They left from Natal – three young Brazilians and a French delivery skipper, aboard a British-flagged schooner.
The yacht was 72ft long and had once been beautiful, but she was no longer in tip-top condition. Throughout the previous week as they sailed north from Salvador the crew had experienced many problems with her – but what of that? For years the three Brazilian men had dreamed of making a passage across the Atlantic to Europe, and a few problems with the engine and the sails could not deter them. Excitement is palpable in the posts which young Daniel Guerra shared on Facebook. “The world is a book,” he told his friends, “And I am reading it!”
Life seldom gives us what we planned. Even so, few could have guessed that Daniel’s dream would actually become a veritable nightmare.
The cranky vessel succeeded in carrying her crew across the ocean – she arrived safely in Cape Verde – but two days after reaching harbour the boat was boarded by the police; and in the depths of her bilge, in a secret compartment, a hidden cargo was found. It transpired that Rich Harvest was not only carrying the four men; she was also carrying 1.2 tonnes of cocaine, with a street value of around 180 million dollars!
No one could have been more surprised by the discovery of the drugs than Daniel and his companions – but, of course, that didn’t help them. They were placed in gaol. Seven months later they stood trial, they were found guilty of trafficking, and they were each sentenced to ten years in prison.
I’ve never spoken to Daniel Guerra, but my son-in-law is a friend of his. Daniel and Gean met for the first time in Ushuaia, and they got to know each other some months later when they were both living and working in Florianopolis. However, my personal interest in this case doesn’t stop there. I’m concerned about Daniel and his friends because they’re fellow yotties, and the trap that they’ve been caught in is one which could ensnare any of us.
Like me and mine, Daniel Guerra is a nomad. Part of his childhood was spent in Australia, and perhaps that was what sparked his desire to roam. Having obtained a degree in International Relations from the University of Santa Catarina (Brazil), Daniel relocated to Portugal to do a Masters. Whilst in Europe he started to travel by bicycle, making extensive journeys throughout the Iberian peninsula, and on his return to his homeland he set up an organisation, called Liberbike, whose aim was to encourage and unite others who enjoy this means of transport. As part of this new project Daniel decided to make a long journey – the longest journey that a cyclist could ever make on this continent – travelling alone from Colombia all the way south to Ushuaia.
It was after Daniel arrived in Ushuaia that he got bitten by the sailing bug. Sitting in the marina in that city was a big aluminium sloop called Endurance, and she was flying a Brazilian flag. Naturally, Dani went to say hello – and that was how he made his great discovery: He learned that the crew didn’t own the boat; they were actually being paid to sail her! It didn’t take long for the young man to realise that he had found a way to make a career out of travelling. On his return to Brazil he sought a place where he could study for the British Yachtmaster’s certification, in order to become a professional skipper, and eventually he settled on a well-accredited school on Ilha Bela (Sao Paulo).
Pieces of paper are all well and good, but as everyone knows, the thing that counts most in the sailing world is experience. Having been born and brought up on sailing boat, my son Caesar had no difficulty in getting a job aboard a yacht sailing to Antarctica. Caesar had already criss-crossed the Atlantic many times before he was in his twenties. But for most people, acquiring ‘sea-miles’ is a challenge.
Training at the same sailing school as Dani was Rodrigo Dantas, another would-be pro. Ten years younger than Daniel, at 25, Rodrigo had grown up messing about in boats, but he also needed to acquire some offshore experience. The two young men were fortunate enough to get a ride to the island of Fernando do Noronha together – but what they really needed was a long ocean passage. Eventually, their chance came: A reputable Dutch firm called The Delivery Company was looking for a skipper and two crew for a yacht lying in Salvador. Rich Harvest had spent over a year in Brazil, but now her owner wanted to sail her back home to Europe.
Rich Harvest. With the benefit of hindsight one feels that the name offers a clue… but in fact the boat was not actually christened by the man who, at this time, appeared to be her owner. Mr Fox, as he called himself, was one of four men who had brought the schooner over from Spain. However, at the time when the boat arrived he was not listed as the owner, and he was using a different name. Clearly, the man was not all that he appeared to be; but what he was, however, was utterly charming. When Rodrigo Dantas told his father about the planned voyage, that gentleman was sufficiently concerned to seek a meeting in order to ensure that his son was shipping with someone suitable – and George Fox passed the test with flying colours. Meanwhile, Daniel Guerra posted a photo of himself and his new friend aboard the boat. Said he, “Life gives us opportunities and brothers. Many thanks for the opportunity, Fox. The learning, experience, and companionship make me stronger. Thanks mate.”
And Mr Fox swallowed the compliments and kept on smiling.
Just before they were due to sail, Fox got off the boat. He told the crew that something had cropped up. Family affairs. He left Brazil the day before the Brazilian Policia Federal pounced, on July 18th.
After a seven hour search with sniffer dogs, the Brazilian police found nothing suspicious, and although they had initially been somewhat taken aback by events, upon consideration it seemed to Daniel and Rodrigo that the search of a foreign-flagged yacht was probably normal. Furthermore they reckoned that it was actually a bonus. Surely, no yacht could ever have received a cleaner bill of health! (Rodrigo actually videoed part of the PFB’s search.)
On the 24th July the boat left Natal, bound for the Azores – but less than 24 hours later she had to turn back after the engine caught fire. This disaster also revealed something quite unexpected about the delivery skipper provided by the Dutch company: According to Daniel, this man didn’t know how to sail! He and Rodrigo brought the yacht back into harbour.
When he was informed of the latest developments, Fox sacked the skipper and returned to Natal. He repaired the engine. He also suggested that the guys should find another crew member, so that the watch-keeping would be easier – and so Rodrigo invited a family friend. 43 year old Daniel Dantas (no relation to Rodrigo) had no sailing experience but he had always wanted to cross an ocean. He joined the boat on 27th July. The men assumed that Fox would now sail the boat with them, but at the last minute he announced that he had found another professional skipper. The owner of the marina near Salvador, where he had kept the boat, had given him the name of a Frenchman called Olivier Thomas who lived in Brazil.
Olivier Thomas. When I heard the name I didn’t recognise it, but having spent days researching the details of this case I suddenly realised: I know this guy! Tall and lanky Olivier, with his catamaran! I remember hearing how Olivier built the boat on the beach in Itaparica (opposite Salvador). He had lived in Brazil for 15 years. According to a mutual friend, a few years after we met Olivier he sailed the catamaran north to the Caribbean, and in the summer of 2017 he sold her. He was planning to construct a new yacht, perhaps in Thailand. From St Martin’s, our friend told me, Olivier flew to France – and it was evidently while he was here, visiting his family, that Fox got in touch.
Olivier Thomas sent an e-mail back, explaining that if Fox wanted him to skipper the boat he would have to provide not just the delivery fee but also two airfares (from France to Brazil, twice-over). He also informed his would-be employer that the going rate for the trip was around 8,000 Euros. When Fox agreed to the price, the yachtsman invited his father to join him in the venture; but the elder Monsieur Thomas was already busy.
Olivier Thomas joined Rich Harvest on the 31st July. On the following day, Fox bid the crew adieu, and just three days after that, on 4th August, the vessel set out from Natal.
“I’ve embarked on many trips,” wrote Daniel Guerra, “but this one will be special. It was six years ago that I first dreamed of crossing the Atlantic on a sailing boat. Dreaming is not enough, but now, thanks to God, I am realising the dream! Next stop Cape Verde.”
“Fair winds. God be with you, amigo”, his Facebook followers chorused.
Unbeknownst to Daniel at this moment, the new skipper had no intention of stopping in Cape Verde. Olivier Thomas had been hired to take the boat to the Azores, and although Fox had intended going via Cape Verde, he prefered the straight line route. He had therefore cleared for Madeira.
Unfortunately, the trip north did not go as planned. First the engine broke down; and then the hydraulic pump on the steering sprang a leak. Reluctantly, Olivier reverted to plan A.
Eighteen days after her departure from Natal, Rich Harvest put into in Mindelo, Cape Verde. Immediately upon arrival, Daniel Guerra posted an account of the crossing:
“I’m so exhausted, my head is fit for nothing! … Dozens of surprises … Many problems with the boat … First, a fire; then problems with the batteries; a constant leak; diesel fumes … Big waves; strong winds; the doldrums … A crewman who was ill and never helped with anything … Arguments … But it was a lesson. I loved all of this and would live it all again. For many reading this it will sound like a lot of suffering, but for me it’s happiness; it’s my job. … You all know my perversion, [which is] to live a life of challenges. … A normal life is really not suitable for me. I do not want to live in vain.”
Daniel was exulting in having won a hard fight, and anyone who has crossed an ocean under sail will be able to relate to his feelings of relief and elation. Nor was there any pretence here. Even in the midst of the trials and tribulations, he had still enjoyed himself. The day that the yacht crossed the equator happened also to be Rodrigo’s birthday, and the two of them had celebrated the fact that they were actually, truly living their dream. Daniel closed the account with thanks to his friends and family – “and I would like to thank the owner of the boat, Mr Fox, who believed in us.”
Unbeknownst to Daniel and his companions, the police in Cape Verde had been told to expect the arrival of Rich Harvest; and it would seem that they had been told exactly where to look for a certain cargo of contraband. Two days after Daniel posted his facebook update, the police boarded the vessel. By their own account, it took them more than seven hours to disassemble the cabin and reach the secret cache – which was under a bunk, under a 600L fibreglass watertank, and under a steel plate which they had to cut off. Inside the hidden compartment they discovered 1,063 packets, each wrapped in layers of plastic and each one the size of a notebook computer. Olivier Thomas says that when he first glimpsed them he thought they must something intended to keep the boat afloat in the event of a shipwreck; but then a policeman tore open a packet and put a syring of liquid to the powder within, changing its colour. The police were exultant: “Cocaine!”
In his diary Thomas wrote, “At this moment I know that we have been fucked. I feel as if I am falling from a tenth floor.”
Two of the crew were by now living ashore. Daniel Dantas had spent the entire trip incapacitated by seasickness and would presumably not have wanted to continue the voyage anyway – but in fact, the skipper had decided that both he and his namesake, Rodrigo, should leave. This was not a reflection on the younger man’s skills; it was simply that the boat evidently needed a lot of work done to it and Olivier could not see himslef getting underway again inside three weeks. Accordingly, he had agreed to pay for their flights back to Brazil, and he had officially removed their two names from the crewlist. Thus it was that, initially, only the skipper and Daniel Guerra were arrested. They were charged with trafficking illegal drugs and were immediately imprisoned.
Over the course of the ensuing seven months the full story of the misadventure began to come to light. It transpired that this was not the first time that Rich Harvest had had a brush with the law. Some 13 years earlier, in 2004, she was being used as an offshore ‘offy’. Her owners, Phil Berriman and Trevor Lyons, filled the schooner to the gunwhales with duty-free alcohol and cigarettes – some say in Gibraltar; some say in Germany – and then they anchored her just over 12 miles off the coast of Britain, in international waters. Customers were encouraged to make a ‘Booze Cruise’ out to the ‘Baccy Boat’ for the purpose of buying duty-free merchandise.
When the Customs and Excise put a stop to this business, Berriman relocated to Gibraltar, and in 2013 we find him setting up a salvage business which was to be run from the yacht. Seemingly, things didn’t work out, because by the time she reached Salvador (Brazil) in June 2016, Rich Harvest apparently belonged to George Fox, a resident of Gibraltar.
Except that, in fact, the Brazilian documents show the boat as belonging to one “Matthew Aiton”… and, according to their records, the name on the Fox’s passport was George Edward Saul.
Unfortunately, the fox wasn’t so cunning and clever as he evidently imagined himself to be. According to the Policia Federal, he and his companions and their boat were already being watched by the British NCA (National Crime Agency) before the boat left Brazil , and it was apparently on the instigation of the NCA that Rich Harvest was closely watched whilst in Natal, with PFB operatives even taking photos of the crew in secret. Then, when the boat’s departure seemed imminent, the search was made. However, although they got the floorboards up and examined some newly built tanks, the Brazilians didn’t actually take pick-axes and cutting torches to the boat. The Cape Verdean police were more determined.
For four months, two of the crew of Rich Harvest lived at liberty in Mindelo – yet they didn’t attempt to run off. Considering themselves to be innocent of any crime, and trusting the Cape Verdean authorities to behave in a reasonable manner, Rodrigo Dantas and Daniel Dantas stayed to await their trial. Rodrigo passed the time helping out at the local marina, whilst Daniel Dantas started writing a semi-autobiographical book about an estate agent who hitches a ride on a sailing boat which turns out to be carrying drugs… The men lived in the pensão Chave d’Oro, near the seafront. Both co-operated in every way possible with the police, their only concern at this time being to resolve the crime and thereby win liberty for their friends. Eventually, however, they too were put under lock and key. And finally, after almost seven months, all four men were tried.
The families say that they and their lawyers had difficulty preparing a defence for Daniel Guerra and Olivier Thomas since communication with the prisoners was very restricted. Moreover, it was evident that the best source of evidence to demonstrate Daniel’s innocence would surely be his camera, his cellphone, and his lap-top – but these had been confiscated by the police. According to the family, these belongings were subsequently said by the police to have been mislaid.
Prior to the commencement of proceedings, the Brazilian police had conducted a thorough investigation of the events which took place at their end of the journey. According to their report, they had learned that Rich Harvest spent several months in the Ocema marina, in Bahia Aratu (close to the city of Salvador), and during this time a great deal of reconstruction work was carried out by the local boatyard. The manager of the boatyard said that, in total, about $R 449.000 had been spent. A large water tank was built. At a particular juncture, certain materials were also taken aboard, including fibreglass and about 20 kilos of resin. According a witness interviewed by the PFB, George ‘Fox’ Saul himself used these materials to create divisions within three fuel tanks under the floor, but he then paid the witness to do the job of painting the new work.
The boat then sailed south, having cleared for Rio de Janeiro; but she next appears in the Brazilian authorities’ records a month later when she cleared into the state of Espirito Santo. According to the police, the mechanic who was aboard during this period said that the yacht went to the town of Guarapari, just south of the city of Vitória. Here they moored to a private jetty in front of a beachside villa. The mechanic (an Argentinian) was dismissed for the time being, and Rich Harvest spent more than two weeks on the private jetty before he was recalled and paid to take the boat back up to Salvador. It was only after her return to Salvador that Daniel Guerra and Rodrigo Dantas joined the yacht and met Fox.
Having studied the lay-out of the marina in Salvador, and after interviewing employees there, the Policia Federal concluded that the cocaine could not have been loaded while the yacht was in that very public place. Nor could it have been brought aboard while she was in Natal. (Aside from anything else, if the cargo had been loaded while the boat was in the marina, the event would presumably have been captured by security cameras; and if it was loaded while the boat was in Natal and under surveillance, the police would have seen it.) Thus, it had to have been put aboard during that fortnight in Espirito Santo. They even presented photographs which appear to show that, after the trip to Guarapari, the boat went down on her lines by about an inch.
The Brazilian police concluded that the drugs were certainly aboard the boat when they searched it in Natal. The information which they received from their informant apparently told them that the cargo had been loaded, and it evidently told them to look in the vicinity of the water-tanks – but, by their own admission, they did not make a sufficiently thorough inspection.They did not search in the place where the drugs were subsequently found.
The Policia Federal presented the Cape Verdean court with 600 pages of evidence whose conclusion was that the three Brazilians and the French skipper were innocent.
And the Cabo Verdean judge decided to ignore this evidence, since it had not arrived through the proper channels.
During the trial, the judge relied exclusively on evidence presented by the Cape Verdean police, whose investigation was necessarily restricted to the search of the boat and interviews with the suspects. The families of the men allege that great pressure was put on them to confess or to shop the others; but none was willing to plead guilty to a crime in which he had had no part. The Brazilian investigation specifically cleared the accused men of loading the cargo or of having any knowledge that it was aboard; it accused Fox and his associates. In presenting their evidence the Cape Verdean police declared that their investigation had “failed to ascertain who loaded the drug aboard the boat”.
At the outset, the men were faced with the possibility of being ‘sent down’ for 14 years. At the conclusion, after four days, they were each sentenced to 10 years.
In summing up, the judge stated, as a fact, that the drugs were put aboard after the search by the Brazilian police.
He cited the false-start from Natal as evidence of the way that the crew sought to fool the police (and he declared that, indeed, they had succeeded in so-doing).
He refused to believe that the French skipper and Fox were not previously acquainted – for after all, they both knew the owner of the marina where the boat had been sitting – and he also alleged that the other men were also acquanited. Their pretence of not knowing one another was just an alibi.
The judge said that if the boat were really just being delivered for Fox it would have been heading straight for England, where that person was a citizen.
He pooh-poohed the idea that anyone would sail a boat without payment; he suggested that the sum of money which Olivier Thomas had got from the recent sale of his boat was in fact a payment for smuggling (although the Frenchman had receipts which proved his word).
He appeared to believe that the ship’s logbook was a record kept, by the skipper, in order to prove that he had done his job and should be paid.
He stated that the Frenchman had been chosen for the job because he knew the islands. This allegation was based on the fact that Olivier had once visited Sal.
He considered that since the skipper had built his own boat, he must obviously know all about yacht construction and would have been able to know immediately that Rich Harvest had been fittted with a secret compartment.
He stated that it was obvious that the destination had always been Cape Verde – which, as he pointed out, is now a favourite “entry port” for drug-smuggling – and he declared that if the skipper had really wanted to continue directly to Madeira he could easily have done so, even without the engine, as he still had sails. (He made no reference to the problem with the rudder.)
He remarked upon the fact that the yacht carried “highly sophisticated communication devices and instruments” including a device called a “Gopro”… And as if that were not suspicous enough in itself, the date on this “device” was incorrectly set, so that the photos had the wrong date!
Finally, the judge declared that the men all knew about the drugs, and he said that they were to receive “a considerable financial compensation” for carrying them.
The judge stated that “the high degree of probability supersedes the presumption of innocence of the defendants”. In deciding what sentence to issue he had taken into account the fact that they were “not in the least repentant” and still declared their innocence; thus, he must make an example of them, in order to deter others.
In other words, if the crew had been guilty and had admiited to the crime they would have got a lower sentence; whereas an innocent person, unwilling to lie, must suffer the judge’s wrath.
At the end of the day, having ruined the lives of four men and crushed the hopes of their families, the Cape Verdean judge closed the cover of the file associated with the case – and the file was seen to be entitled, Operation Zorro.
George ‘Fox’ Saul has apparently not been seen since his ship was found to be full of drugs. He was not mentioned as a suspect during the trial, except in the Brazilian documents (where he is named as the culprit, and the crew are all cleared of any responsibility), and nor were representatives of the British police called upon to reveal what they knew of his activities. Yet the title on that folder makes clear the fact that the Cape Verdean authorities knew that ‘Fox’ was the person they really needed to question.
The fact that they knew this also raises a very important question: Having been told that George ‘Fox’ Saul was suspected of smuggling, why did the Cape Verdean police not wait until he arrived on the island? Why did they pounce prematurely?
Daniel’s father has remarked that “We do not fight drug-trafficking by condemning innocent people” – but are the authorities really trying to stop the drug trade?
It would seem not. It would appear that no attempt to locate the true criminal was ever made, the judge preferring instead to punish those who were found on the scene of the crime. This is the mediaeval approach to justice, and it is not one which is acceptable in the modern world.
Olivier Thomas, Daniel Guerra, Rodrigo Dantas, and Daniel Dantas were doing just what my son, Caesar, does; and they were doing just what my daughter’s husband, Gean, does. In fact, as I write these words Caesar, Xoë, and Gean are actually delivering a yacht for a customer. In the past, Caesar has sailed on a yacht which travelled from South America to the Falklands. And Gean has sailed on one which went all the way from Argentina to the Azores (which was also the final destination for Rich Harvest). At no stage have Caesar or Gean ever considered the possibility of exploring the innermost depths of a delivery yacht’s keel – and nor did my husband, Nick, ever think of doing such a thing when he used to deliver yachts. Nick and I actually met whilst doing a delivery trip; and neither of us ever thought to even look in the lockers under the bunks, still less below the water-tanks. Who, in heaven’s name, would ever think of looking below the water-tanks before he agreed to sail aboard a boat?
Do drug-smugglers film their voyages? Do drug-smugglers post regular updates on Facebook, letting the world know of their whereabouts?
Is it really likely that an organisation smuggling a $180,000,000 US cargo would want to risk their liberty by being personally involved in the carriage? And is it remotely likely that they would share the news of its existence with a bunch of hitch-hikers? (“Oh, by the way, I just thought I ought to mention the fact that there’s a ton of coke in the bilge. You’re all okay with that, aren’t you?”)
I am completely convinced that Daniel and his companions are innocent. Others might somehow arrive at a contrary conclusion – but the point is that, either way, opinions are not enough. The point is not really that “Dani didn’ do dat”. The point is that there is no evidence!
In any respectable country a man is innocent until proven guilty, and if there is a place where casual association and inference are sufficient grounds to steal a man’s freedom, as they were in the days of witch-burning, then we should all be very wary of visiting that place.
In the past I have praised and promoted Cabo Verde, arguing against those who reckon the islands to be dangerous. But, ironically, it seems that just as travellers’ attitudes are changing, the country is actually becoming the place that it was feared to be: lawless and corrupt. [Note that the report to which I have linked here dates from 2012, and it would seem that things have evidently gone downhill since then.]
Twenty years ago, Mindelo was a quiet town, Ilha Sal was a backwater, and the capital city of Praia (on Ilha Santiago) was also safe; one could even walk the streets by night. Now, all three of these islands have changed beyond recognition. Praia is so dangerous that yachts anchored off the town have been robbed while their crew is aboard; Sal has also had its share of thefts from boats and muggings on the beach; and friends who live in Mindelo tell me that there are gangs of violent robbers operating in the city, and that the police are in league with them. Whereas, before, even cannabis was almost unknown in the islands, now there are dealers competing to sell hard drugs. Would it be possible for all this to occur, in such small communities, without the assisatance of corrupt officials?
Be careful who you ship with, amigos! And be very careful where you go…
This could have been Gean. It could have been Caesar. It could be me. It could be you or yours.
We invite members of the cruising community, and others who understand the scene, to sign the petition seeking the release of our fellow sailors, Daniel Guerra, Rodrigo Dantas, Daniel Dantas, and Olivier Thomas – and we ask you to share their story.
And with great sadness, we recommend that tourists, and yachtsmen in particular, should boycott Cape Verde for safety reasons.
EDIT: – In February 2019, the three Brazilian crew and their skipper, Olivier, were all quite suddenly released from prison in Cape Verde and sent home to Brazil. They didn’t hang around asking why…. but it would seem that the Cape Verdean authorities got tired of all the negative publicity. Daniel Guerra and Aniete Dantas, mother of Rodrigo, have both asked me to convey thanks to all those people who signed their petition or who helped in other ways.
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