NEW YORK (Reuters) - A onetime aide to a former navy chief of Guinea-Bissau was sentenced Wednesday to 6-1/2 years in a U.S. prison for his role in cocaine trafficking, more than a year after the two were arrested in a drug sting off the West African coast.
Papis Djeme, an ex-aide to former Rear Admiral Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto, had already served 17 months in prison before receiving his sentence from U.S. District Judge Richard Berman in New York.
His lawyers had sought a period of time served, saying he played a limited role in a conspiracy to import hundreds of kilograms of cocaine into the United States and was merely following Na Tchuto’s orders.
But Berman said “following orders is not a defense to a serious crime,” and imposed a sentence beyond the three-to-five years in prison that a prosecutor at the hearing said would be appropriate.
“I‘m very sorry for what I have done to the United States,” Djeme said in court.
Djeme, 31, was one of two of Na Tchuto’s aides who pleaded guilty to narcotics conspiracy charges in April and the first to be sentenced.
Na Tchuto pleaded guilty during a closed hearing in May, the transcript of which was immediately sealed, court sources previously said.
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.
In 2012, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration began an undercover investigation targeting drug trafficking in West Africa.
Confidential DEA informants who posed as representatives of Latin American drug traffickers met with Na Tchuto, Djeme and the other aide, Tchamy Yala, to cut a deal to transport cocaine from South America to Europe and the United States through Guinea Bissau, prosecutors said.
Na Tchuto, a fighter in Guinea Bissau’s 1956-1973 independence war, and the two aides were arrested on a luxury yacht off the country’s coast in April 2013.
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.
Lawyers for Djeme, who was Na Tchuto’s aide-de-camp, said in court papers that despite their close working relationship, he had no personal knowledge of the admiral’s prior drug operations and until the sting had not participated in narcotics trafficking.
Yala is scheduled to be sentenced Nov. 17. No public sentencing date has been provided for Na Tchuto, 64, who is being held at a detention center in Brooklyn.
Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York; Editing by Grant McCool