Apr. 13, 2010 — -- For the first time ever, the U.S. government has labeled an active foreign military official an international drug "kingpin," in a part of Africa that federal authorities say has become a transshipment point for South American drugs, and a source of revenue for al Qaeda terrorists.
Ibraima Pap Camara, the Air Force chief of staff in Guinea Bissau, has been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for his alleged role in a massive airlift of cocaine from Venezuela. Also cited was the former head of Guinea-Bissau's Navy, Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto.
"The United States Department of Treasury has made this designation because we have reason to believe that these two individuals are involved in significant international drug-trafficking activity that affects the national interests of the United States," said State Department spokesman PJ Crowley.
A senior Treasury official also told ABC News that West Africa's growing international drug trade isn't just lining the pockets of corrupt government officials, but terrorists as well.
"It helps to fuel violence and terrorism," said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "We've seen al-Qaeda and the Islamic Maghreb profiting off of the drug trade, whether it's proposing taxes or other payments on drug traffickers operating in the region, in Mali and Mauritania in particular. This is very dangerous, even beyond the criminal narcotics trafficking itself."
The official told ABC News that naming Camara and Na Tuchuto is a "pretty big deal," and could be a turning point in the war on drugs in Africa.
"This gives us the ability to then look at their networks, look at who are the individuals supporting them, funding them, laundering their money, and subsequently follow up and name those individuals."
According to Treasury, both Camara and Na Tchuto have been linked to an aircraft that allegedly flew a shipment of 600 kilograms of cocaine from Venezuela to Guinea-Bissau in July 2008. The senior Treasury official told ABC News the two engaged in additional activities connected to drug trafficking, as well involvement by other individuals, but the official declined to provide additional details on the other activities or individuals.
The two men were sanctioned in accordance with the U.S government's "Kingpin Act." Americans are now banned from doing business with Camara and Tchuto, and any assets the men have in the United States or under U.S. jurisdiction are now frozen.
The sanctions are the latest evidence of continued instability and corruption in the country. Constant coups have left Guinea-Bissau deeply impoverished and made it a breeding ground for drug trafficking, U.S. authorities say. Narcotics from South America pass through the country en route to Europe.
Last year, Guinea-Bissau's former President and army chief were both assassinated, with rumors of Colombian drug lords being involved in orchestrating the hits.
One of the two men now sanctioned by the U.S., former Admiral Na Tchuto, is accused of plotting to overthrow the government in 2008. Na Tchuto escaped into exile, and then returned to the country to take refuge at a United Nations compound. Just last week renegade soldiers loyal to Na Tchuto briefly detained the prime minister and then ousted the country's army chief.
The United Nations Office for Drug and Crime, known as UNDOC, works closely with the U.S. to combat international drug trafficking, particularly in West Africa. UNDOC did not respond to requests for comment.
ABC News contacted officials from the Guinea-Bissau Embassy in Paris, who had no comment. Government officials in the country were also not available for comment.
In the last decade, Treasury has imposed sanctions against more than 600 businesses and individuals under the Kingpin Act. If an individual knowingly does business with a designated drug kingpin, it is considered a felony and can carry up to a ten-year sentence.
In recent months the agency has been especially active in imposing sanctions against cartels in Mexico. The goal of the sanctions is not only to go after a specific cartel, but to attack a cartel's wider network, including shell companies and investment arms.
"It's looking at where they are parking their profits," the senior Treasury official told ABC News. "As a result, it's had at times a very powerful impact on the networks of these guys."
Now the administration hopes the new sanctions against the Guinea-Bissau military officials have the same type of impact in Africa.