WASHINGTON — U.S. authorities operating at sea have arrested a former navy chief of the small West African nation of Guinea-Bissau who is suspected of being a kingpin in the international drug trade, a law enforcement official said Friday.
Four other people also were apprehended, according to the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Public television in the Cape Verde Islands reported that Rear Adm. Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto and four other Guinea-Bissau nationals were taken into custody aboard a yacht in international waters in the eastern Atlantic Ocean. It said authorities took the five into nearby Cape Verde, a former Portuguese colony, and that Na Tchuto was flown from there to the United States.
Justice Department spokeswoman Nanda Chitre declined to comment.
The U.S. 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 stopover point for ferrying cocaine to Europe, where prices have skyrocketed at the same time that demand for cocaine leveled 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. He later fled to nearby Gambia in August 2008, returning to Guinea-Bissau over a year later. He apparently feared for his life and sought refuge inside the United Nations Peacebuilding Support Office in Bissau, the country's capital.
The U.S. believes the former navy chief also was involved in organizing an April 2010 attempt to overthrow the Guinea-Bissau government.
Guinea-Bissau has been plagued by coups. The last few, including one last year, are believed to have been fueled 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. The infusion of illicit cash has emboldened an already bloated army. Drugs, observers say, played a role in the recent coup.
The arrest of Na Tchuto comes amid rumors of another looming coup in the capital.
Antonio Indjai, chief of staff of the country's armed forces, told reporters Thursday that reports that a coup was under way were false.
"They're only speculation by people of bad faith that serve to destabilize the country," Indjai said in the capital of Bissau, according to comments reported by the Agencia Noticiosa da Guine-Bissau news agency.
Associated Press writers Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Portugal; Rukmini Callimachi in Dakar, Senegal, and Alan Clendenning in Madrid contributed to this report.