x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Law agencies close in on vast drug ring

At least six international law enforcement agencies are helping Sierra Leone investigate a drug smuggling ring.

View of Freetown - Sierra Leone.
View of Freetown - Sierra Leone.

FREETOWN // At least six international law enforcement agencies are helping Sierra Leonean police investigate a drug smuggling ring that is linked to last week's record cocaine seizure and probably spans three continents, officials said. According to Sandy Jambawai, a UN official, the US Drug Enforcement Administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are working with a British team of forensic investigators, Interpol, UN Police and the International Military Assistance Training Team (Imatt).

As an assistant to Michael von der Schlenburg, head of UN operations in Sierra Leone, Mr Jambawai has been briefed by UN Police about the investigation, which began after the July 13 seizure of an aircraft loaded with 700kg of cocaine. Investigators had been monitoring the smuggling ring for months, he said in an interview. He said the United Nations and Imatt received intelligence reports that the plane would be flying from Venezuela to Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde or Sierra Leone. Close to midnight on July 12 they were told the aircraft would be arriving within hours at Sierra Leone's Lungi International Airport.

"Imatt and UN security officials were waiting for the landing," Mr Jambawai said. Inspector Ibrahim Samora of the Sierra Leone Police (SLP) confirmed that the six security agencies were involved in the investigation, which has so far netted 68 suspects, including 11 foreign nationals, whom he identified as Venezuelan, Colombian, Mexican and one US citizen. Other suspects include the head of air traffic control, three SLP officers and the brother of Sierra Leone's minister of transport and aviation, according to Mr Samora.

He said SLP were informed of the flight after it landed and quickly set up roadblocks to catch suspects as they fled the airport. The plane, which was painted with a Red Cross symbol and a different registration number on each side, landed in the dark without permission at about 3am, according to Mohammed Swaray, a spokesman for the Sierra Leone Airport Authority. As it touched down, airport security officers drove onto the runway to barricade the aircraft, which was met by a vehicle that smashed through a gate in the perimeter fence and collected the crew, he said.

"Our airport security have no weapons. All we could do was prevent take-off," Mr Swaray said. "A jeep came in full view, picked them up and sped off." The smuggling attempt comes after last month's warning by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime that South American traffickers were increasingly using west Africa as a transit point into Europe. Widespread corruption and poor law enforcement make west African states vulnerable to drug traffickers, according to a UN report published in December.

In July 2007, Venezuelan authorities seized 2.25 tonnes of cocaine on an aircraft bound for Sierra Leone, the report said. Mr Jambawai said investigators were looking into connections between that incident and the plane that landed last week. Despite the presence of remote, unmonitored landing strips throughout the country, he said investigators believed the traffickers had been regularly smuggling drugs into the international airport.

"Why did they have the audacity to land at Lungi International Airport? It really points to the complicity of high-level government officials. That is the general thinking," Mr Jambawai said. Authorities have released no evidence implicating any such officials. An internal Sierra Leone Airport Authority document leaked to a pro-opposition party website has added an extra element of intrigue to the already murky series of events leading up to the plane's arrival.

According to an incident report filed and signed by E A Macauley, the airport's head of operations, at least two "white men" gained access to the control tower and were attempting to communicate with the aircraft as it approached. Neither Mr Samora nor Mr Swaray, the airport spokesman, could identify the men. Mr Swaray confirmed that the document was genuine and said officials were "extremely concerned" about the leak.

In his report, Mr Macauley said he received a phone call about 8:50pm on July 12 from the deputy director of the Civil Aviation Authority informing him that landing clearance had been given for a "special flight" expected later that night. "He told me that permission has been granted by the minister for the flight to operate into Freetown," Mr Macauley wrote. The transport and aviation minister, Kemoh Sesay, denied giving any such permission for a "special flight" to land.

"It is a lie," he said. He added that it is "embarrassing" that his brother, Ahmed Sesay, has been arrested, but said he encouraged him to turn himself in to police after hearing his name in connection with the case. A report made public last week by Sierra Leone's Anti-Corruption Committee warned that traffickers were taking advantage of the airport's "porous security". "Drug couriers and other perpetrators of transnational crimes have been having a field day as relevant flights stop over ... on their way to Europe," according to the report.

The UN drugs office estimates that 27 per cent of the cocaine consumed in Europe - with a wholesale value of US$1.8 billion (Dh6.6bn) - is now being shipped through west Africa. Thirty tonnes of cocaine were seized in the region between 2005 and 2007, mostly through "accidental and partial seizures", according to the UN report. "Prior to that time, the entire continent combined rarely seized a ton."

Guinea-Bissau has been particularly targeted, according to the report, which notes that the impoverished country's national budget is about equal to the wholesale value of 2.25 tonnes of cocaine. The wholesale value of the cocaine seized last week in Sierra Leone is about $33 million. Sold on the streets of Europe, it would be worth about twice that amount. Antonio Mazzitelli, the UNODC's representative in west Africa, said the seizure represents only a fraction of the amount of cocaine smuggled through Sierra Leone.

In a telephone interview from Dakar, the Senegalese capital, he said the smugglers have likely been using the international airport regularly. But he added that a far larger quantity of cocaine was probably entering Sierra Leone at landing strips in more remote areas of the country. Police also found seven assault rifles on board the aircraft in Sierra Leone. @Email:jferrie@thenational.ae