Liberia: How Organized Criminal Syndicate Camouflaged Cocaine in Frozen Foods Containers, Shipped to Monrovia
Monrovia – Long before the Liberia Drug Enforcement Agency and the National Security Agency received a tip-off from the US Embassy in Monrovia regarding a reported US$100 million worth of cocaine placed in a container bound for Monrovia, a FrontPageAfrica investigation has gathered that Oliver Zayzay, a Liberian national had booked three rooms at the Royal Grand Hotel for what is now believed to be the three of the ringleaders behind the shipment.
Report by Rodney D. Sieh, [email protected]
Zayzay is now considered a person of interest and is currently on the run. His Facebook profile lists him as CEO of Sky River Security and VIP Protection Services and Oliver Car Rental Service. He reportedly doubles as a customs broker.
Two Suspects Now in Custody
The trio, Gustavo Henrique, a Brazilian, Adulai Djibril, a Portuguese and Malam Conte from Guinea Bissau are believed to have been part of an advanced team tracking the drugs to its Liberia destination. After a brief stay at Royal, the trio later transferred to Boulevard Hotel where they were staying until the bust unraveled Saturday morning.
A fourth suspect, a Lebanese national identified as Issam Makki who resides in Liberia, was arrested on the Sierra Leone side of the Liberian border early Sunday morning while trying to escape.
Makki, according to investigators, was part of the cartel tasked with negotiating with local businesses to buy their container once the frozen goods arrive at the port in Monrovia.
Guinea Bissau, a former Portuguese colony near the Atlantic Ocean has been labeled by both the US and the UN as a “narco-state”, making it the first time that such a label had been given to an African state.
Brazil is notorious for being one of the top suppliers of cocaine to Europe, transforming the country’s role in the trans-Atlantic drug trade and is also regarded as a critical launch pad to get the drug across the ocean.
According to a Reuters analysis of customs data on cocaine seizures, Brazilian gangs are now integral players feeding Europe’s cocaine market, valued at more than 9 billion euros ($10.15 billion).
Malam, 31, was arrested around 9:00am Saturday, in plain view following well-verified intelligence from the U.S. government.
The Bust Unravels
Malam, according to investigative sources tried to purchase some of the frozen goods in the container, unknowing to the merchants who had no idea that cocaine had been planted in the container prior to its arrival at the port of Monrovia.
Malam offered to spend as much as two hundred thousand United States dollars on a few boxes of frozen goods in the container that costs between $US15.00 and $US20.00 a box, raising a red flag and triggered the interest of US investigators and embassy officials, who alerted the NSA and the DEA.
At about 1:00 PM, officers of the Drug Enforcement Agency stormed the SONIT Liberia Inc. compound and seized from there a huge quantity of raw cocaine concealed among frozen goods owned by SONIT Inc.
SONIT Incorporated is frozen food company located in Topoe Village along the Japanese Free Way. However, the company has distanced itself from the act and has since collaborated with the LDEA to ensure the arrest. The value of the confiscated drug is about Hundred Million United States Dollar (100,000,000).
Following the arrest, suspect Conte admitted having connection with the consignment and iterated that he had arrived in the country about two weeks ago to await the consignment.
During preliminary investigation, suspect Conte said he was asked by his international partners to follow the consignment and ensure it reaches the destination. However, he did not say as to whether Liberia was the destination.
Authorities also established that suspect Malam arrived in the country with two other accomplices who checked in at the Royal Grand Hotel. They later moved over to the Boulevard Palace Hotel where the LDEA was able to pick up additional information leading towards their syndicate.
Suspects Gustavo Henrique, a Brazilian, Adulai Djibril a Portuguese who both accompanied Malam were not in their hotel room at the time the LDEA and NSA agents arrived.
Suspect Malam is currently under the LDEA custody undergoing full scale investigation, while suspects Gustavo Henrique and Adulai Djibril are at large.
Zayzay is believed to be the point man in Liberia for the organized criminal operation. Zayzay has not been seen or heard from since the bust as authorities from both the DEA and the NSA launch dragnets in a bid to capture him. Authorities believe Zayzay may be trying to flee the country.
Authorities believe that the drugs were reportedly manufactured in Colombia, packaged and loaded on a container and Brazil before making its way to Liberia.
Vulnerable Region for Transshipment
The cartel reportedly infiltrated the Maersk shipping line and had the cocaine packaged with frozen goods.
Like most countries in the West African subregion, Liberia is a major transit point for illicit drugs from South America to Europe or the United States of America. The Gambia, and Guinea Bissau are the main transit route for South America.
One diplomatic observer told FrontPageAfrica at the weekend that Liberia’s coastline is rapidly becoming vulnerable for drug operations.
The bust comes in the wake of a series of recent activities bearing similarities in the West Africa subregion.
Last month, anti-narcotic authorities in The Gambia seized nearly three tons of cocaine in the capital Banjul, which was the largest arrest in the country’s history.
Some 2.9 tons of cocaine stuffed in 118 bags was shipped from the Port of Guayaquil in Ecuador through Algeciras in Spain via Maersk Line Shipping Company.
Unlike the situation in Liberia, where the cocaine was packaged in frozen goods, the bags of the shipment in The Gambia was disguised as industrial salt. In that situation, Police arrested a Gambian national Sherif Njie whose name was used as the contact person for the shipment.
Anti-narcotic agents said the shipment belongs to Banta Keita, a French national of Gambian descent who resides in a Gambian affluent neighborhood of Fajara, some 18 minute-drive from Banjul. The confiscated drug has a street value of $88 million.
Similarly, in Nigeria, anti-narcotics agency late last month, seized cocaine worth $278 million marking the biggest single drug bust in the country’s history.
The 1.8 tons of cocaine were found in a warehouse in Ikorodu, a suburb of Lagos, the nation’s commercial hub, according to the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency. In that incident, four people, including three Nigerians and a Jamaican national were arrested and believed to be members of an international drug.
Like Liberia, The Gambia and Nigeria have been used as a transit route for South American hard drugs bound for Europe and other destinations.
Guinea Bissau, where one of the Liberian suspects hails, was the subject of its largest ever drug bust in September 2020 when more than 20 vehicles, among them a “cinnamon colored” Mercedes Benz, $3m (£2.5m) stashed in bank accounts, $90,000 worth of wine and porridge found in a warehouse, and, of course, 1.8 tonnes of cocaine hidden in sacks of rice.
Many diplomatic observers say, Liberia was not the destination for the cocaine seized at the weekend, in the same vein as the shipment seized in The Gambia, suggesting that the West Africa region is rapidly becoming a storage and transit route for cocaine by international organized criminal groups.
Echoes of Yaroshenko
This is not the first time that Liberia has been subject to a major drug operation.
In May 2009, a Nigerian national, Chigbo Umeh was busted as part of an undercover stint in Monrovia.
Chigbo, along with two Colombians, both members of a drug cartel, unaware that they were being monitored by US authorities and the NSA, tried to solicit the help of Fomba Sirleaf, the stepson of former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who was head of the NSA at the time.
The cartel representatives offered to pay Fomba handsomely in exchange for his help in using Liberia as a transit hub for smuggling cocaine from Colombia into Europe. The traffickers would bring the cocaine into Liberia by air and sea; from there, they would move it to cities across western Europe, where the drug fetches as much as £34,000 per kilogram.
As part of the sting, Fomba assured the trio of his cooperation. The deal was for Sirleaf’s men to take care of security arrangements at the airport and at ports. For bringing in a tonne of cocaine, the traffickers would have to pay $1m upfront and provide 50kg of cocaine that would be smuggled to the United States.
At the time, President Sirleaf gave her approval for the sting allowing the DEA and the NSA to plan.
The plan also involved the pursuit of a Russian pilot named Konstantin Yaroshenko, a renowned international transporter of contraband. Prior to the sting for Chigbo, the DEA had been looking to develop a case against Yaroshenko. It so happened that an informant had mentioned to authorities that Yaroshenko was looking for work.
That operation resulted in the arrest of Yaroshenko who is currently subject to discussions involving a prisoner swap between the US and Russia for US citizen Trevor Reed, convicted in 2020 for attacking police officers in Moscow.
Yaroshenko was arrested in Liberia on May 28, 2010, by US Drug Enforcement Administration agents and local police, and smuggled to the US, marking the first time a Russian citizen was captured by a US secret service in a third country and then brought to the US.
Yaroshenko was charged with running an international cocaine smuggling scheme. The indictment said he had colluded with a group of individuals who were acting on behalf of cocaine traffickers in Colombia. Nigerian Chigbo Peter Umeh and several citizens of Colombia and Sierra Leone were also detained in the same case.
According to the US secret services, the suspects planned to deliver three consignments of cocaine (4 tonnes all in all $100 million worth) from Colombia to Liberia and Ghana. Then part of the cargo was to be transported in small batches to New York.
As authorities continue the manhunt for the two at large suspects, Gustavo Henrique and Adulai Djibril, the eye of the international community is once more on the post-war nation, becoming increasingly vulnerable to major drug criminals, amid a growing number of at-risk youths likely to fall victim to preying cartels.
Traffickers on Standby
Sam Gaye, a former director of the Executive Protection Service, who was instrumental in the arrest of Yaroshenko says the US Embassy needs to move quickly and get the Government to burn the seized drugs. “They need to conduct a presumptive test and collect representative samples from the bulk evidence for presentation in court. Otherwise, the drugs will be recycled into the illicit market relatively quickly. The drugs will be replaced with fake packages undetected. Traffickers are on standby to buy from the LDEA.”
According to Gaye, from September 2007 to December 2017, the administration of former President Sirleaf, working in conjunction with the United States, successfully prevented South American drug cartels from setting up shop in Liberia.
However, Gaye asserts that in 2018 when this current Government came to power, the cartels renewed their efforts to establish trafficking routes through Liberia.
“This time around, they have willing participants to facilitate the drug trade. Today’s seizure of approximately one ton of high purity cocaine in Monrovia underscores the problem. In recent months, Liberia and Côte D’Ivoire have been identified by intelligence sources as major transshipment points for ton quantities of cocaine destined to Europe. By all accounts, Lebanese nationals, working in collaboration with powerful South American drug cartels, have established command and control in the West Africa region. In less than two weeks, Nigerian drug agents seized record two tons of cocaine. From what we know, this is just the tip of the iceberg! Covid-19 outbreak was a little setback for them. They are back at it again with vengeance!”