo began helping Nigerian friends in the US to smuggle heroin from Afghanistan through Nigeria into New Jersey. He earned so much money that he forgot about returning to college when the strike ended.
But the good times were soon to be interrupted. In 1993, a DEA investigation in New Jersey led to federal indictments against Chigbo and his associates. Chigbo, who had yet to set foot in the United States, became a fugitive in the eyes of American law.
For about two years, the indictment did not change anything for Chigbo, who continued to traffic heroin through Lagos. Then, one day in 1995, before sunrise, one of Gaye’s informants led a team of Nigerian law enforcement officials – accompanied by Gaye – to an apartment in an affluent Lagos suburb where Chigbo had been living with roommates. He laughed as the team handcuffed him and marched him out of the building. He was not as nonchalant, however, when officials put him on a flight to the US, accompanied by Gaye. “Then he knew it was serious,” Gaye told me.
Frustrated by the delay in graduating, Chigbo began helping Nigerian friends in the US to smuggle heroin
Chigbo served a six-year sentence in the US, and was sent back to Nigeria after his release in 2001. If the jail term was aimed at reform, it was a failure. When he returned home, Chigbo moved up in the trafficking world. Travelling between South America, Europe and Africa, he graduated from moving heroin in and out of Nigeria to brokering deals involving hundreds of kilograms of cocaine across continents. He taught himself Spanish and built connections with members of a Colombian cartel who found in him the ideal partner to help them carve out new trafficking routes through west Africa.
After that first meeting at Sirleaf’s house in the summer of 2009, Chigbo stayed in touch with Nabil Hage by phone. In October, he returned to Monrovia for another discussion with Sirleaf and Hage that was again secretly filmed by the DEA. He attempted to convince Sirleaf to allow the drugs to come into Liberia without a downpayment, but Sirleaf and Hage would not budge. They were anxious not to arouse suspicion and did not want to lose authenticity in Chigbo’s eyes. “You need to pay $200,000 before anything can happen,” Sirleaf told Chigbo, who agreed to wire the money when he went back to Nigeria.
But the payment did not arrive as promised. Chigbo called Hage to explain that banking rules in Nigeria were causing a problem. He would have to break up the $200,000 into several smaller amounts and wire those individually into the Liberian account that Hage had provided. When he called Hage again a day or so later to say he was still having trouble, Gaye texted Chigbo from a Liberian mobile phone to make it look like a message from Sirleaf: “Chigbo, there have been too many delays. If I don’t get the money now, don’t call me anymore. The deal is off.”
Chigbo panicked. Within minutes, he called Hage to say that he was willing to pay $100,000 in cash immediately if Hage could have a trusted person to pick up the money in Lagos. Hage agreed, and Gaye began planning the pick-up, recruiting a young woman he knew in Lagos to do the job. They arranged for the exchange to take place in the lobby of the Federal Palace Hotel in downtown Lagos. At the agreed hour later that day, Chigbo’s courier showed up at the hotel and handed Gaye’s contact a bundle of $100 bills wrapped in a newspaper.
Now that real money had changed hands, the deal was on. “Chigbo figured he got Sirleaf,” Gaye told me. “He had the credibility now.” Over the next few months, from late 2009 to early 2010, Chigbo made several trips to Monrovia, sometimes accompanied by the Colombians.
With Sirleaf’s blessing guaranteed, the DEA agents and their Liberian counterparts expected the traffickers to waste no time in having the cocaine flown into Liberia. But Chigbo wanted to revise the business plan. Bringing in a single tonne of cocaine at a time would not be cost-effective for the traffickers, he explained to Hage and Sirleaf. They would need to fly in bigger shipments to make it profitable enough for investors in Colombia, and that would require a larger aircraft. “He was very articulate in explaining the breakdown of the different costs, and why the initial proposal would need to get adjusted,” the DEA’s Ryan Rapazsky told me. “It was a drug dealer’s version of economics 101.”
Chigbo’s partners only had access to small planes, and they asked for help in arranging a larger plane. The DEA had one on hand. Working a trafficking case out of neighbouring Guinea two years earlier, the agency had confiscated a Russian Antonov that, in addition to having the required capacity, was equipped with an extended fuel tank that would enable it to fly straight from Venezuela to Monrovia.
Even before the operation in Liberia began, DEA agents had been pursuing a Russian pilot named Konstantin Yaroshenko, a handsome, blue-eyed man in his 40s who they believed to be an international transporter of contraband. Since June 2009, the DEA had been looking to develop a case against him and now an informant had told them that Yaroshenko was looking for work.
The DEA thought pairing Chigbo’s partners with Yaroshenko would seem like a perfect solution to both sides. The informant put Yaroshenko in touch with Nabil Hage, who flew to Ukraine for meetings with the pilot, first in December 2009 and again in March 2010. During the conversations in March, at Kiev’s Intercontinental Hotel, Yaroshenko agreed to provide his services to Chigbo’s Colombian partners. He would fly cocaine from South America to Liberia, and then from Liberia to Ghana and other parts of Africa.
Despite soliciting Hage’s help in finding a larger aircraft and a pilot, the Colombians did not need Yaroshenko’s services to fly their first shipment from South America. By April 2010, they were finalising plans to send 2,000kg of cocaine to Monrovia by a Gulfstream business jet controlled by one of the traffickers, a Colombian named Marcel Acevedo Sarmiento. The shipment was expected to be flown in by mid-May. The traffickers still wanted to hire Yaroshenko, however, to fly a portion of the shipment from Liberia to Ghana. Chigbo would send it on from there to Europe, into the hands of bulk dealers in the Netherlands and elsewhere.
At the end of April, three of the DEA team – Stouch, Rapazsky and Milione – who had flown in and out of Liberia several times over the previous year, travelled to Monrovia once again for what they envisioned as the last phase of the sting. Chigbo was going to be there when the shipment arrived in May. Hage had invited Yaroshenko to be there as well. The plan was to seize the cocaine when it landed and swoop down on all the targets.
Then began the waiting game. Chigbo was stuck in the Netherlands because of the eruption of the Iceland volcano, which had forced thousands of flights to be cancelled from 14 April to early May. When he finally made it to Monrovia, there was still no word from the Colombians on when the shipment would arrive.
On 13 May, Hage arranged a meeting between Chigbo and Yaroshenko, who had landed in Monrovia days earlier. Hage wanted the two men to come to an agreement on the price to be paid to Yaroshenko for his first job – flying 700kg of the cocaine arriving in Monrovia to Accra, Ghana’s capital. When they met in a cosy hotel room, Hage asked Yaroshenko if he wanted a drink, and the Russian asked for tonic. “I’ll give you Coca-Cola. I know you like Coca-Cola,” Hage said with his usual aplomb. Chigbo and Yaroshenko exchanged greetings, sizing each other up. Hage told Yaroshenko that he had arranged for 200kg of that amount to be loaded on a Delta flight bound for the United States. “It’s going to be with diplomatic baggage,” Hage said, implying that the contraband would have safe passage through customs. Yaroshenko’s willingness to transport the cocaine, despite being made aware of Hage’s plan – as the investigators saw it – made the Russian potentially culpable of conspiring to violate US laws.
Hage stepped back, letting Chigbo and Yaroshenko haggle. The two discussed jobs within Africa, as well as transportation from South America to Liberia. At one point, when Chigbo remarked that Yaroshenko was asking for too much money, the Russian stood firm. “My friend, I know all prices from working from Latin America to here,” Yaroshenko said. “I know all prices.” The two agreed on a sum of $4.5m for flying a future shipment of five tonnes from Venezuela to Liberia. For the more immediate job of transporting to Ghana, Yaroshenko would be paid $1.2m.
Over the next few days, while they awaited word from Colombia, Chigbo and Hage continued to meet almost daily. Chigbo had a new business plan for Hage’s boss to consider: he wanted to build a lab in Liberia to make ecstasy and ice, an amphetamine drug. Using Fombah Sirleaf’s backing and influence, he told Hage, it would be easy to import the chemicals required to synthesise the drugs. He claimed to know 10 Mexican chemists – the best in the business – who could staff the lab. At one point, when Hage was talking about distributing ecstasy in the United States, Chigbo highlighted the perils of doing business there, without going into his firsthand experience of those risks.
“America is a delicate market,” he said.
“Everywhere is delicate,” Hage replied. “Chigbo, tell me one place where it’s not delicate. Even fucking Colombia is delicate, man.”
“Everywhere is delicate, but what I’m talking about is in the sense that everywhere else you can do it and you can get fucked up and you can go home,” Chigbo continued. That wasn’t the case in the US, he said.
He knew, he explained, because he had lived in the US for 15 years. “I went to school in America. University of Minnesota.”
“Really?,” Hage asked.
“Yes, I played football in America, I went to school on a scholarship for playing football, American football,” Chigbo replied.
“Wow. Which … which?”
“Golden Buffaloes,” Chigbo said. It sounded like a plausible name for a team.
“Really?” Hage asked, doing his best to sound admiring rather than sceptical.
“You could have been a multimillionaire without all this shit,” Hage said.
Chigbo laughed, then continued with the story. He had been drafted by the New York Jets, he said, but had to quit after a year because of an injury.
“I couldn’t perform. So that was it,” he said.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Hage replied, sounding sincere. “But you are OK now?”
“Yeah. I’m OK, you know, I’m OK.”
While these meetings were going on, Stouch and his fellow DEA agents had to cool their heels at their hotel, reviewing the recordings of each day’s conversations. As the wait for the anticipated shipment stretched from days to weeks, with the traffickers informing Hage of new delays, frustration mounted for the agents. “We called it Operation Speculation at those points,” Rapazsky told me. “When you do these cases, you get used to the drug traffickers not getting there on time.” To keep themselves occupied, the agents hit the hotel gym frequently. Stouch – who was training for a triathlon back home – ventured out to the ocean to swim whenever he could.
Finally, in mid-May, Hage got an email from Chigbo’s Colombian partner, Marcel Acevedo Sarmiento, providing the flight plan for the shipment. It said that the aeroplane would take off from Venezuela on 26 May. Weather problems got in the way, and the departure was scheduled for two days later. Then, on 29 May, Acevedo called Hage to say the plane had been seized by Venezuelan authorities on the tarmac.
The DEA and Sirleaf’s agency decided it was time to end the charade. Hage asked Chigbo to come to Sirleaf’s office the next day. When Chigbo showed up, Sirleaf’s assistant led him to a waiting room, where he found himself surrounded by policemen from the NSA. “I don’t want you to make any sudden moves, because if you do you could lose your life in this office,” the assistant told Chigbo. “I want to see the director,” Chigbo said with anguish, as he was put in handcuffs. “It must be a mistake.” Around the same time, another set of NSA cops arrested Yaroshenko at the hotel where he had been staying.
When Chigbo was being taken to another floor of the NSA headquarters for fingerprinting, Sirleaf passed him by on the stairway. “He didn’t look me in the eye,” Sirleaf told me. “I felt bad. Because you have been in this undercover capacity for such a long time, you develop a relationship, like you are friends, but really you are not. You feel so awkward. It’s a funny feeling.” While Chigbo was being fingerprinted, Gaye walked into the room. “Do you know this guy?” somebody asked Chigbo, pointing at Gaye. Chigbo nodded in recognition, his facial expression betraying a sense of unpleasant deja vu.
On April 10 2011, Chigbo, Yaroshenko and two of Chigbo’s accomplices stood in a federal courtroom in Manhattan, facing trial for conspiring to bring cocaine into the United States. The case rested on the DEA’s secret recordings of the conversations these men had had with Hage and Sirleaf over the previous year. Chigbo and the others now understood precisely why Hage had in the course of these meetings mentioned, time and again, that he intended to send a portion of the cocaine to the US. The traffickers’ acquiescence to Hage’s plan – even though they hadn’t thought of it themselves – was enough for them to be charged with violating American law.
None of the defendants except Yaroshenko had any qualms accepting their involvement in the global drug trade. Chigbo’s lawyer, Ivan Fisher, described his client as having been “for a very long time a very active international drug merchant all over the world”. But even though putting an end to drug trafficking anywhere in the world was a noble thing to do, Fisher argued, the United States government had no right to punish Chigbo for his actions as long as those actions did not harm the United States. “You see, no crime against the United States was ever afoot until this man named Nabil [Hage] went around attempting to create it,” Fisher said. He argued that Chigbo had in fact, after serving his six-year sentence in the US years earlier, effectively become a spokesperson for the DEA in the narcotics world, dissuading dealers from sending drugs to the US because of the risks involved.
In the end, that argument failed to save Chigbo. The jury delivered a guilty verdict for him as well as for Yaroshenko. Chigbo was later sentenced to 30 years in prison, and Yaroshenko was handed a 20-year sentence. Acevedo Sarmiento, who was to supply the cocaine, was arrested by Colombian authorities and extradited to the US. He pleaded guilty and, in March 2013, was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Chigbo and I began talking by email and phone shortly after he was placed in a medium-security prison in Allentown, Pennsylvania, to begin serving his sentence. He called me once on his 44th birthday to tell me how angry he was to be thousands of miles away from friends and family. “What I did in Africa is wrong. My way of life is wrong,” he told me. “But I have nothing to do with the United States. I did not live here. I did not go to school here. I did not pay taxes here. I never asked for a loan from a US bank to start my business in Africa. I believe I have the right to make my living the way in the way I see fit in Africa, and if Nigerian law caught up with me, I should be punished there, not in the United States of America.”
Chigbo told me that he had explicitly advised against sending cocaine to the US – Europe was a more profitable market
In later conversations, Chigbo told me that he had explicitly advised Hage and Sirleaf against sending cocaine to the US, since Europe was a far more profitable market. The price of bulk cocaine in parts of the US is comparable to what it sells for in countries such as Nigeria and Ghana, Chigbo wrote to me in an email. The shipment from South America would have fetched $21,000 per kilogramme in Liberia itself and $25,000 per kilogramme in Ghana, he said, while selling for a marginally higher $27,000 per kilogramme in New York – about half the price it would command in Italy or France. “The ultimate goal of a drug dealer is to make money and make it safe,” he told me. Knowing the risks of transporting cocaine from Africa to the US, and given the slim profit margin, “tell me who will be doing that kind of deal?” Chigbo asked. “Only the delusional DEA.”
I asked Milione what he thought of Chigbo’s defence. Milione did not deny that it would generally make more economic sense for traffickers to ship cocaine from west Africa to Europe rather than to the US. However, he said, that would not automatically preclude traffickers from also taking advantage of opportunities to send a supply to the US. For example, if a trafficker had a trustworthy contact at an airline flying to New York, Milione explained, the trafficker would not mind sending a shipment there, even if the profit were smaller than selling to Europe. “The connection that they have at the airport in west Africa is the one that’s going to give them personal profit,” he told me. “They don’t care about the logic. They care about making money.”
Even though the US was not their chosen destination country, Milione denied that Chigbo and Yaroshenko were hapless victims of a DEA trap. “They knew that a portion of what was coming into Liberia was going to go to the United States. They didn’t choose to walk away,” he said. “They were nervous about that fact because they didn’t want to necessarily expose themselves to US laws but they still went forward on it.”
Milione portrayed the investigation less as an example of the US policing the world and more as a strategic strike against the multi-headed hydra of global drug trafficking – intended to help both the United States and its allies in Europe and Africa. “There was a national security interest in making sure that the trafficking groups that are in west Africa don’t believe they are completely untouchable,” Milione said.
Some have questioned the policy, especially the lengths to which the DEA is going to in order to bring these cases under US jurisdiction. As Jeralyn Merritt, a criminal-defence lawyer in Colorado, puts it on her blog, TalkLeft: “Considering unless the DEA demands otherwise, the (illusory) drugs are going from South America to Africa to Europe, why is it even their business to intervene? Or to steer non-US criminal activity into the US?”
The intervention does appear to be having an impact, however. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the estimated flow of cocaine through west Africa declined from 43 tonnes in 2007 to 16 tonnes in 2013. Bruce Bagley, an international studies professor at the University of Miami who examines the effects of the narcotics trade on security, believes it is worthwhile for the US to continue dismantling drug trafficking networks in the region. “The US needs to disrupt these organisations in west Africa to prevent them from growing much stronger and threatening many weakly institutionalised African governments in danger of becoming failed states,” he says.
For Sirleaf and Gaye, who now runs a security company in Monrovia, the operation’s success was more than an accomplishment in law enforcement. It was also a tribute to their friendship and shared love for Liberia. If the traffickers had succeeded in developing a base on Liberian soil, they told me, it would have done incalculable harm to the country’s future. “It would have been terrible,” Sirleaf said. “When you infuse that kind of money into a political system, you’re going to turn it into a narco-state.”
Yudhijit Bhattacharjee is a Washington, DC-based writer whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, National Geographic and other publications. He is currently at work on a nonfiction thriller, The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell.