Air: how half a ton of cocaine changed life on the island

Air: how half a ton of cocaine changed life on the island

In 2001, the Azores were washed away by a smuggler who investigated its contents. The island of São Miguel was quickly flooded with high-quality cocaine - and almost 20 years later it is still being felt.

Friday, May 10, 2019 at 6:00 AM & nbsp; BST
Last modified on Friday, May 24, 2019 at 12:00 PM & BST

At around noon on 6 June 2001, locals in the parish of Pilar da Bretanha, on the northwestern tip of the Atlantic island of São Miguel, saw a yacht of about 40 feet drifting aimlessly near the high cliffs of the area. 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 low, the tides strong and the rocks sharp. They thought they were lost as an amateur sailor.

In fact, the man sailing the boat was a skilled sailor. He later found two Italian passports, a Spanish passport and a Spanish identity card, all of which showed the same 44-year-old weather with skin and dark curly hair. However, all four documents had different names. In the last three months, he has crossed the Atlantic twice, sailing more than 3,000 miles from the Canary Islands, west of Morocco, northeastern Venezuela and thence back to São Miguel, 1,000 miles west of Portugal.

Although he was ordered to take the yacht to mainland Spain, his return had been rough. Large dams in the Atlantic Ocean had ruined the boat, damaging the rudder and leaving it flat. Realizing that he would not arrive in Spain without stopping, he set the course for São Miguel, the largest of the nine volcanic island clusters that make up the Azores, a bucolic archipelago first colonized by Portugal in the 15th century.

But he could not go directly to the port. If the port authorities inspected his boat, they would find tens of millions of pounds worth of uncut cocaine he was carrying on board from Venezuela to a gang in the Spanish Balearic Islands. He had to get rid of his goods temporarily, and so he started scouring the coast to hide drugs.

São Miguel's coastline is hauled by grottoes and secluded bays. The sailor navigated the yacht to a cave near Pilar da Bretanha and began unloading cocaine tied to plastic and rubber in hundreds of packs the size of building bricks. According to a subsequent police investigation, he secured the contraband with fishing nets and chains, diving it with an anchor. But as he sailed to the nearest port, a small fishing town called Rabo de Peixe, about 15 miles southeast, foggy drifts drifted over the cliffs of São Miguel. Another swelling began to rise, the waves pounding the rocky inlets of the island and the cocaine-retaining net.

Then the packages began to wash ashore.

or for hundreds of years, the majority of São Miguel's population has lived under agriculture, fisheries, dairy farming or, more recently, government subsidies. The island has a population of 140,000, most of whom are separated by only one or two acquaintances. Although the island is a mixture of intimacy and claustrophobia, which represents many small communities, the predictability of life here creates a sense of security, reinforced by the vast Atlantic Ocean, which barricades the Azores in a subtropical paradise. "The Azores paradox is that you always want to leave here and always want to come back when you are not," local filmmaker Tiago Melo Bento told me.

The arrival of more than half a tonne of exceptionally pure cocaine in the summer of 2001 turned São Miguel upside down. Earlier this year, I visited the island to talk to people affected by the influx of cocaine or involved in the pursuit of a smuggler. They talked about how drugs made the island strange, exciting and tragic. At the beginning of June 2001, no one could expect them to talk about the effects of cocaine two decades later.

On June 7, the day after the hunt was first seen, a man from Pilar da Bretanha climbed abruptly down the road to a small cove where he was often fished. Surfing on the shore like a jellyfish carried into the sea, a large mound covered with black plastic. Under the plastic, the fisherman found many small packages. Leaking from some of them was a substance that he thought looked very like flour. He decided to call the police.

About 270 unpackaged cocaine packages weighing 290 kg had been registered by local officials within hours. This 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 another mine near Pilar da Bretanha at 158 ​​kg (worth about £ 16 million). Two days later, a schoolteacher named Francisco Negalha warned police after finding 15 kilograms on a beach on the other side of the island. "I was afraid and even hesitated to approach them," Negalha said. "I thought someone was watching me and could kill me if they saw me touching them." In two weeks, 11 seizures totaling just under 500 kg of cocaine were recorded.

Not everyone who found the packaging reported it to the authorities. Many of the islanders became small traders and began transporting cocaine across the island in cucumbers, cans and socks. One such report showed that two fishermen had seen a man hunting for cocaine on a hunt. No one knows how much drug they acquired or when they saved it, but the stories of these two fishermen have become legendary among drug users in São Miguel. I heard that one of these men was selling so many things from his car that his seats were powdery white. The same man had probably paid a friend 300g of cocaine just to pay for the phone. The other Azores "sold beer glasses full of pure cocaine," said Andre Costa, a businessman and musician from the south of the island. All of these "buckets", which accounted for about a third of the surface, contained about 150 grams and cost € 20 (£ 17) - hundreds of times cheaper than it would cost in London today. The headline of the local newspaper Açoriano Oriental stated on 25 June 2001: "Police fear mass cocaine sales".

Before the hunt arrived, the locals had seen little cocaine on the island. Finding heroin or hashish was more common. "Cocaine was an elite drug," Jose Lopes, one of the leading inspectors of the Portuguese judicial system, told me. "It was expensive." In fact, there was only one previous case of human trafficking that people remembered with all clarity. In 1995, an Italian named Marco Morotti was caught in the port of Ponta Delgada, São Miguel's largest city, transporting large quantities of cocaine dissolved in petrol tanks. But Morotti's product had already been seized by the police before reaching the islanders.

São Miguel now circulated two types of cocaine: one was a fine white powder familiar from movies and TV shows. The other was as yellowish crystals. Most users sniffed the powder but dissolved the crystals in water and then injected it into their veins. Both methods were effective. "It was euphoria," Costa said. "You were floating." A drug addict who recovered from Rabo de Peixe said that he and a member of his family consumed more than a kilo a month. The policeman told me the story of a man nicknamed Joaninha or Ladybug, who had hooked himself with a drop of cocaine and water and sat high in his house for days.

Elsewhere in the world, such a valuable product was made almost worthless due to its abundance. "They had gold, but they didn't know how to work with it," Ruben Frias, head of the local fishermen's association in Rabo de Peixe, told me. It was heard that housewives fried mackerel in cocaine, thought it was flour, and that old fishermen poured their coffee like sugar. No one knew how much stuff was still out there.


24 hours after arriving in São Miguel, the hunting man had barely left his cabin. He had made cards and made several phone calls to find out how he could repair the damaged rudder of his boat, but he could not speak Portuguese and could not afford to pay more attention than was absolutely necessary. As he lay in his narrow bunk on the night of June 7, he did not know that the police were already guarding him.

Jose Lopes, a police inspector in the judiciary, was elected to lead the investigation. At the time, he was 34 years old and had worked as a police officer for eight years, seven of them in the Azores. He was very familiar with the local drug trade and was known for his encyclopedic memory. As we spoke, Lopes also stated that he had a "sixth sense" to solve the riddles.

It was not long before Lopes realized that the smuggler's yacht was floating in the port of Rabo de Peixe. He knew that cocaine had almost certainly arrived by boat. Thanks to the statements of the villagers who described the ship and the documents about the arrival and departure of the boats kept by the maritime police, Lopes and his crew were able to catch the hunt in a few hours. Then they began to consider it.

Around June 1, at 1 o'clock, police watched the Nissan Micra park next to the yacht. They later found out that Vito Rosario Quinci, a man who had arrived at the airport the day before, had rented the car. Vito Rosario turned out to be the smuggler's nephew, a Sicilian whose real name was Antonino Quinci.

Spanish prosecutors later claim that Vito Rosario was the link between Quinci and an unnamed Spanish organization leading the cocaine operation. According to Spanish court documents, four months before Quinci arrived in the Azores in Puerto de Mogán in the Canary Islands, the head of the smuggling district bought the 11-year-old yacht Sun Kiss 47 and carried it to Quinci. under a pseudonym. It was later discovered that the Quinci yacht was only part of a larger operation. Two more ships, each carrying more than half a tonne of cocaine, were destined for different Spanish ports. (Vito was later convicted of involvement in drug smuggling and sentenced to 17 years in prison in Spain. drug trafficking operation.)

Vito met his uncle hunting in cramped living quarters. Later that morning, two men sailed out of the port. Police took them to Pilar da Bretanha, a place where Quinci had tried to hide cocaine two days earlier. The couple drifted there for 35 minutes, probably long enough to determine if cargo was missing. Police then monitored them as they sailed around the town of Ponta Delgada, the Azores' economic capital, on the south side of the island.

There, in the city's port, Quinci and Vito set up a base for the next 12 days. They seemed to do little, except for occasional treadmills, sometimes to buy fuel and other supplies, sometimes to places where the police did not pursue them. When investigators in the harbor dragged that the yacht's steering wheel would be repaired by June 22, he knew his team needed to act quickly. On June 20, at 9:30 a.m., just under two weeks after the yacht was first spotted, they surrendered to the ship.

Lopes and his crew found Quinci in the gut of the hunt, surrounded by maps and piles of documents, including a notebook that marked the ship's voyage from Venezuela via Barbados to São Miguel. Investigators also found a brick weighing 960 g of cocaine and a plastic can containing three grams of cocaine on a shelf packed in a checker bag. Quinc's nephew Vito was missing.

The arrest went smoothly. "Quinc was easy to deal with," Lopes said. The inspector spoke proper Italian after living in the country for a short time before becoming a police officer. He and Quinci were able to talk informally. "Quinci was talking to someone who had just been arrested for a drug charge," Lopes said. "He felt worried about the fact that he was washing large amounts of cocaine all over the island." Quinci even offered to direct officers to the area where he had hidden cocaine.

At a formal hearing the next day, Quinci unexpectedly stopped cooperating. He denied cocaine smuggling and said the bricks seized from a police boat were things he had happened at sea. "He showed almost arrogance, as if he were above the trial," Catia Bendetti told me during the interrogation of Quinci's interpreter. "He barely said a word." Maybe Quinc was scared. He had two young children and a girlfriend who were vulnerable to retaliation and had just lost tens of millions of pounds worth of someone else's cocaine. Or maybe he thought he could avoid being prosecuted. However, it soon became clear that he had not given up hope of fleeing the island.


efore Quinci's cocaine was washed ashore, Lopes and his colleagues detained São Miguel's drug trade. "We knew almost everything there was to know about the local market," Lopes said. The flow of drugs was usually small and predictable. When they are arrested by the police, they often make a dent in drugs that local prices rise rapidly. But now the police were faced with an unprecedented situation. In addition to the 500kg of cocaine they had seized in the last two weeks, Lopes thought at least another 200kg had not yet been accounted for.

Rabo de Peixe, the fishing village where Quinci had first moored his boat, is one of the poorest towns in Portugal, and the locals told me that it is a place where even other islanders can feel like a bystander. But this summer, it became a sales center for missing cocaine. "People from all over the island came here to buy drugs," Ruben Frias told me. At the top of the narrow streets lined with pastel-colored houses at the top of the town square, towards the snake harbor. On those streets, where fishermen bark over dominoes in dirty bars, slipping small glasses of red wine, pounds and kilograms of cocaine.

Subsequent analysis showed that cocaine was more than 80% pure, much stronger than anything normally found on the street. The strength of the medicine made it very addictive, and many people who started taking it had no idea what they were experiencing. Local Judge Francisco Moreira told me that Quinci's drug turned it into the hands of the islanders at a time when many of the people here had little experience with cocaine.

The results were disastrous. Mariano Pacheco, a doctor and coroner at Ponta Delgada Hospital, told me that, within a week of Quinci's arrival, an unusual number of people arrived at the hospital who reported similar symptoms to a heart attack or arrived unconscious. "We revived a lot of people from drug-induced coma," he said. "Some of them didn't do it."

One month after arriving on Quinci Island, cocaine was still devastating. On 7 July, Açoriano Oriental's homepage entitled 'Cocaine kills São Miguel' was opened. The article reported a sharp rise in the number of overdoses and the death of a young man. Local television networks began to issue health warnings to islanders, advising them not to try cocaine. But for some it was too late.


his Ponta Delgada prison, where Quinci was sent to await trial, looks like a brutalist castle and looms above the main road out of the city. According to a witness cited in the court documents, Quinci was often on the phone while in prison, spoke Spanish and tried to secure a scooter or rental car. In return for escaping from prison, Quinci offered other inmates cards leading them to cocaine.

On the morning of July 1, about a week and a half after his arrest, Quinci entered the prison yard for a designated rest period. His hands were wrapped in torn sheets to protect them from cuts: the yard was surrounded by a long, low wall with barbed wire at the top. Around 11.25, Quinci started climbing.

A correction officer named Antonio Alonso fired a warning shot from his rifle at a white hexagonal watchtower, but Quinci kept climbing. Alonso then aimed his view directly at the wanted person and placed his finger on the trigger. From below, the prisoners had gathered and pushed Quinci forward. Across the wall, Alonso could see civilians walking up and down the promenade on the main road. "I was afraid I might hurt someone if I was shot," he later admits. He watched as Quinci crossed the wall, along the road, into a small scooter, and into the distance.

Police were immediately notified of the escape and taken to the island to be sealed. Pictures of Quinci were sent to all ports of São Miguel and Ponta Delgada Airport. On July 3, Açoriano Oriental asked readers to report all of Quinci's observations to the authorities. Rumors spread that he was sleeping roughly in fields, church windows, and chicken eagles, sniffing his appetite for cocaine. Eventually, he came across a man named Rui Couto who lived in a village 26 miles northeast of Ponta Delgada.

When I met Couto, who is now in his 40s and has a tattoo on the left side of his shaved head, he looked nervous and irritated and wore clothes that were too big for his skinny frame. Like many islanders, he had moved to the United States at a young age. However, he was forced to leave after being bothered by drug possession. "They caught me with six hinges," he told me in a thick Massachusetts accent. He returned to São Miguel in the early 1920s.

When Quinci Couto arrived at the house, the Italian was covered in blood. "He was wearing sweatshirts and socks, but the barbed wire tore his ankles," Couto said. It was the day of Couto's son's baptism, and his whole family was on the garden terrace behind the house. Couto claimed that Quinci brought the house to his acquaintance. He also told me that he had given Quinc a kind shelter and that there was no agreement or plan with the Italians. "He didn't pay me anything!" he said. "I'm a good guy, I was raised with values."

Quinci stayed for about two weeks behind a couto garden in a chicken coop at the bottom of a potato field. The couple would often eat together and talk until late at night. Couto told me that although Quinci was in a deplorable condition, smoking cocaine in cigarette papers without tobacco, he was always friendly. "He was a good guy and I miss him," he said.

Couto said someone in Quinci knew he had come to give him a fake passport and money. Quinci's relative allegedly bought him a boat in Madeira, another Portuguese island 620 miles southeast, and intended to smuggle it near São Miguel as soon as possible. "He was all ready to go, they were going to pick him up from there," Couto told me, pointing to a bay about 200 yards from the back of his house. "But well, then they didn't."

Couto said he had been up late with a friend the night before police arrived. Around 7 a.m. on July 16, he heard people screaming behind the house. Couto opened the door in his panties and an armed police squadron erupted from the front door.

According to Lopes, who took part in the raid, they ran out of a police colleague who thought Couto was hiding cocaine at his house. But after inspecting the beds, sofas, cabinets and toilets, officials found nothing. Lopes and a colleague decided to inspect the stone barn at the bottom of the Couto potato field. The inside was covered with hay and smelled strongly of manure. There didn't seem to be anything interesting inside. Then Lopes heard a noise. At first he thought it was a cat, "but something told me I needed to look for more."

They found Quinci hiding in a corner, dirty and dirty. "We didn't know Quinci was there," Lopes said. "It simply came to our notice then. It was the biggest fortune. "


A few weeks later, Quinci's cocaine had profoundly changed São Miguel's life. But that was the immediate consequence of his arrival. When I traveled to the island earlier this year, the long-term effects of Quinci cocaine were obvious.

In the same year that Quinci arrived in São Miguel, Portugal decriminalized personal possession and consumption of illicit substances and diverted resources to prevention and recovery services. Outside Rabo de Peixe, I was waiting with a group of drug addicts for a local methadone van traveling around the island, treating people for heroin addiction. That morning, about 20 addicts gathered near an Azorean cattle dog snarling kennel. Most addicts had macular eyes, rotten teeth and gray, wrinkled skin. Young children accompanied some users, while most came alone and did not talk to anyone, smoking and staring at the asphalt.

Users who agreed to talk to me said that Quinci's arrival in São Miguel changed the island in a surprising way. Several people told me that many locals became rich because of Italian cocaine, then set up a legal business, such as coffee shops, many of which still exist.

However, the drugs also had a more harmful long-term effect. Several users told me that Quinci cocaine was so strong that they took other medications to relieve withdrawal symptoms. They were addicted to heroin, which was often delivered from the mainland by post. Alberto Peixoto, a local sociologist who conducted research on drug use in the Azores, confirmed that the arrival of Quinci cocaine increased the use of other illicit substances and that young people and adults from the poorer parts of the island were most affected. "It completely ruined my life," said a local man who had become addicted to Quinci cocaine and then heroin. "I live with the consequences to this day."

Following his re-arrest, Quinci was tried in Ponta Delgada and given 11 years for drug trafficking, misidentification and escape from prison. The decision was appealed and sent to the courts of Lisbon, which reduced the sentence to ten years. (The other two yachts involved in the smuggling operation, Lorena and Julia, were hit by Spanish police in Spain in July 2001.)

According to Europol, a pan-European police force, the Caribbean-Azores route is now a cornerstone of international drug trafficking. Criminals use the islands as a pit stop, where goods are usually taken to fishing vessels or high-speed vessels for mainland Portugal or Spain. In September last year, a French-flagged catamaran carrying 840 kg of cocaine was held near the island of Faial in the Azores.

After the methadone truck reached the next stop, I drove along the north coast of the island, where the Quinci yacht was visible for the first time. My journey passed through a bird of terracotta-covered whitewashed buildings, through rich green pastures and along a wall like squares on a chessboard. Farmers grazed in moist fields, while Dutch Frisian cows grazed. In the soaring tropical air, everything seemed to be settled and stagnant. When I reached the northeastern end of the island, I saw the Atlantic Ocean stretching to the horizon like wavy slate. And a few miles away, a white sailboat was thrown back and forth in the afternoon.

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