U.S. Faces Fight At Intersection Of Crime And Extremism

Apr 29, 2013
Originally published on May 6, 2013 10:27 am

A suspected drug kingpin from the tiny West African nation of Guinea-Bissau was captured on the high seas by agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency earlier this month, brought to Manhattan and is now awaiting trial.

The dramatic sting operation sheds light on what officials say is a growing national security threat: criminal networks teaming up with extremist organizations.

It was a classic sting operation: secret meetings in hotel rooms, video surveillance, promises of millions of dollars in payments for allowing their country to be used as transit point for cocaine, and supplying surface-to-air missiles for Colombia's FARC rebels.

What the Africans didn't realize was that they were talking to undercover agents.

And when they were lured aboard a luxury yacht to seal the deal, American agents sprang the trap. Those captured included Guinea-Bissau's former naval chief, along with four others. But one of the main organizers suspected something was up and slipped away. He remains at large.

That man, the U.S. says, is Gen. Antonio Indjai, the commander of Guinea-Bissau's military.

What makes this case extraordinary is that Indjai — who denies any wrongdoing — is not only the head of Guinea-Bissau's military, but he effectively runs the country.

Criminal Links To Extremist Groups

"Guinea-Bissau has probably been the quintessential narcostate for the past several years," says Stewart Patrick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and director of its International Institutions and Global Governance Program.

In 2008, for example, approximately $300 million worth of cocaine was transiting the country each month, Patrick says.

Officials say there is really nothing new about crime that crosses national borders.

But what is new, they say, is a growing link between drug traffickers, criminal networks and extremist groups. The Justice Department says about half of all international criminal organizations have links to radical groups, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, Hezbollah and the Taliban.

It's that intersection between crime and extremism that led the White House in 2011 to come up with a detailed strategy to fight the problem of what it calls transnational organized crime.

Gen. John Kelly sees it all firsthand as the top officer in the U.S. Southern Command, which oversees Central and South America. Cocaine is heading north to the United States. And drug traffickers are even moving tons of drugs by submarine across the Atlantic.

"And that cocaine moves across to Africa and then funds a lot of things criminal, including religious extremism and terrorism," Kelly said.

Kelly told reporters recently he is carefully monitoring what he calls a complex network that also extends into the United States.

"The network we deal with is very sophisticated and anything can move on it: people, drugs, money," he said.

Problems With U.S. Strategy

To fight back, the White House plan calls for everything from more surveillance of transnational criminal organizations to seizing bank accounts in the U.S. to training law enforcement officers in Central America. There are 56 priority actions, which Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations actually sees as a problem.

"Whenever you have a strategy that sets out 56 priority actions, you wonder how you're actually going to prioritize amongst them," he says.

But that's not the only problem with the strategy. The administration has not devoted much more money to the issue. Those on the front lines of transnational crime know they have to get by with what they've got.

"We can always do better if we had more resources, but we're going to continue to do the best we can with what we have," says Derek Maltz, who leads the DEA's special operations division.

Still other officials say that they need more support, everything from surveillance to ships. Because right now, in many cases, they're just watching the crime go by.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

An arrest on the high seas points to what authorities describe as a growing national security threat.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Federal authorities captured a one-time naval officer in the waters off Africa. He'd been an admiral for the small African nation of Guinea-Bissau.

MONTAGNE: Agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency think the admiral is also a drug kingpin. And there is another layer to this crime story.

INSKEEP: Investigators say it sheds light on links between criminal networks and terrorist groups.

NPR's Tom Bowman reports.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: It was a classic sting operation. Secret meetings in hotel rooms, video surveillance, promises of millions of dollars in payments to store tons of cocaine for later sale in the U.S., also supplying surface-to-air missiles for Colombia's FARC rebels. What the admiral and the men working with him didn't realize was they were talking to undercover agents. So when they were lured aboard a luxury yacht to seal the deal, American agents sprung the trap.

They got the former naval chief and four others, but one man slipped away. That man, the U.S. says, is General Antonio Indjai, the commander of Guinea-Bissau's military.

DEREK MALTZ: General Indjai is still at-large. He still remains a fugitive.

BOWMAN: Derek Maltz leads the DEA special operations division.

MALTZ: Hopefully, we'll grab him one day and bring him up to the Southern District of New York where he'll also face the charges.

BOWMAN: The defendants who are in the Southern District of New York have been arraigned and a court will judge whether the government can prove its allegations. For his part, General Indjai has denied any wrongdoing. But what makes this case extraordinary is the general's position as the head of Guinea-Bissau's military.

GENERAL ANTONIO INDJAI: (Foreign language spoken)

BOWMAN: Here he is speaking to a crowd two years before he and other officers seized power in a coup.

INDJAI: (Foreign language spoken)

BOWMAN: Without peace, there is no development, he says. Without peace, there's nothing we can do.

STEWART PATRICK: Guinea-Bissau has probably been the quintessential narcostate for the past several years.

BOWMAN: Stewart Patrick is with the Council on Foreign Relations and has written about transnational threats.

PATRICK: It was estimated back in 2008 that every month something like $300 million worth of cocaine was transiting the country.

BOWMAN: Officials say there is really nothing new about crime that crosses national borders. But what is new, they say, is a growing link between drug traffickers, criminal networks and terrorist groups. The Justice Department says about half of all international criminal organizations have links to extremist groups, including Colombia's FARC, Hezbollah and the Taliban.

It's that intersection between crime and extremism that led the White House in 2011 to come up with a detailed strategy to fight the problem, what it calls transnational organized crime. General John Kelly sees it all firsthand. He's a top officer in the U.S. Southern Command, which covers Central and South America. Cocaine is heading north to the United States. And drug traffickers are even moving tons of drugs by submarine across the Atlantic.

GENERAL JOHN KELLY USMC: And that cocaine moves across to Africa and then funds a lot of things criminal to include religious extremism and terrorism.

BOWMAN: General Kelly said recently, he's carefully monitoring what he calls a complex network that also extends into the United States.

USMC: The network we deal with is very sophisticated and anything can move on it, you know, people, drugs, money.

BOWMAN: To fight back, the White House plan calls for everything from more surveillance of transnational criminal organizations to seizing bank accounts in the U.S. to training law enforcement officers in Central America. There are 56 priority actions in the strategy, which Stewart Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations actually sees as a problem.

PATRICK: Whenever you have a strategy that sets out 56 priority actions, you wonder how you're actually going to prioritize amongst them.

BOWMAN: With everything a priority, nothing's a priority. There's another problem with the strategy. The administration hasn't devoted a lot more money to the problem. Those on the front lines of transnational organized crime like DEA's Derek Maltz know they have to get by with what they've got.

MALTZ: Listen. We can always, you know, do better if we had more resources but we're going to continue to do the best we can with what we have.

BOWMAN: Still other officials tell NPR they need more support, everything from surveillance to ships because right now, in many cases, they're just watching the crime go by. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.