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Counter Proliferation Investigation Unit

Ivory Coast citizen arrested in plot to illegally export weapons from the U.S.

SAN FRANCISCO - A citizen from Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) has been arrested in connection with a probe by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Office of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) into an alleged plot to ship handguns, tear gas grenades and ammunition to that African nation.

Nguessan Yao, 55, a citizen of Cote d'Ivoire, is charged in a criminal complaint in the Northern District of California with one count of conspiracy to export merchandise or articles contrary to U.S. law; specifically, attempting to export defense articles without obtaining the necessary license from the U.S. Department of State.

Yao was arrested Thursday in New York by ICE HSI agents and made his initial appearance in Friday in the Eastern District of New York before Magistrate Judge Roann L. Mann. If convicted of the charge against him, he faces a maximum possible sentence of 10 years in prison.

"ICE HSI agents have disrupted this major weapons smuggling scheme," said ICE Director John Morton. "Investigations like this underscore the crucial role ICE plays in the government's fight to stop the illegal export of weapons from within the United States."

According to an affidavit filed in support of the criminal complaint, federal agents learned in 2009 that an individual in the United States was working to broker the export of 4,000 handguns, 200,000 rounds of ammunition and 50,000 tear gas grenades from the United States to Cote d'Ivoire. Federal agents acting in an undercover capacity later met in Florida with this individual and with a co-conspirator from Cote d'Ivoire to discuss the proposed transaction. In April 2009, the affidavit states that co-conspirators in Cote d'Ivoire deposited approximately $1.9 million into a U.S. government-controlled undercover bank account as a 50 percent down payment for the arms shipment.

The affidavit alleges that in August 2010, undercover agents authored a letter to a co-conspirator in Cote d'Ivoire noting that the export of munitions to Cote d'Ivoire from the United States was illegal. The agents also informed this co-conspirator that an inspection of the weapons shipment by the co-conspirator or one of his representatives would be acceptable. Agents then learned the identity of several individuals from Cote d'Ivoire who allegedly had been assigned to attend the inspection of the weapons in the United States.

On Aug. 30, 2010, undercover agents met with three individuals from Cote d'Ivoire, including defendant Yao, at a restaurant in New York in preparation for the inspection of the weapons scheduled the following day. During the meeting, the illegal nature of the weapons transaction was allegedly discussed. The following day, Yao and other co-conspirators were shown 500 Glock 9mm pistols, 1,000 tear gas grenades and 100,000 rounds of 9mm ammunition by the ICE HSI undercover agents at a location in New Jersey, the affidavit alleges.

During the inspection of the weapons, defendant Yao allegedly brought up the requirement for two different invoices: one for the real commodities (guns, ammunition and teargas) and one for a fake commodity. The conspirators agreed that the commodity for the fake invoice should be goods to help the development of Cote d'Ivoire, such as solar panels, water pumps or first aid kits. At the end of the meeting, Yao and the other conspirators allegedly assured the undercover agents that they would provide them with a cashier's check for the outstanding balance of $1.9 million by Sept. 7, 2010.

Undercover agents informed the conspirators, including Yao, that they would not place the munitions on the ship until the balance for the munitions was received. On Thursday, Sept. 9, 2010, the conspirators had a second payment of $1.9 million wire transferred to a government-controlled bank account in San Jose, Calif.

United Nations Security Council resolution 1572, which was adopted in 2004 and has since been renewed in connection with the resumption of hostilities in Cote d'Ivoire and repeated cease fire violations in that country, obligates all states to take the necessary measures to prevent the supply to Cote d'Ivoire of arms and any related materials and also of technical training and assistance related to military activities.

The prosecution is being handled by Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary G. Fry of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of California and Trial Attorney Ryan Fayhee of the Counterespionage Section of the Justice Department's National Security Division.