By Janet Tappin Coelho in Brazil
A major international manhunt for two Britons accused of smuggling over a tonne of cocaine hidden in a yacht in a transatlantic narcotics operation, disguised as a routine ship delivery from Brazil to Portugal, has resulted in the capture of one of the suspects in Spain.
The arrest of Robert Delbos, 66, on 15 June by Interpol, follows tip-offs from the UK’s vice squad and comes just months after the ship’s crew, three Brazilians and a French national, contracted to deliver the British-flagged yacht, Rich Harvest, were arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison in Cape Verde, an archipelago on the north west coast of Africa.
The four men, Rodrigo Dantas, 25, Daniel Dantas (not related) 43, and Daniel Guerra, 36, and French captain, Oliver Thomas, 49, have been convicted of being part of an international drugs ring and transporting contraband cargo worth an estimated £160 million (800 million reais) in street value – crimes they have strenuously and repeatedly denied.
The Class A shipment was found hidden in secret compartments by police in Cape Verde, buried beneath concrete in a false hull, which could only be accessed by removing fitted furniture, lifting a 600L water-tank, smashing through the fake floor, and taking grinders to a steel plate.
Delbos, from Evesham, East Sussex, who is accused of being one of the kingpins controlling an international drug trafficking cartel, now faces extradition to Brazil.
He has been on the run since July 2017 after he was named on Brazil’s Federal Police (PFB) most wanted list along with another Brit identified as George ‘Fox’ Saul who is still at large.
More than 180 countries have received an Interpol arrest alert for Saul who hails from Norwich in Norfolk but lives in Gibraltar, and who describes himself as a lettings company director.
The warrants followed a tip off from the UK’s vice squad after the 72 ft (22.15m) schooner, bought for 120,000 euros, left the UK and arrived in Brazil in June 2016.
Britain’s National Crime Agency (NCA) had been watching the ship for a while and warned South American counterparts of their suspicions that the yacht, allegedly owned by the suspects, was being used in a transatlantic drugs trade.
Brazilian cops covertly monitored the tourists movements then pounced a year later in July 2017 after the ship left Salvador, north east Brazil, and docked further up the coast in Natal.
Just days before Rich Harvest set sail from Natal, the closest South American port to Europe, for the Azores in Portugal, agents raided the vessel. They carried out a six hour inspection investigating tanks constructed in the keel and examining the engine even using sniffer dogs, but nothing was found, and the ship was allowed to leave.
Officers have since admitted they were at fault for letting the hidden illicit cargo slip through their net.
Plans for the transatlantic drugs operation allegedly started in June 2016 when Delbos and Saul along with two other British men, whose names has not been disclosed by Brazilian investigators for lack of evidence, sailed into Salvador.
The yacht spent nearly a year, until March 2017, undergoing repairs in a local boatyard. After which the suspects apparently took a short excursion down the south east coast mooring at a private jetty in front of a beachside villa for two weeks.
It was there Brazilian cops now suspect the drugs were concealed by Saul who reportedly made the modifications using naval plywood board, biaxial fabric, resin and other materials to reform the boat’s hull.
The schooner returned to Salvador then sailed to Natal where it stopped to refuel, to pick up supplies and for maintenance where upon the PFB raided the boat but discovered nothing.
By this time only Saul was left in Brazil, the others had apparently already gone.
Around 18 days after the vessel set sail and before the ship could reach its final destination, the smuggling operation was busted by coast guards in Cape Verde.
Severe hurricanes had thrown the boat off course and along with a fire in the engine, multiple mechanical problems and a sick crew member, Thomas was forced to divert to Sao Vicente, one of the islands in the archipelago.
Cape Verde marine cops were waiting. They had been warned by the UK’s vice squad and had expected to find the two British suspects and their alleged accomplices manning the vessel.
Instead they found the crew of three Brazilians and French skipper who had been contracted to deliver the ship from port to port.
The crew, who joined the ship in Salvador in July 2017, had reportedly been hired by the Brits through The Yacht Delivery Company. The reputable Dutch based recruitment and outsourcing agency contracts professionals to sail from one location to another carrying out ‘worldwide sail and power yacht deliveries’. It has not been implicated in the drug trafficking operation.
The Brazilians, who were all apprentices with a passion for sailing, had been hoping to gain experience and earn their nautical miles. They were not paid for the trip but given return flights home from Portugal.
The French pilot, who was paid the going rate as an experienced seaman, replaced Saul at the last minute.
Saul had been expected to captain the schooner, but just days before the Atlantic crossing, he suddenly pulled out citing family reasons and hired Thomas.
A video of the 18 day voyage filmed by Guerra, records some of their trip northwards across the South Atlantic Ocean to the port of Mindelo in Cape Verde where the emergency stop was made.
Marine police footage shows narcotic agents’ raid on the boat and officers inspecting stacks of the contraband wrapped in clear plastic shortly after the discovery.
Officers ruthlessly tore the ship apart in an all day search, breaking through walls and ripping up flooring to uncover around 1.157 tonnes of pure cocaine buried in the depth of her bilge in sealed packages, beneath fuel and water tanks under a concreted over false hull and in compartments concealed under beds.
The convicted sailors have always protested their innocence with relatives arguing they were unsuspecting victims, framed by ‘powerful and dangerous’ international narcotraffickers and the drugs were hidden on the boat without their knowledge.
An extensive investigation by PFB concludes the men are telling the truth. However, a 600 page report submitted by the federal agents to the Cape Verde judiciary, considered fundamental to clearing the men’s names, was barred from being used as evidence in the proceedings.
The guilty verdict given in March this year, has led to a diplomatic spat between the two nations who both belong to the nine member Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries (CPLP) and this fall-out has yet to be resolved.
Meanwhile, investigators in Brazil believe Delbos is the key to clarifying the circumstances under which the shipment was concealed in the schooner and he could also shed light on who owns the drugs.
“We have already lodged our extradition request through the respective federal courts. We will be looking to question him on specific details on when and where the drugs were allegedly hidden in the hull and for him to assist in identifying other people involved,” said PFB detective Rubens de França.
The convicted men, who are imprisoned in grim cockroach infested cells in Cape Verde, are hoping the Brit’s arrest will strengthen their bid for freedom on appeal.
A devastated Aniete Dantes, mother of Brazilian sailor, Rodrigo, has moved to Cape Verde from Brazil to be closer to her son.
She revealed: “All the men are experiencing a living nightmare. They were so excited to undertake this journey and now they are ensnared in something bigger and more sinister than we could ever have imagined.
“We are campaigning for their release but the judgement against them has left them distraught and crushed by the injustice,” she said.