According to indictments filed against nine alleged narco-traffickers in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, Teh Sirleaf played a vital and, until now, secret role in smashing an international drug ring.
Prosecutors allege that the gang -- whose members came from South America, Africa and Russia -- planned to ship vast quantities of cocaine from Latin America to Liberia and on to Europe and the U.S. As AOL News reported earlier this year, impoverished and corrupt West Africa is now a crucial transit point for Colombian cartels looking to move product into Europe. According to the United Nations, some 50 tons of cocaine worth over $1 billion is shipped across the Atlantic every year by plane and boat and then unloaded in the region.
The traffickers had apparently been trying since 2007 to win over Teh Sirleaf, who serves as the director of Liberia's National Security Agency, hoping that -- like so many other West African officials -- he and his deputy would abuse their positions of power in return for cash payments and protect their drug shipments.
"What the defendants didn't know, however, was that the Liberian national security officials they were allegedly trying to bribe were actually working undercover as part of a long-term, coordinated investigation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration," U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara told a press conference in New York on Tuesday. "And as a result, the defendants' brazen attempts to corrupt and exploit Liberia in service of their drug business were caught on tape -- audio and video."
One of those recordings, made in May 2009, detailed a meeting between Teh Sirleaf, his deputy and two of the men charged in New York: Chigbo Umeh of Nigeria -- thought to be a local fixer connected with various Latin American cartels -- and Colombian Jorge Salazar Castano, who organized the international drug shipments.
The pair allegedly offered the two government figures $400,000 if they guaranteed safe passage for 1,500 pounds of cocaine being transported from South America to Liberia. According to the indictment, the suspects boasted about being old hands at the drug business, claiming they had previously sent 2,000 pounds of coke in a plane to nearby Guinea Bissau and flown cargoes into neighboring Guinea. In other taped conversations, Umeh allegedly stated that they dealt in coke supplied by the leftist Colombian militant group FARC, which has been designated a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S.
Some five months later, according to the indictment, the traffickers offered to hand Teh Sirleaf and his deputy $200,000 as a "security payment" in return for helping out with a 4,400-pound shipment. A few weeks later, an associate of Umeh's delivered the first part of that down payment -- $100,000 in cash -- in Lagos, Nigeria.
Teh Sirleaf's cooperation led to the arrest May 28 and 29 in Liberia of eight suspects, including Umeh. The group was then flown to New York to face court proceedings. The U.S. claims jurisdiction, as the suspects allegedly wanted to ship a small potion of the drugs to the U.S. All have pleaded not guilty to charges of drug trafficking. Salazar Castano is in custody in Spain on separate charges.
U.S. officials have praised the involvement of the Liberian government in such a risky and long-running operation. "President Sirleaf has put her own flesh and blood in the fight and in the line of fire," said Bharara. "What greater resolve could a leader demonstrate?"