US$100m Drug Bust: How AJA Group Walked Away from US$1m Hush Money

This  which has an estimated street value of one-fifth of most of Liberia’s post-war annual budgets, was concealed among  frozen goods imported from Brazil in a container by AJA Group. It has since been destroyed. 


... "Look, we don't want a problem,” Malik said. “You have our product in your container. We will give you US$1 million. We will give you US$1 million if you let us clear our container."

Question: If you were offered US$1 million by a suspected drug smuggler to look the other way as he relieved you of your US$30,000 container of pig feet, would you take it? Ponder well, for this question might not be too easy. 

This is the identical scenario the management of Abi Jaoude and Azar Group Holdings (AJA Group) was faced with on  September 30. It all started when a Liberian by the name of Oliver Zayzay and his Brazilian associate entered the office of AJA Group at Bong Mines Pier, Monrovia, asking to purchase a container of pig feet. 

The first attendant they spoke with requested more details since the men appeared to desire a larger than usual purchase. Apparently AJA group brings in containers of fresh frozen food — partly to supply its own supermarket, as well as for other merchants, including market women. But for one individual to request a whole container of pig feet — what could they want to do with all that consignment? 

“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 was 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 didnt' 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 known to the men that AJA Group could not sell them an entire container of pig feet because they had 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 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, 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. 

“We checked the first US$200,000 and all the money was correct, even amid our suspicions that some of it were counterfeit. He presented all the money in the denomination of twenties, tens, and fifties. So we said, Okay, we will sort out the supply for you.

He said “No. In fact, we just want 29 boxes from that container.”

“But excuse me, sir,” the manager replied. “We've already off-loaded the container into our cold storage. How are we going to find 29 boxes of pig feet?” 

“I know the boxes,” the Brazilian said. 

“How you know the boxes when we verified all the contents before the container left the host country?” 

In shipping business, only the product supplier and the consignee (receiver) should know the content of a container, based on the paperwork. The supplier packs the container and, therefore, knows the content. 

“So the alarm alert came on us,” AJA Group told the Daily Observer. “We told the Brazilian, okay, know what? Come back on Saturday (October 1). Let's go Saturday and we will go for you to identify your boxes.” 

Later that day, a Lebanese national by the name of Aseed Malik, an associate of the Brazilian, contacted the manager via phone, asking to speak to one of the Lebanese staff at AJA Group, “Because apparently they figure we have Lebanese staff, so they'll bring a Lebanese national to mediate.” 

"Look, we don't want a problem,” Malik said. “You have our product in your container. We will give you US$1 million. We will give you US$1 million if you let us clear our container."

“We said, Okay, we'll do it on Saturday,” the manager said.  

It was at that point the management of AJA Group concluded that their suspicion of narcotics in their consignment was highly plausible and decided to contact the US Ambassador directly.  

“We went directly to the US Ambassador because, such a thing like this, it has a lot of international implications,” the AJA Group told the Daily Observer. “You don't want our local boys to handle it, because we don't have the capacity and it's too tempting. How many persons do you know will look at a million US dollars cash, not check, and turn it down? Not many. So we believe it was a divine effort. 

“That's why we notified not the embassy, but the ambassador himself, first. And then he guided us, because they've got resources. He guided us with the procedure and put us in touch with the Embassy’s anti-drug, or counter-drug section also. And they, in turn, made contact with our local drug entities. That way we felt comfortable because, at this point, there's a higher force that's overseeing this entire process. And honestly, if we had made a mistake and contacted our local, we would've been in some mess. We would've been probably implicated because, clearly, even though we did the calling, we busted it, people are still attacking us.” 

“So while we were waiting on Saturday for the US embassy to send in the cavalry, we were at the Bong Mines Pier office, waiting for them to get to us. So we had to create conversation with the Brazilian and his friends, telling them that we're trying to put all the recent goods that came in that particular container one side, so that it wouldn't be difficult to take away. 

So we reminded the men that they needed to bring a car or pickup or something to put their 29 boxes in. The Brazilian said that Oliver Zayzay was going to bring the car. 

“As we got to the storage facility in Topoe's Village there comes the cavalry, including the DEA boss and his deputies. The NSA had their director, Sam Siryon, and they took over.

“We presented them the US$200,000 because Malam Conte, the guy from Guinea Bissau, still had the US$200,000 cash with him. That was turned over to the NSA. And then Conte started to say he doesn't know the shape or form or the color of the boxes,” the manager continued.

“But see, he's being busted now. And then he turned to us and said, ‘All of you will die.’”

“But, we told him, with this kind of thing, that's what people do, they die. But they will kill you first, because it's you the one they gave their drugs to. So when we confiscated and checked his phone, there were pictures in his gallery of when they were loading the container in Brazil on August 4th.

“And the boxes were there, some were labeled. They were different from the other boxes. This one had a tape around it, labeled "France". The other tape you see says, "Belgium". But if you're not keen, you would pick the white box out and bring it.

“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. 

“So the Americans are helping us to identify those Portuguese numbers as to who they are, of course, that were his bosses. But the three of our pictures are in the possession of those people.

“The reason why we did not come out as a company was because if you notice, the US government's first press statement indicated that the drug bust of a hundred million dollars derived from several months of intelligence gathering by the US government by the Brazilian government and other European partners.

“The purpose of that press statement was to take away the direct threat to life from on AJA Group management and staff.

“The US embassy never mentioned us and the reason why was to protect our identity. But if we were part and parcel, even though it was in our facility, we would have been arrested immediately. If the US alone came with its intelligence, we would have been arrested immediately. But if you notice, they have not mentioned TRH. The government has not mentioned us either.  

“So our partners are asking what is going on in Liberia because they're not getting the whole story and we are not [adequately responding], they are only reading the stories that's on our media outlets. This is why we decided to tell our side of the story, the actual story — to give the public a better understanding of our role in the process.” 

When contacted for comment on the AJA Group’s account, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy said, “I can’t comment on the question, but just emphasize what a truly magnificent job the LDEA and NSA did in responding quickly.”

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Justice, in its October 6 release, said that based on all evidence adduced to date by the government and the law enforcement agencies of other governments, “no local company trading as an importer or retailer has been found complicit or involved in any way with the US$100m cocaine case, although the investigation continues.”

One of the suspects, a citizen of Guinea-Bissau, was arrested in Monrovia, the capital. The second suspect, a Lebanese national, was nabbed while attempting to flee the country. The Guinea-Bissau national had admitted to having a connection with the consignment and iterated that he arrived in the country about two weeks earlier to await the consignment.  Authorities have so far confirmed the additional arrest of three additional suspects, namely Oliver Zayzay, Liberia, Mustapha Baldeh and Ahmad Makki, a Lebanese.

Makki, 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.  The suspected drug traffickers, Gustavo Henrique, a Brazilian, and Adulai Djibril, a Portuguese are still on the run.