The Ivory Smugglers

09/29/2010 5:00 AM |

When they brought Mfopa Yacouba into the Brooklyn federal courtroom in March 2009, he couldn’t bear to look down at the defendants—seven of them seated around the table, their intent faces glistening with the unmistakeable grease of guilt.

They had committed a crime. There was no doubt about it. Everyone in that courtroom knew they had broken the law. Even their lawyers admitted as much on the elevator ride up to the 8th floor, acknowledging that the case, as it were, wouldn’t be easy. “They’ve got problems,” one told me.

The defendants were facing Patrick Sinclair, the bow-tied Assistant U.S. Attorney who tried and failed to take down the hedge fund managers at Bear Stearns in 2008, and was bent on making these charges stick. This case wouldn’t be about connecting the suspects to the crime—it would be about technicalities, sentencing guidelines, and guilty pleas. Most of all, it would be about Africa.

Federal agents had rounded these men up in late 2008 for allegedly smuggling thousands of dollars worth of elephant ivory into the United States. Since 1989, the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) has banned the ivory trade to halt the slaughter of elephants, whose outsized molars have been used for everything from billiard balls to bedposts.

The U.S. has taken an especially hard line against ivory importers as far back as 1976, and it has been up to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Law Enforcement wing to crack down on perpetrators with undercover stings. But as anyone versed in crime flicks knows, you always need an informer. Mfopa Yacouba was that informer. “I have made a mistake by breaking the law, and I am very, very sorry,” he wrote the court in a plea for leniency, after he was caught red-handed at JFK airport and agreed to testify for the government.

On this morning, Drissa Diane, the 45-year-old, Liberian-born, Harlem-based art dealer, is perched in his wooden chair, pondering how exactly he ended up here with the rest of these men. He may have committed a crime, but he had only a passing acquaintance with his co-defendants and had never even met Kemo Sylla, the apparent ringleader.

More importantly, Drissa had never before set his eyes on the informer, Mfopa, a man who was royalty in his home country of Cameroon and who came to the courtroom with impeccable references. (Xavier Guerrand-Hermes, of the Paris-based Guerrand-Hermes Foundation for Peace, had vouched for him, along with renowned Brooklyn sculptor and blacksmith, John Crawford, who found him “pleasant and honest.”) Mfopa’s attorney warns the court to keep Mfopa separated from the defendants; a balding federal marshall stands close by.

The Prince
It’s in the most ungovernable countries in Africa where the killing happens, where the elephants are slaughtered by men with AK-47s while park guards turn the other way. If there are even park guards. Sure, South Africa is so overrun with elephants they don’t know what to do with them, but in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa a massacre is taking place. And that massacre is fueled, in part, by demand on this side of the Atlantic. This, then, is the story of how ivory from Africa ends up as a bric-a-brac in the living room of some middle-aged white guy and how a bunch of African immigrants end up with a criminal record. Patrick Sinclair may call it a conspiracy in the courtroom, but from my vantage point, it looks like a few bad decisions by a half-dozen desperate men.