Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, known for his hard-line policies on law and order, began his trip to Japan for the G-20 summit on an embarrassing note after a crewman in an advance party was accused of carrying cocaine in his luggage.
Police arrested the crewman in Seville, Spain, on Tuesday after a Brazilian air force plane made a stopover on its way to Japan. Spanish authorities say the crewman, identified by Brazilian and Spanish media as Sgt. Manoel Silva Rodrigues, was carrying 39 kilos of cocaine — 86 pounds. According to Spanish news outlet ABC, the drug was divided into 37 blocks — and the crewman told Civil Guard agents that he was carrying cheese.
The president followed on a separate jet, which reportedly altered its route after Rodrigues’ arrest to avoid Seville and instead stop in Lisbon, Portugal, according to Brazilian news outlet Folha de S. Paulo.
Rodrigues serves as a flight steward who has worked internationally dozens of times, including trips with three different Brazilian presidents, according to Folha. In a note about the arrest, Brazil’s air force says that when Bolsonaro returns to Brazil, his plane will not pass through Seville but through Seattle in the U.S.
Responding to the news, Bolsonaro stressed that the cocaine arrest was not related to his personal team. But he tweeted that the incident was “unacceptable” and demanded an investigation and severe punishment.
“We will not tolerate such disrespect to our country!” the president said.
The presence of narcotics on a Brazilian military plane is a blow to Bolsonaro, who “was elected on a promise of cracking down on crime — especially Brazil’s rampant cocaine industry,” NPR’s Philip Reeves reports from Rio de Janeiro. “The president is also a former army captain who often praises his military for its professionalism.”
The discovery of the large cache of illegal drugs has raised security concerns about the president’s travel protocols, as well as questions about whether the accused crewman might have been working with others.
Brazilian Vice President Hamilton Mourão said it is clear that the crewman was working with smugglers.
“It’s obvious that, given the quantity of the drug he was bringing, he didn’t buy it on the corner and bring it, right?” Mourão told journalists in Brasilia, the country’s capital. “He was working as a mule. A well-qualified mule, let’s say.”