Screenshot from FRONTEX's drone video

Drowning in Lies

Greece tries to cover up its own role in the Pylos shipwreck by tampering with evidence

On the night of 13 June, a vessel carrying around 750 men, women and children mainly from Pakistan, Egypt and Syria capsized in the Central Mediterranean, in Greek waters. The Greek authorities had been aware of the overloaded vessel the day before because Europe’s border agency Frontex and activists had warned them.

Instead of rescuing the people, the Greek coast guard stayed close to the boat and observed it from the sky with a helicopter, ignoring Frontex’s offer for help. They sent commercial vessels to the area and later a coast guard boat.

Shortly after the coast guard vessel arrived on the scene, the overloaded boat capsized. Only 104 men survived. All the others, including all the women and children on board, drowned.

Survivors alleged that their vessel was towed by the Greek coast guard boat, causing the fatal wreck. The Greek coast guard and the government strongly denied these allegations and claimed the boat was never towed.

We decided to collect as many survivor testimonies as possible and try to establish what really happened, and whether there had been efforts to cover up the truth.


Finding visual evidence to determine the cause of the shipwreck was nearly impossible since it happened on the high seas and commercial vessels and surveillance planes were sent away by the Greek authorities. Videos survivors might have had on their phones were no longer accessible due to water damage or because they lost their phones.

We decided to put a team together, including journalists from the same regions as the passengers, and carried out 17 interviews with survivors – the largest number collected in a single investigation into the wreck so far – to compare their accounts. We also spoke to sources inside the European border agency Frontex.

We obtained crucial court documents containing two sets of testimonies given by the same nine survivors. They spoke first to the Greek coast guard and later to a local Greek court.


Documents and witness testimony obtained by Lighthouse Reports, Der Spiegel, Monitor, SIRAJ, El País, Reporters United and The Times show the Greek coast guard tampered with official statements to conceal their role in the wreck and pressured survivors into naming certain people as the smugglers.

Nine survivors were asked by the coast guard to give witness statements just hours after the wreck. On analysing the documents, we discovered that critical parts of several testimonies contain identical phrases.

The documents reveal that the translator used during one of the survivor’s interviews with the coast guard is a member of the coast guard himself. Other translators were local residents who spoke Arabic and other languages, who were sworn in on the day.

In the documents, eight survivors are stated to have blamed the capsizing on factors unrelated to towing. Four of them are stated to have testified – in nearly identical wording – that the boat capsized because it was “old” and “there were no life jackets”. Their interviews were translated by three different interpreters.

None of the survivors interrogated by the coast guard blamed the coast guard at all, according to the transcriptions. But in a later round of questioning by a Greek court of the same nine survivors, six of them are stated to have said the coast guard towed the boat shortly before it capsized.

We spoke to two of the nine survivors who testified; they told us that the coast guard had omitted the parts of their testimony mentioning towing.

“They asked me what happened to the boat and how it sank. I told them the Greek coast guard came and tied the rope to our boat and towed us and caused the capsizing of the boat,” said one survivor. “They didn’t type that in my testimony. When they presented it at the end I couldn’t find this part.”

He added that the coast guard pressured him to single out certain people as the smugglers in charge of the operation. This claim is supported by our analysis of the documents: two answers to the coast guard’s questions about smugglers contain identical sentences.

Another survivor who testified said he also blamed the shipwreck on towing when asked by the coast guard, but still signed the deposition at the end despite knowing it did not reflect what he said, because he felt “terrified”.

Sixteen out of the seventeen survivors we spoke to said the coast guard attached a rope to the vessel and tried to tow it shortly before it capsized. Four also claimed that the coast guard was attempting to tow the boat to Italian waters, while four reported that the coast guard caused more deaths by circling around the boat after it capsized, making waves that caused the boat’s carcass to sink.

While Europe and its border agency Frontex have largely backed Greece on its border practices and said following the shipwreck that they believed the coast guard did everything it could to save the people who drowned, Frontex is now doubting the official version

The border agency has circulated an internal report on the incident based on survivor testimony, in which survivors state that the Greek coast guard was to blame for the drownings, according to sources.