The Brazilian-flagged vessel ‘Wood’ was intercepted by the Portuguese maritime authorities on 22 May in the Atlantic Ocean, 520 km south of Cape Verde and 4,000 km from Lisbon, in an operation dubbed 'Areia Branca' (White Sand) in which, as well as the Navy, the Portuguese air force, Polícia Judiciária (PJ) force and Brazil’s Polícia Federal also participated.
The charge sheet issued by the Lisbon-based Central Department of Investigation and Criminal Action (DCIAP), which Lusa has now seen, stated that the seven defendants, who all being held on remand, "were the crew of the artisanal fishing vessel 'Wood', in which there came to be found, when it was sailing on the high seas, 1,087 kilogrammes of cocaine, packed in 50 raffia bags.”
"All the defendants wanted to participate in a transport of a large amount of cocaine, a product they collected at sea, near the Brazilian coast, and which [they] intended for delivery to third parties, in place not determined, who, in turn, would be in charge of assuring the distribution of this product in the European market," states the DCIAP, adding that the sale of the cocaine seized would have resulted in "very large monetary gains, certainly more than 44 million euros."
The charge sheet states that between 4 and 6 May 2019, "the defendants carried the 50 bales of cocaine, pressed into plates, which they passed from another vessel to the vessel 'Wood' [which] sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, without ever having made port and without having undertaken any fishing activity, until it was intercepted by the Portuguese maritime authorities."
The interception occurred at 1.55 a.m. on 22 May 2019 "about 280 nautical miles [520 km] from the city of Praia, Cape Verde", when the vessel had stopped, allegedly awaiting the transshipment of the cocaine.
"Thus, without knowing the circumstances of time and manner in which a potential transshipment could be carried out, at 3.21 [a.m.] a Portuguese Navy vessel approached the … 'Wood' and members of the Navy boarded [it], after the crew was informed that the vessel would undergo an intervention for inspection," the charge sheet continues.
Then, under "the control and escort" of the naval vessel, the Wood "was sailed by its crew to Portugal" and taken to the Lisbon naval base at Alfeite, in the municipality of Almada, in Setúbal district, "where it landed at 3.00 p.m.” on 3 June 2019.
As soon as it made port, inspectors from the PJ began to act on search warrants they had secured; on board the vessel, in addition to cocaine, there was "only a residual amount of frozen fish, for consumption by the crew."
Vítor Parente Ribeiro, lawyer of the vessel’s owner, told Lusa on Thursday that he had already requested the opening of the instruction phase in the case, an optional phase in which a judge other than the one who oversaw the investigation must review proceeding and decide if the case should go to trial and in what form.
According to Ribeiro, the vessel was at the time of the interception "in Cape Verde waters, so the seizure is illegal".
As well as charging the seven defendants with the crime of serious drug trafficking, public prosecutors are also requesting that they be deported, since they have no connection with Portugal.
The day after the vessel came into the naval base at Alfeite on 4 June, Portugal’s ministers of justice and of defence visited it to highlight the cooperation between the PJ and armed forces in the case.
"It was one of the riskiest operations in the fight against drugs and stands out as a demonstration of our ability to combat this type of crime and to [send] a message to traffickers,” the minister of justice, Francisca Van Dunem, told reporters at the time.
The minister of defence, João Gomes Cravinho, stressed for his part that Portugal has an increased responsibility in combatting this type of crime due to its geographical location within easy reach of the American and African landmasses, and pledged the country to be "ready to take on these responsibilities".