By Nate Raymond
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Guinea-Bissau's former navy chief, captured in a high-profile drug sting on the West African coast, has secretly pleaded guilty ahead of a trial on charges he conspired to import narcotics into the United States, court sources said on Tuesday.
The trial of Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto, 64, had been scheduled to begin on Monday in U.S. District Court in Manhattan. But Na Tchuto, who U.S. authorities say is a kingpin of West Africa's illicit drug trade, pleaded guilty at a May 13 proceeding, the transcript of which was immediately sealed, the court sources said. It could not be learned why the hearing was sealed.
Nor could it be determined what charges Na Tchuto pleaded guilty to or the terms of any deal he received. The official court record does not indicate that a plea or hearing took place.
Guilty pleas are sometimes sealed when defendants agree to cooperate with authorities.
Sabrina Shroff, Na Tchuto's attorney, and representatives for U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in Manhattan and the Drug Enforcement Administration declined to comment on Tuesday when contacted by phone and email.
The secret plea came more than a year after the arrest of Na Tchuto in April 2013. He was seized on a luxury yacht off the coast of Guinea-Bissau following a monthslong DEA undercover operation.
Before his plea, Na Tchuto faced life in prison if convicted on a previously announced charge of conspiring to distribute 5 kg (11 pounds) or more of cocaine, knowing or intending that the cocaine would be imported into the United States.
Poverty-stricken Guinea-Bissau is viewed by the United Nations as a major waypoint for Latin American cocaine headed for Europe. U.S. and European authorities have long suspected the country's military is involved in the drug trade.
According to U.S. prosecutors, Na Tchuto and his two co-defendants met with confidential DEA informants who posed as representatives of Latin American drug traffickers.
In the meetings, the defendants were recorded discussing shipments of cocaine to Guinea-Bissau, prosecutors said.
The DEA sting also targeted Guinea-Bissau's army chief, Antonio Indjai, who led a coup in 2012 that derailed elections in the former Portuguese colony. But Indjai, who has denied running drugs, avoided arrest by refusing to go offshore. In late April, two of Na Tchuto's former aides, Tchamy Yala and Papis Djeme, pleaded guilty to narcotics importation conspiracy charges.
During his plea, Djeme said that from October 2012 to April 2013 he agreed to help Na Tchuto with a deal to import cocaine into Guinea-Bissau, a portion of which would then be sent to the United States, according to a transcript.
(Additional reporting by Richard Valdmanis in Boston and Joseph Ax in New York; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Jonathan Oatis)