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Old 01-12-2018, 12:30 PM
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Default Canarian Weekly: Hash-addled town is still reeling after 16 miserable years

LIFE on the north Atlantic coast of São Miguel, in Portugal’s Azores archipelago, is as wild, forgotten and cruel as its location.

The town has few facilities, save Wi-Fi. And when there’s no fishing to be done, youngsters smoke hash and hang out on the cement pier.

They are desperate to escape from this scrap of land, in the middle of nowhere, where next to nothing happens.

This actually explains how the town was brought to its knees when, in June 2001, something actually did happen, *in the shape of a Sun Kiss 47 yacht, carrying 505,840kgs of 80% pure cocaine, worth around 40 million euros.

The sea was rough and the gale-force wind brought down the yacht’s mast. It was impossible for it to slip by the Azores Islands as planned, but it was equally impossible for it to sail into the port, laden with drugs.

The crew held a crisis meeting, and agreed to drop some cocaine bales into the sea. The rest would be taken to a cave in the north of the island, close to Rabo de Peixe.

And the plan might have worked, but for nature. The bales, at the mercy of a vicious wind, were blown ashore rapidly. And, as they bobbed ever closer to the pier, news of their arrival ripped through the town, prompting a frenzied treasure hunt.

Witnesses say dozens of people, from teenagers to grannies, ventured on to the treacherous quay that night to fish for the goods.

Police confiscated 400kg of cocaine in the first operation of its kind on the archipelago. But the remainder was commandeered by locals, many of whom were poor and uneducated.

“The police maintained that the yacht was carrying 500kg only, but that’s absurd,” said Nuno Mendes, a newspaper journalist covering the story.

“The boat could carry up to 3,000kgs and nobody would cross the Atlantic carrying a small percentage of what they could take, because 100kgs of cocaine, however exquisitely high-grade, doesn’t destroy a generation.”

The main object was for the natives to make money quickly, and, consequently, an epidemic of overdoses brought hospitals on the island to the verge of collapse.

Local television journalist Teresa Nobrega recalled: “Doctors were coming on TV begging people to put an end to the madness. There were weeks of panic, terror and mayhem, and no one was prepared for anything like it. In fact, it continues to affect us.”

Residents even recall women using cocaine instead of flour to coat their mackerel, and middle-aged men spooning it into their morning coffee.

“We never had access to reliable statistics,” says Mendes, who believes there was a cover-up to avoid it becoming international news. “At first, the priority was to stop the madness, but there was a lack of resources and a lack of interest.

“In the three weeks following the landing, we had 20 deaths and an untold number of overdoses.”

The police were working on two fronts simultaneously: confiscating every last gram of cocaine which still remained on the island, and locating the yacht that “delivered” the drugs.

After two weeks of exhaustive searches at the port of Ponta Delgada, the island’s capital, police found a small packet, concealed in a yacht moored in the port.

It was wrapped in newspaper bearing the same name and date as the paper in the bales of cocaine, seized days earlier on the beach. The police arrested the only man on the boat, Sicilian Antoni Quinzi, who became vital to the investigation.

“When we told him how the island had been turned into a minefield, he gave us key information on the goods hidden in the north,” said João Soares, Chief Police Inspector at the time, who arrested Quinzi. He also organised the hunt for him two weeks later, following one of the most surreal jail-breaks in Portuguese police history.

Ten days after his arrest, Quinzi jumped over the prison wall and headed for freedom on a waiting Vespa. But Soares said: “The island itself is a prison. No one escapes from jail on an island.”

Well, Quinzi did, though he was apprehended again a fortnight later, in the north-east of Sao Miguel, carrying 30 grams of cocaine and a fake passport.

He was taken to Coimbra prison in Portugal and, later, sentenced to nine years and 10 months. The Sicilian, the only person ever held to account, is still regarded as a legend on the island.

“He was very tall and charismatic,” said Catia Beneditti, a lecturer in Italian at the Azores University, who acted as Quinzi’s interpreter during his interrogation and subsequent trial in Ponta Delgada.

Today, the purity of cocaine is measured according to the criteria of “el Italiano”, indicating that, 16 years on, the island is still living with the fall-out of that fateful night.

“The purity of the cocaine had a catastrophic effect,” said Suzete Frías, former director of* the Ponta Delgada health clinic. “The rush was so brutal that people started to use heroin to get to sleep.

“Drug-addiction became a huge problem, and, while the children from well-to-do families were sent to rehab clinics on the continent, working-class children sought heroin.”

Yet the matter has never attracted much interest because the Azores Islands, some 1,400km west of Lisbon, are out of earshot.

And, according to Suzete: “Had the cocaine washed up on the shores of mainland Europe, none of this would have happened.”
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