By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - In one of the most high-profile international drug cases in the United States, two aides to Guinea Bissau's former navy chief, Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto, have pleaded guilty in New York to their roles in a major cocaine trafficking enterprise.
Tchamy Yala and Papis Djeme entered their pleas in Manhattan federal court on Monday and Tuesday, respectively, telling a U.S. judge they conspired to import cocaine to Guinea Bissau in West Africa for eventual distribution to Europe and the United States.
The former navy chief, Na Tchuto, was arrested in a dramatic sting operation last year by U.S. authorities, who claim the Guinea-Bissau war hero is a kingpin of West Africa's illicit drug trade.
United Nations officials say poverty-stricken Guinea Bissau, a former Portuguese colony that borders Senegal, is a major waypoint for Latin American cocaine on its way to Europe. American and European authorities have long suspected that the country's military is involved in trafficking.
According to U.S. prosecutors in New York, the three men met with confidential Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) informants posing as representatives of Latin American drug traffickers and were recorded discussing shipments of cocaine to Guinea Bissau.
Na Tchuto, a fighter in Guinea Bissau's 1956-1973 independence war, was seized from a luxury yacht off the coast of Guinea Bissau. He has denied the charges against him.
His court-appointed defense lawyer, Sabrina Shroff, declined to comment on Tuesday. His trial is scheduled for June.
In entering his guilty plea on Tuesday, Djeme said through a translator that he conspired with "the admiral," in reference to Na Tchuto.
Yala and Djeme face a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. They are both scheduled to be sentenced in September.
DEA agents had also targeted Guinea Bissau's army chief, Antonio Indjai, but he avoided arrest when he decided not to leave the shore. He has also denied running drugs.
Guinea Bissau is in the midst of a presidential election meant to complete the country's return to civilian rule after a 2012 coup by Indjai's military.
The U.S. undercover operation angered Guinea Bissau officials, with one government spokesman calling the sting a "kidnapping".
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Peter Galloway)