BISSAU, Guinea-Bissau, April 11 (UPI) -- U.S. agents have captured an alleged drug-smuggling kingpin who operated in Guinea-Bissau, a West African country Western authorities consider the world's only true narco-state.
But the April 4 seizure of Rear Adm. Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto, the former commander of Guinea-Bissau's navy, near the Cape Verde Islands, isn't likely to have much impact because regional criminal organizations such as the Latin American cocaine cartels are broadening their smuggling operations across the Atlantic to Nigeria, Benin and Togo, officials say.
Cape Verde's state television said Bubo Na Tchuto was captured in international waters in an operation by agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and Cape Verdian officers.
The Cape Verde Islands, like Guinea-Bissau a former Portuguese colony, lies some 650 miles west of Bissau in the Atlantic. The smugglers use shipping there to carry cocaine to European ports.
Bubo Na Tchuto has been a DEA target since 2010, when he and Guinea-Bissau's air force chief of staff, Gen. Ibraima Papa Camara, were identified by the U.S. Treasury Department as narcotics kingpins in the notoriously unstable country.
They were accused of working with the Latin American cartels moving large shipments of cocaine bound for Europe through West Africa.
Bubo Na Tchuto was accused of leading a coup attempt in December 2011 in Guinea-Bissau, a ramshackle country of 1.5 million people that's sandwiched between Senegal and Guinea on Africa's westernmost point.
The country's latest military-backed coup was staged April 12, 2012, and U.N. officials who monitor the vast narcotics trade in the region say drug trafficking in Guinea-Bissau has grown under the new junta.
The drugs are mostly carried in aircraft, mostly cargoes of around 1.5 tons, in 1,600-mile flight across the Atlantic to Africa's western shoulder to juts out into the ocean, landing on remote airstrips dotted around Guinea-Bissau.
A senior DEA official recently commented that "people at the highest levels of the military are involved ...
"In other African countries government officials are part of the problem. In Guinea-Bissau, it's the government itself that's the problem."
The Latin American cartels opened up the transatlantic route several years ago, to counter mounting seizures by the DEA on more direct land and air routes from Central America and Mexico.
But the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime says in its latest assessment issued this month that Nigerian crime organizations have increasingly muscled in on the cocaine trade, in some cases edging out the Latin American cartels.
The U.N. agency estimates that 10 percent of the cocaine going to Europe, around 18 tons a year, passes through West Africa, from where it's move north to the Mediterranean and shipment to France, Spain and Italy.
That's up from an estimated 7 percent in 2009, but down from an estimated 27 percent in 2007. This is probably accounted for by the Nigerians taking over the smuggling routes starting in 2008.
The trade is conservatively valued at around $2 billion a year, responsible in part for destabilizing much of the region, including the expansion of al-Qaida's operations in North Africa and the fighting in Mali.
Smuggling patterns have shifted, with the main shipping point now Brazil rather than Venezuela, probably because the Nigerian gangs are using Nigerian disapora communities in Brazil.
Pierre Lapaque, head of the UNODC bureau for West and Central Africa, reports that regional criminal organizations are now producing a new narcotic threat, methamphetamine, cooked in clandestine laboratories across Nigeria.
Four large-scale crystal meth labs were recently uncovered in Nigeria, with shipments of precursor chemicals seized in neighboring Benin and Togo, and huge vats used to "cook" MDM, a similar synthetic drug, found in Guinea.
The gangs have found a thriving market for this product in Southeast Asia, where a kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, is worth $45,000.
UNODC estimates regional supply to Asia is valued at $360 million a year.
Some Southeast Asian states have reported a 250 percent increase in traffickers from West Africa arrested.
"This is the next niche for criminal groups in West Africa because you can easily cook it at home, and you can easily adjust it for supply and demand," Lapaque said.
"It's slowly but surely spreading in the region."