Evidence mounts against Bulgarian crew in Spanish cocaine bust – official

At least some of the Bulgarian sailors arrested in a drug bust off the coast of Spain on August 13 knew about the ship’s cocaine cargo, Bulgarian Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov said on August 24.

Speaking to reporters in Spain after meeting his Spanish counterpart Jorge Fernandez Diaz, Tsvetanov said that the investigation’s goal was to identify those who sent the drugs from Latin America to Europe.

“We have irrefutable proof concerning part of the crew. About the others, I hope that there will be no evidence of their involvement,” Tsvetanov said, as quoted by Bulgarian National Radio.

The ship, Sveti Nikolai, sailing under Bulgarian flag, was boarded by Spanish investigators, who knew about the drugs cargo it was carrying, in international waters. They found three tons of cocaine onboard and no other cargo, a circumstance that further pointed towards the fact that at least some of the crew, which included 21 Bulgarians, knew about the illegal cargo.

“If the situation was a fully-loaded ship and some small quantity of cocaine, matters would have been much different than what we are discussing today,” Tsvetanov said as quoted by private broadcaster Darik Radio.

Spanish investigators were due to arrive in Bulgaria in September to look into the Bulgarian connection, he said.

Meanwhile, in Bulgaria, prosecutors decided not to appeal the ruling issued by a court on August 20, releasing two people arrested in relation to the drug bust. One is the director of the shipping company that managed the ship, Doichin Doichev, and the other, Rouslan Kolev, was allegedly involved in hiring the crew for the drug run.

The court ruled that prosecutors did not have sufficient evidence pointing towards their involvement, but Tsvetanov – who had earlier said that the ship’s owner and the captain knew about the drug cargo – once again strongly suggested that they did.

During his visit to Spain, Tsvetanov said that Doichev knew Evelin Banev, alias Brendo, who is set to stand trial in Italy on charges of organising drug smuggling from Latin America. A Bulgarian court ruled in June to allow his extradition to Italy for a period of one year. Banev is also on trial in Bulgaria on charges of money-laundering.

Tsvetanov said prosecutors would continue to gather evidence and, should any be found, extradition to Spain would not be a problem.

In the meantime, the sailors could be denied visitation rights, as Spanish laws allows keeping suspects in cases like this one incommunicado, but efforts were being made to allow the crew members to see their relatives, Tsvetanov said.

Bulgaria’s Foreign Ministry said on August 21 that the sailors were in good health and had been assigned three defence attorneys. The Bulgarian embassy was in constant contact with the relatives and ready to relay any new information on the case, the ministry said.

Relatives of the sailors met with Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borissov on August 22. Afterwards, they thanked him for meeting them but said that they were unhappy with Borissov implying that the sailors might have known about the nature of the ship’s cargo.

In an open letter on August 23, the relatives of the crew said that Borissov failed to persuade them that the sailors were guilty, especially since the investigation in Spain was still under way and no charges had been officially pressed.

They rejected Borissov’s claims that the sailors could have tipped off law enforcement as soon as they found out about the nature of their cargo, as well as the prime minister’s suggestion that the ship’s captain assumes full responsibility for everything.

The relatives also asked Borissov to demand that the case be investigated by Bulgarian authorities, since it happened outside Spanish territorial waters – although it is often the international practice that the closest country to such a drug bust takes the lead in the investigation.

Spanish interior minister Diaz, however, rejected such calls after his meeting with Tsvetanov, saying that the case would be tried in Spanish courts.

(Spanish interior minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz, left, and his Bulgarian counterpart Tsvetan Tsvetanov, photo by Bulgarian Interior Ministry.)



Alex Bivol

Alex Bivol is the Deputy Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe.