Up to 37 bundles, weighing a little more than a kilo each, were packed into the suitcase of a military crew member traveling on a Brazilian Air Force aircraft that made a stopover in Spain on June 25. The airman was part of the support team flying with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to the G-20 summit in Japan
All the packages were wrapped in beige tape except for a yellow one, and neatly placed inside the black hand luggage. Nothing else was inside the suitcase – just 39 kilograms of cocaine. The purity of the drug still needs to be tested but, according to the Civil Guard’s initial assessment, it could be worth €1.3 million.
Investigators believe the sergeant thought he would not be subject to any customs control
The Spanish Civil Guard seized the suitcase after running it through the scanner at the airport in Seville, the capital of the southern region of Andalusia. The luggage belonged to Sergeant Manoel Silva Rodrigues, 38, a member of Bolsonaro’s delegation on the president’s journey to Japan.
EL PAÍS has had exclusive access to the photograph that was taken of the drug haul. The photo, taken along with a scan that allowed officers to spot the drugs, shows how the sergeant had made no effort to hide the cocaine.
Silva Rodrigues was taken to the Seville I penitentiary a day after his arrest and is being held in a low-security wing, according to jailhouse sources.
The Civil Guard is focusing the investigation on finding out who was meant to pick up the suitcase from the Brazilian sergeant, who officers believe was just a drug mule or human courier.
The officers say that Silva Rodrigues had scheduled a meeting at the hotel where he and the rest of the crew members were going to rest during the stopover in Seville, before traveling on to Osaka. Bolsonaro was flying to the same destination on another aircraft.
Bolsonaro has said that he wished the sergeant had been arrested in Indonesia, where drug trafficking carries a death sentence
Given no effort was made to hide the drugs, investigators believe that the sergeant thought he would not be subject to any customs controls because he was part of the delegation of the Brazilian president on an official trip. But his two pieces of carry-on luggage – a garment bag and the suitcase filled with cocaine – were passed through the airport scanner and officers easily discovered the brick-shaped packets of drugs.
The discovery of an alleged drug trafficker within the presidential delegation has shocked Brazil. The fact that Silva Rodrigues belonged to the military has particularly upset Bolsonaro, a former army captain who has dedicated his political career to defending military corporate interests and surrounded himself with more military figures than any of his predecessors since democracy returned to the Latin American country.
The far-right leader is also a staunch defender of law and order. Bolsonaro has said publicly on two occasions that he wished the sergeant had been arrested in Indonesia, where drug trafficking carries a death sentence. A Brazilian man who was discovered with 13 kilos of drugs was executed in that country in 2015.
Upon returning to Brazil from the G-20 summit, Bolsonaro maintained that the case is “being investigated. He [Silva Rodrigues] threw his life away. Muddied the name of institutions, harmed Brazil a little, but this happens anywhere in the world, in any institution.”
In a live Facebook video broadcast from Osaka, the Brazilian president said the situation was “unacceptable” and signaled that it was unlikely that this was the sergeant’s first time trafficking, “because nobody takes 39 kilos of drugs on their first trip.” He added that Silva Rodrigues would be judged by the Spanish and Brazilian justice system.
Between 2010 and 2017, 648 military members received sentences for drug-related crimes
The sergeant had spent 19 years in the Brazilian Air Force and three years ago joined the team that transports heads of state and other top officials. According to the Transparency Portal, Silva Rodrigues earns a net salary of 6,337 Brazilian reales (€1,450), and has taken part in 29 official journeys, including trips with former Brazilian presidents Michel Temer and Dilma Rousseff.
An increasing number of Brazil’s military members have been sentenced for drug-related crimes in recent years. Between 2010 and 2017, 648 members received sentences, according to data from the Military High Court, which does not separate sentences for drug consumption and drug trafficking.
The discovery of the cocaine coincided with a visit of Brazil’s Justice Minister Sergio Moro to the headquarters of the Drug Enforcement Administration in the United States (DEA), a situation that led to numerous jokes and memes in the politically divided country.
English version by Melissa Kitson.