The long read: In 2001, a smugglers yacht washed up in the Azores and disgorged its contents. The island of So Miguel was quickly flooded with high-grade cocaine and nearly 20 years on, it is still feeling the effects
Around midday on 6 June 2001, locals from Pilar da Bretanha, a parish on the northwestern tip of the Atlantic island So Miguel, saw a white yacht, about 40 feet long, drifting aimlessly near the areas sheer cliffs. None of the villagers had ever seen a boat of this size floating so close to that part of the coast, where the sea was shallow, the tides strong and the rocks razor-sharp. They supposed it was an amateur sailor who had got lost.
In fact, the man sailing the boat was a skilled seaman. Two Italian passports, a Spanish passport and a Spanish national ID card were later found in his possession, all of which showed the same 44-year-old with weathered skin and dark curly hair. But each of the four documents listed a different name. In the previous three months, he had crossed the Atlantic twice, sailing more than 3,000 miles from the Canary Islands, just west of Morocco, to north-east Venezuela, and then back again, to So Miguel, 1,000 miles west of Portugal.
Although he was under orders to take the yacht to mainland Spain, his return crossing had been rough. Big lumps of Atlantic swell had pummelled the boat, damaging the rudder and leaving him floundering. Realising he wouldnt make it to Spain without stopping, he set a course for So Miguel, the largest of the cluster of nine volcanic islands that make up the Azores, a bucolic archipelago first colonised by Portugal in the 15th century.
But he couldnt go directly into harbour. If the port authorities checked his boat, they would find tens of millions of pounds worth of uncut cocaine, which he was ferrying from Venezuela for a gang based in Spains Balearic Islands. He had to get rid of his freight temporarily, and so he began scouring the coast for a place to hide the drugs.
So Miguels coastline is pocked with grottos and secluded coves. The sailor navigated the yacht to a cave near Pilar da Bretanha and began offloading the cocaine, which was bound with plastic and rubber in hundreds of packages the size of building bricks. According to the police investigation that followed, he secured the contraband with fishing nets and chains, submerging it beneath the water with an anchor. But as he set sail for the nearest harbour, a small fishing town called Rabo de Peixe about 15 miles to the south-east, skeins of fog drifted over So Miguels cliffs. Another swell began to rise, waves pounded the islands rocky inlets and the netting holding the cocaine unravelled.
Then the packages started to wash ashore.
For hundreds of years, most of the people on So Miguel have subsisted on farming, fishing, dairy cattle, or, more recently, government benefits. The island has 140,000 inhabitants, most of whom are separated by only one or two acquaintances. Although the island has the mix of intimacy and claustrophobia that marks many small communities, the predictability of life here creates a sense of security that is reinforced by the vast Atlantic Ocean, which barricades Azoreans within a subtropical paradise. The paradox of the Azores is that you are always wanting to leave when youre here, and always wanting return when youre not, Tiago Melo Bento, a local film-maker, told me.
The arrival in the summer of 2001 of more than half a metric tonne of extraordinarily pure cocaine turned So Miguel upside down. Earlier this year, I visited the island to speak to people who were affected by the influx of the cocaine, or were involved in trying to track down the smuggler. The stories they told of how the drugs changed the island were by turns bizarre, thrilling and tragic. No one expected in early June 2001 that they would still be talking about the effects of the cocaine nearly two decades later.
On 7 June, the day after the yacht was first sighted, a man from Pilar da Bretanha climbed down a steep path to the small cove where he often fished. On the shore, flapping in the surf like a beached jellyfish, was a large mound covered in black plastic. Beneath the plastic, the fisherman found scores of the small packages. Leaking from some of them was a substance he thought looked very much like flour. He decided to call the police.
Within hours, local officers had registered some 270 packages of uncut cocaine, weighing 290kg. It was only the first of many such discoveries. On 15 June, more than a week after the first batch was found, a man stumbled across 158kg (worth roughly 16m today) in another cove near Pilar da Bretanha. Two days later, a school teacher named Francisco Negalha alerted the police after finding 15kg on a beach on the other side of the island. I was scared and hesitant even to approach them, Negalha told me. I thought someone may have been watching me and might kill me if they saw me touch them. In the space of a fortnight, there were 11 registered seizures totalling just under 500kg of cocaine.
Not everyone who found packages reported it to authorities. A number of islanders became small-time dealers and began transporting cocaine across the island in milk churns, paint tins and socks. One such report suggested that two fishermen had seen the man on the yacht dumping some of his cocaine. No one knows how much of the drug they retrieved, nor when they rescued it, but the stories of these two fishermen have become legendary among the drug-users in So Miguel. I heard that one of these men was selling so much of the stuff from his car that his seats were white with powder. The same man had apparently paid a friend 300g of cocaine just to charge his phone. Other Azoreans were selling beer glasses full of pure cocaine, said Andre Costa, an entrepreneur and musician from the south of the island. Each one of these copos, which were about a third of a pint, contained about 150g and cost 20 (17) many hundreds of times cheaper than what it would cost in London today. On 25 June 2001, the headline of the local newspaper, Aoriano Oriental, read: Police fear the mass dealing of cocaine.
This post was curated & Posted using : RealSpecific
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