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Sao Miguel: The Rise and Fall of Cocaine Island

What would happen if a small, island community – with roughly 140,000 inhabitants – found 290kg of grade-A cocaine that had washed up on their shores? This amount would roughly be worth around 35 million dollars. Well, this is exactly what happened in 2001 to the tiny Portuguese island of Sao Miguel, when a drug smuggler accidentally lost his millions worth of cocaine parcels.

The island people may not have known it then, but the positive and negative effects left after this event would last for decades. Although this drug brought with it a great deal of wealth, it also brought with it addiction and despair. But what really happened? Let’s hear the true story of how half a ton of cocaine changed a small island forever. 

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Sao Miguel 

Sao Miguel is referred to as the ‘green island’, and rightfully so. This gem is another one of Europe’s under-appreciated beauties. Sao Miguel may be a small island around 740 miles off the west-coast shores of Portugal but It is actually the largest of the Azores archipelago of Portugal and it is situated in the North Atlantic Ocean. It is 40 miles long and 9 miles wide, with a 293 square miles area. Due to its beauty, with stunning beaches and incredible greenery, It has become a major tourist spot. Sao Miguel is also known for its tasty fruits, such as pineapples – and its wine and meats. Portugal writes:

“A vibrant garden in the middle of the Atlantic. It is no coincidence that the island of São Miguel in the Azores archipelago is also known by the nickname “Green Island“… The scenery that São Miguel offers, so diverse, is a pleasant awakening for visitors, thanks to the beautiful lakes, sandy beaches, hills, high mountains, green plains and blue ocean. São Miguel still retains that unique charm of yesteryear, when life passed serenely and unhurriedly.”

The capital city of Sao Miguel is Ponta Delgarda, which is also the capital of the entire azores region. This region is made up of 9 islands, Sao Miguel being the largest. It is believed that the island was discovered in the early 1400s by Goncalo Velho Cabral, and after centuries of wars and tidal waves (which destroyed the capital) the island has stayed strong. Although modestly inhabited, the place has a real sense of pride and unity. But then, in 2001, that was all about to change. In a youtube video, a traveller Naomi Mikleova emotionally says: 

“Before all of the drugs came to the island, people just kind of lived their lives, they were raising cattle and making cheese and dedicating themselves to agriculture and fishing. And then, in 2001, the arrival of all of this cocaine, kind of turned the life on the island upside down”

An island that had once been so green and modest, was about to become white and rich. In other words, half a ton of 80% pure cocaine from a drug smuggler was about to wash ashore and change the island forever. 

The Story of the Missing Cocaine 

Picture this: you’re living in the tiny fishing village of Rabo de Peixe on the island of Sao Miguel. You’re one of 7,500 inhabitants in the village and the most eventful thing that ever happens there is a good catch. Life is pretty dull. However, one day, you see a large ship passing by. This isn’t normal, but you decide that perhaps it’s an ambitious sailor that has got lost. Nevertheless, after a few hours, unidentified packages begin washing up on the shore. By the end of the day, around 300 of these UFP’s (unidentified floating packages) have washed up. Many have been taken into the police and many have also been kept. What would you do? Would you call the authorities? Or would you keep hold of yours, thinking perhaps that this random substance could be worth more money than you’ve ever seen before? 

In June 2001, this is what occurred. For once, in the small village of Rabo de Peixe, something actually happened and it changed the entire island significantly. A Sun Kiss 47 yacht, carrying over 500kg of highly pure cocaine, was about to drop its load on the shores of Sao Miguel. The drug boat, which had already completed a few trips to Venezuela from the Canary Islands, was now en route to Spain to also drop off some cocaine. However, the boat was not doing well, and the yacht’s mast had been damaged by some rough weather. It would be impossible to make it to Spain, so they needed to stop somewhere: Sao Miguel was the chosen destination.

The issue was, they were unable to anchor into the port as their boat would be checked by authorities, so instead they decided to hide the drugs under water in a nearby cave. Using fishing wire and misjudged planning, they tied the packages together and anchored them below sea level inside the cave. There were over 300 packages of cocaine, worth around 40 million euros. Due to continued bad weather and rough seas, the packages untied themselves and were released into the murky waters. El Pais writes:

As they bobbed ever closer to the pier in Rabo de Peixe, news of their arrival tore through the town, prompting a frenzied treasure hunt. According to witnesses, dozens of people, from teenagers to grannies, ventured out onto the treacherous quay that night to fish for the goods.The police managed to confiscate 400kg of the powder in the first-ever operation of its kind on the archipelago. The remainder was commandeered by locals, many of whom were both poor and uneducated.”

The police tried to convince the public and the world that the yacht was only carrying 500kg of cocaine, when actually the boat itself could have carried up to 3000kg. Eventually people began to acknowledge the value of these findings and those who did get their hands on a parcel began trying to use them in all manner of ways. The issue was, no one knew the price or the market. Therefore, newly pronounced dealers were selling people a beer glass full of cocaine for 20 euros. This, as many will know, is far far too cheap. Nonetheless, people wanted to make money as quickly as possible. This led to a large increase of overdoses among the island. In fact, women selling mackerel were even beginning to coat the fish with cocaine instead of flour and men began using it on their coffee instead of sugar. Nuno Medes, the journalist covering the case said:

“We had 20 deaths and an untold number of overdoses in the three weeks following the landing. But these are unofficial statistics that we cobbled together with the help of doctors and health workers”

For those selling this cocaine, their lives were changed forever. Despite selling it for extremely cheap, they were able to make a good amount of money from it, after finding a random parcel on the shore. Nonetheless, this was probably where the good fortune ended. In reality, Sao Miguel had been cursed by these parcels. The drug smuggler, Antoni Quinzi was found and arrested, and although he helped the authorities find some of the remaining parcels, the damage had been done. The police and the media tried to send out warnings to the public, to stop the misuse of the newly discovered cocaine but it didn’t work. Ultimately, in a world of wealth divisions, it’s no surprise that the poorer people would take advantage of a step up if they were given it – even if it was fueled by illegal and dangerous substances. Unfortunately the 80% cocaine was far more pure than anything usually bought on the streets, making it highly addictive and appealing. People got hooked quickly and those who could afford it went to rehab, those who couldn’t turned to cheaper drugs when the cocaine ran out like heroin. A journalist from the Guardian wrote:

“Outside Rabo de Peixe, I waited with a group of drug users for the local methadone van, which travels around the island treating people for heroin addiction. That morning, about 20 addicts clustered near a kennel of snarling Azorean cattle dogs. Most of the addicts were gaunt with jaundiced eyes, rotting teeth and grey, wrinkled skin. Small children accompanied a few of the users, while most came alone and spoke to no one, smoking and staring at the tarmac.”

Final Thoughts

Many lives were ruined instantly and in the long term due to the random event that took place in 2001. What seemed like a dream come true – a lottery win – soon became a trigger for drug addiction and despair. What is evident with this story is how little the capitalist structure caters for people’s needs. What island in the world would not take advantage of this amount of cocaine randomly finding itself on their shore? When money is scarce and opportunities are little, what choice do people have? Nonetheless, the fact remains that Sao Miguel is a breathtakingly beautiful place and if you ever have the chance to go – you should.

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