Liberia: Court Orders Key Player in US$100M Cocaine Bust Back to Jail

Oliver Zayzay

.... “I ordered Zayzay released because of the crimes that qualify him for bail. Now, since the state prosecution decided to add to the offenses the crime of money laundering, I am ordering him to go back to jail,” Jallah said.

The Monrovia City Court has reordered Oliver Zayzay, one of the key figures named in the US$100 million cocaine bust, to return to jail. 

“It is hereby directed that defendant Oliver Zayzay be returned to custody at the Monrovia Central Prison,” Stipendiary Magistrate Jomah Jallah ruled.

Jallah noted that the decision by his court to have Zayzay readmitted to prison was due to an application filed by the state prosecution, which added the charge of money laundering to the offenses of criminal conspiracy and criminal facilitation that Zayzay had been charged with, which now makes it difficult for Zayzay to secure a bail.

About five days ago, Zayzay had been freed from the Monrovia Central Prison in a move that has drawn condemnation from the public since it was seen as a major defeat in the government's fight against narcotics trafficking. 

However, the release was contingent on Zayzay and his legal team obtaining bail for his day-to-day appearance during the trial “because the then crimes of criminal conspiracy and criminal facilitation that he was charged with by the authority of the Liberian National Police (LNP) qualified him for that (bail).”

The accused was arrested along with Makki Ahmed Issam,  Malam Conte, Mustapha Baldeh, and Adulai Dibril Dialo and subsequently charged by the police with the crimes of unlicensed importation of controlled drugs or substances, substance drugs trafficking, money laundering, criminal conspiracy, and criminal facilitation, as per Chapter 14, Sections 14.101, 107 and 111 Chapter 10.2 and 10.4 respectively, of the new penal code of Liberia. Now, he is no longer in prison. 

Jallah’s release of Zayzay on bail sparked anger and disbelief among Liberian and international partners including the United States Embassy. Some even claimed that Jallah’s decision was financially driven, ignoring the police lighter charges of defendant Zayzay.

Jallah likewise dispelled rumors that he had released all of the defendants.

“Look, besides, Zayzay who was released because of the crimes of criminal conspiracy and criminal facilitation, the other defendants are still in jail,” the magistrate said when Zayzay’s lawyer argued over his additional crime of money laundering.

“I ordered Zayzay released because of the crimes that qualify him for bail. Now, since the state prosecution decided to add to the offenses the crime of money laundering, I am ordering him to go back to jail,” Jallah said.

Under Liberia’s current laws, drug smuggling is an offense for which suspects can get bail, providing that a valid criminal appearance bond is filed, which is then cross-examined before a decision can be taken by the President, judge, or magistrate.

Zayzay, who owns Prime Logistics and Supplies, according to an investigation by the state, facilitated the escape to Sierra Leone of co-suspects Issam and Djalo, who are also wanted for the trafficking of cocaine to Liberia.

He used an illegal crossing point via the Mano River under the cover of darkness to escape arrest along with Issam who, according to investigators, was part of the cartel tasked with negotiating with local businesses to buy their container once the frozen goods had arrived at the port in Monrovia.

However, if Zayzay were to remain released, it could have been detrimental to the whistleblowers who were believed to have tipped off the American Embassy, which passed down the intelligence to the Liberia Drug Enforcement Agency, leading to the busting the 520 kilograms (1,146 pounds) of cocaine concealed in a huge consignment of frozen pig feet that had been delivered to a cold storage facility, operated by TRH Trading. 

TRH Trading is also an importer of frozen foods but leases out space to AJA Group to park some of its refrigerated containers there when Abi Jaoude and Azar (AJA) Group Holdings runs out of space at its Bong Mines Pier facility. 

The whistleblowers’ fear comes as a result of threats made to their lives by some of the suspects involved with the shipment of the contraband. 

“The other shocking thing is, we saw that Conte, the Guinea Bissau man, had been taking our pictures and sending them to a Portuguese number via WhatsApp. So this man has put us at unknown risk,”  the Daily Observer was told a month ago. 

The cocaine story

The intelligence that led to the bust of the US$100 million consignment of cocaine came when Zayzay and his Brazilian associate entered the office of AJA Group at Bong Mines Pier, Monrovia, asking to purchase an entire container of pig feet on September 30. 

The first attendant they spoke with, the Daily Observer earlier reported,  requested more details since the men appeared to desire an unusually large purchase. AJA group brings in containers of fresh frozen food — partly to supply its own supermarket, as well as for other merchants, including market women.

“We want to take it to Abidjan to sell,” Zayzay told the attendant at the AJA Group office. 

This was the first red flag. Being quite aware of the supply and demand in the sub-regional market, the attendant quickly told Zayzay and his colleague that pig feet were not what the commodity usually requested by the Ivoirians. It was chicken. 

In any case, the attendant sent the two men to one of the managers to sort out their order request. But, by the time the two men reached the manager, their story had changed. Now they said they wanted the container of pig feet, but not for Abidjan. They said they would use the pig feet locally, as bait for an upcoming political campaign. 

“But didn't you just request downstairs for Abidjan?” the manager asked. An argument ensued, but in the interest of securing their objective, the Brazilian ordered his Liberian colleague to leave the matter. 

The manager quickly made it known to the men that AJA Group could not sell them an entire container of pig feet because they had other distribution obligations to fulfill. However, after some back-and-forth discussion, the manager informed them that the company had enough supply to sell the men one container of the product from AJA Group’s Bong Mines Pier frozen storage facility. 

“Before we could tell him the cost,” the manager narrated, “he said he would pay US$200,000. You would probably want to first find out how much for the container is before you bring your US$200,000 offer. But he made the offer before we even told him the cost. So that threw us off again.” 

According to AJA Group, a container of fresh pig feet is currently worth no more than US$30,000. 

“Okay, we will source from our Bong Mines Pier office the quantity that you want,” the manager told the two men. 

“No. I don't want it from here,” the Brazilian said. “I want it from your location on Somalia Drive.” 

The location on Somalia Drive (now Japan Freeway) is the Sonit Warehouse — a cold storage facility taken over and operated by TRH Trading. TRH Trading is also an importer of frozen foods but leases out space to AJA Group to park some of its refrigerated containers there when AJA Group runs out of space at Bong Mines Pier.  

The manager then asked the Brazilian: “Why that particular location?” 

The man replied that he wants pig feet that came out from a particular container. He even called the container number. 

“So how you managed to know the container number and the content of the container?” the manager asked. 

After another round of back-and-forth, the Brazilian man said, “You know what, I will pay you all US$400,000.”

The manager began to think the man was joking and asked if he had that kind of money to pay. The man brought the money and cash. “But not in new bills,” the manager said. “It was in our regular old bills we have around here. That told us right away that this man got this money locally.