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

Photo caption:

Photo by Mamadu Alfa Balde

Gen. Antonio Indjai (left), Guinea-Bissau's army chief of staff, at the funeral of the country's late president, Malam Bacai Sanha, on Jan. 15, 2012. The U.S. says Indjai has been involved in drug trafficking, an allegation he denies. He recently eluded a U.S. sting operation that led to the capture of other officials from his country.


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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