Illustration by Imogen Edmundson

Ponta Delgada is the capital of Portugal’s Azores archipelago, consisting of nine islands located in the middle of the Atlantic. The ‘cidade’, as it’s called among locals, is located on the largest of nine islands, São Miguel. With about 40 000 inhabitants, Ponta Delgada is relatively small and it’s possible to walk through this beautiful, historic city within one or two hours. One of my favourite places in ‘Ponta’ (as it’s called among tourists), is Praia das Milícias, a beautiful sandy beach on the outskirts of Ponta Delgada. In order to get there from my workplace, I need to walk through the eastern part of town, São Pedro. Initially I noticed that compared to the other lively parts of Ponta Delgada, the east was a little more abandoned, but upon hearing about a weekly mobile service distributing methadone in São Pedro, I was surprised. I was unaware of the considerable substance addiction in Ponta Delgada and on São Miguel – a fact the Portuguese government tries hard to obscure. I wanted to find out more about the roots of this. After talking to some local friends I’d made at work, and doing research online, I discovered the staggering series of events that took place on the island  more than twenty years ago. 

The entire story seems like a work of fiction. Yet two decades later, cocaine on São Miguel is still sold in units of ‘um italiano’, named after the Italian man that started it all. His name was Antonino Quinci, and on a sunny day in June 2001, he hid half a tonne of 80% pure cocaine in a grotto on the coastline near Ribeira Grande; one of the poorest municipalities in the entire country. 

Quinci was sailing from Venezuela with orders to take a yacht carrying 500 kg of cocaine, valued at €40 million, to Spain. However, his journey across the Atlantic was rough and brought down the yacht’s mast. Quinci had no other choice than to make a stop on São Miguel and have it fixed; but before going into the nearest harbour in the small fishing village of Rabo de Peixe, where his boat might be checked, he unloaded the cargo in a cave and secured the bales of cocaine with fishing nets. The cocaine was then left at the mercy of the unpredictable Azorean weather, and soon after the vicious wind and waves unravelled the nets with the packages. Half a tonne of cocaine started to bob towards Rabo de Peixe’s pier and, as the locals understood what was happening, a veritable hunt for the goods began on the shores of this tiny village. Within hours the police managed to confiscate about half of the packages, but soon the remaining 210 kilos of cocaine started to circulate in the area and across the island. Having no previous experience with the drug, nobody on São Miguel knew the going price, nor the risks involved in consuming 80% cocaine. For the poverty-stricken population of the island, making money as fast as possible was the main objective, so people began selling the  high-grade drug for ridiculous prices. Plastic cups filled with cocaine went for 20,000 escudos – just over €20 – and within the next three weeks São Miguel reported 20 deaths and an untold number of overdoses. Nobody was prepared for this: panic and mayhem reigned over the island. There are stories of women using cocaine to coat their mackerel instead of flour, middle-aged sailors spooning it into their morning coffee, and the drug being used to paint the lines on football fields. One man reportedly gave someone 300 grams of cocaine just to charge his phone. 

The Italian’s cocaine turned life on São Miguel upside down. 20 years later the long-term effects can still be observed on the island. Some locals became rich because of Quinci’s cocaine and started their own businesses like cafes and restaurants, many of which are still open today. For the most part, however, Quinci’s arrival had devastating effects on the population. Because of the cocaine’s high potency, many started taking heroin to get to sleep or to lessen withdrawal symptoms from the high-grade drug. Consequently heroin, which was shipped in from the continent, began circulating around the island as well.

A local sociologist’s study confirmed that Quinci’s arrival increased drug consumption on the island and it was the poorer population that were the most affected. While the well-off could afford to go to rehab clinics, it was mostly working-class children that sought heroin. To this day the Portuguese government pays for a mobile service that makes its way across the island’s municipalities distributing methadone to people with heroin addictions.

As for Quinci, just under two weeks after his arrival, the Italian man was arrested in the port of Ponta Delgada and sent to the island’s prison on the eastern side of the capital. He infamously managed to escape a week and a half later by climbing over the prison’s walls, but was found again within three weeks hiding in the shed of a local man living to the north of Ponta Delgada. He was put on trial in the capital and sentenced to 11 years in prison for drug-trafficking.

According to Europol, the pan-European police agency, Portugal is becoming a main entry point for South-American drug shipments, with the Azores islands frequently being used as a stopping point. Just this summer a ship was detained in Ponta Delgada’s port carrying more than a tonne of cocaine packed in neat bundles. The two traffickers were arrested and the drugs confiscated by the local police.

There isn’t a lot of information in English out there about the year 2001 in São Miguel; most of what happened was only reported in local Azorean newspapers. Back then the story didn’t even reach Lisbon because of the government’s attempts to keep the ‘drug scandal’ contained. In 2019 a reporter from The Guardian wrote an excellent in-depth article about the events. I highly recommend reading it if you want to know the story in detail.

Netflix is also currently in the process of making a fictional comedy series based on the events that took place on São Miguel in June 2001. No release date has been announced for the series (named Rabo de Peixe) so far, but it is expected to come out in late 2023. In the meantime, the show has been a controversial topic in Portugal. There aren’t many movies about the Azores, and many believe that to parody a situation that ruined a lot of lives and made a lot of people turn towards crime to feed addictions is more than questionable. The fact that the entire cast is made up of influencers from the Portuguese mainland with no connection to the Azores doesn’t help either.

The events of June 2001 are a sensitive topic among São Miguel’s locals, particularly for  the older generations that have witnessed, if not directly experienced, the effects of that fateful day when Quinci’s white yacht appeared on the island’s horizon. The young population in Ponta Delgada are often only vaguely aware of the entire story as it is never really talked about; the local friends I have made here were only able to tell me that São Pedro is the ‘druggy’ part of town. 

Like the rest of Ponta Delgada’s neighbourhoods, São Pedro is, however, beautiful, and its tiny coloured houses enchanting. When I walk towards Praia de Milicias I like to stop by Café Calheta in São Pedro to grab a café com leite. The owner always greets me with the sweetest smile and a “Boa tarde menina”. It’s only been two weeks of drinking the best coffee of my life but apparently I’ve become a regular at Café Calheta now.