1st NY-Liberia drug case in more than 3 decades, helped by president's son, nets 8 arrests

NEW YORK (AP) — The son of Liberia's president worked undercover with U.S. drug agents investigating a conspiracy to distribute more than $100 million in South American cocaine in Europe and Africa, authorities announced Tuesday.

Fumbah Sirleaf, the director of the Republic of Liberia National Security Agency, was among three top Liberian officials who worked secretly to help the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration capture eight defendants in a multi-ton drug conspiracy, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said.

Bharara praised Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf for standing up to drug dealers who sought to bribe high-level officials in her government to protect shipments of vast quantities of cocaine to Africa and Europe.

"Indeed, President Sirleaf put her own flesh and blood in the fight and in the line of fire," Bharara told a news conference. "What greater resolve could a leader demonstrate?"

He added that Sirleaf, who has been president since 2006 and is the only woman elected head of state in Africa, had sent a message that her country was not for sale to drug traffickers.

President Barack Obama praised the Liberian president when she visited Washington, D.C., last week. He also lauded her country's progress against poverty and corruption, saying its neighbors could learn from its emerging dedication to democracy.

In a release announcing the drug arrests, Sirleaf said: "As today's charges show, the Republic of Liberia is officially closed for business to the narcotics trade. We are strongly committed to combating international drug organizations that seek to exploit our country for their own profit."

In court papers, authorities said that the cooperating Liberian officials helped the investigation during a series of face-to-face meetings, phone conversations and telephone calls with the defendants.

The officials told the defendants that a portion of 6,000 kilograms of cocaine that was going to be flown from Venezuela to Liberia's capital, Monrovia, in three loads later would be shipped to the United States, the papers said. That intervention turned a foreign crime into a U.S. crime.

The probe led to the arrests of seven people in Liberia and one in Spain. The defendants are charged in a drug conspiracy in federal court in Manhattan. Five of the defendants have been transferred to Manhattan for trial.

All were charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine, which upon conviction carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison and a maximum of life in prison.

Prosecutors said it was the first time in more than three decades that defendants have been transferred from Liberia to New York to face drug-related charges.

Bharara said drug organizations were increasingly targeting developing countries with the hope that their governments would not be capable of stopping their influence.

The prosecutor said drug organizations had the "potential to unsettle a region, enable terrorism and facilitate the mass distribution of poison into Europe and America."

He said the destabilization of West Africa, "whether it's through drug trafficking, narco-terrorism or corruption, imperils not just the region but international security."

Liberia and the rest of West Africa, Bharara said, are at a crossroads.

"The nation and the region," he said, "can become beachheads for the narcotics trade or stand as a bulwark against it."