CHAPTER 1 The Sharkers
His name was Salvador and he arrived with bloody feet, said he was looking for work—anything to start—but to those who saw the newcomer arrive, he looked like a man on the run.
Salvador Alvarenga had walked on rocks for six full days along the Mexican coastline to reach the beach village of Costa Azul. He carried only a small backpack and his clothes were worn. From the moment he entered Costa Azul in the fall of 2008, he felt a deep sense of relief. The mangrove swamps, nearby cornfields, crashing ocean and protected lagoon reminded him of his home in El Salvador, but here no one wanted to kill him. Only a few hundred people lived in the beachside community, though it was densely populated by flocks of migrating birds, many making the 2,000-mile annual journey south from California. Thousands of sea turtles embarked from coastal hatcheries to breed and migrate—some making the 12,000-mile swim across the Pacific Ocean to China. The town was half ecotourism paradise, half lawless Wild West—ideal cover for a man trying to escape his past and embark on a new life.
Quick with a smile and a helping hand, the round-faced, light-skinned Alvarenga arrived without a visa or working papers, so he
pretended to be Mexican. He vigorously defended the lie if anyone questioned his story. Once, when Mexican policemen stopped him and suggested he was a foreigner, Alvarenga broke out with a stanza from the Mexican national anthem.
War, war without truce against who would attempt
To blemish the honor of the fatherland!
War, war! The patriotic banners
Saturated in waves of blood.
Alvarenga had a terrible singing voice made worse by an overdose of confidence. His rendition was off-key and overflowing with nationalistic pride. Convinced by the enthusiasm of his off-the-cuff performance, the police released him.
Costa Azul is a lost corner of Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state and a region where emigrants tend not to stop as they continue on the long trek north to the United States. Few arrivals see much of an economic salvation in the tattered local economy. But the thirty-year-old Alvarenga wasn’t looking at land—his eyes were focused on the Pacific Ocean and had been since he was eleven years old and had run away from school to live at the beach with friends. Costa Azul would serve not as home but as home base. He would launch seaward for multiday ocean journeys to the richest remaining fishing grounds along Mexico’s plundered coastal ecosystems.
Insulated from the fury of the Pacific Ocean by a miles-long island that creates a natural lagoon, and surrounded by tangled mangrove forests untouched by loggers, thousands of fish inhabit this postcard-perfect lagoon, discovering only too late their fatal error when speared alive on the knife-sharp bill of a blue heron or
crushed in the jaws of a crocodile. Like the migrating birds, Alvarenga was attracted to the protected lagoon and its unending supply of easy-to-catch fish. From afar, it gleamed like a refuge. While vicious storms roared offshore, sometimes lasting for weeks, the mangrove jungles absorbed and sheltered this small community. Like the eye of a hurricane, Costa Azul’s beauty had an eerie ability to disguise imminent danger.
“Going out to sea might seem simple but it is a monster you must face,” explains a colleague of Alvarenga known as El Hombre Lobo (“The Wolfman”). “If you are going to face the sea you have to be ready for all it can toss at you, including the wind, a storm or a big animal that might eat you—all those dangers. People go out for these little seaside trips, that is not the ocean. The ocean is out there past 120 kilometers [70 miles]. The folks on the beach here live comfortable, they go to sleep in a bed, but out there, you feel terror. Even in your chest you feel it. Your heart beats different.”
Though Alvarenga arrived in Costa Azul by walking across sharp rocks and through thick coastal swamps, nearly everyone else reaches the town by way of a narrow paved road from Mexican coastal Highway 200. The seven-mile spur off the main highway ends at the Costa Azul waterfront and offers two options that cleave the town. Turn right and there are chic ecoresorts with flavorless Mexican food, twelve-dollar margaritas and private birding tours that capitalize on the fondness of English tourists of pecking incessantly at a personalized list of bird sightings. Palm-studded white sand beaches lure these tourists with the promise of privacy, virgin scenery, hummingbirds, rosy spoonbills, osprey and dozens more species that flitter and fly with abandon. The waiters may question the wisdom of allowing tourist children to frolic by the
lagoon’s edge, where a crocodile the size of a station wagon visits frequently, but since they are never encouraged to express opinions to the guests or highlight local dangers, they keep their concerns to themselves. Most of the homes between the hotels have been purchased by local businessmen and politicians who envision a gold mine of tourism as soon as Mexico sheds its reputation as a bloodstained narco-state where bars occasionally get firebombed and waitresses decapitated. That is the nice side of the tracks.
On the left side of town sits a row of low-budget fishing shacks and an oceanfront dock packed with a dozen canoe-shaped boats twenty-five feet long and capable of hitting 50 mph, especially when powered by a pair of 75-horsepower Yamaha outboard motors. This is the part of town where Alvarenga arrived. He had a decade’s experience as a fisherman and hoped to find a boss or patrón willing to give him a shot at fulfilling his lifelong dream of being his own captain on a small fishing boat. But he needed to go slow. Visitors to this tough-guy neighborhood are immediately confronted with stares and a few basic questions. Who are you? What do you want? Like an IRA bar in Ireland or certain Italian restaurants in Boston’s North End, Costa Azul maintains an insular tribal loyalty that binds the men together. There is no such thing as a casual visit to these quarters. A local fisherman suggests why the scene is so edgy: “You want to see what’s really going on in the Chiapas region? Go out to the island at two a.m. and watch all the narco-boats running north; they are moving two million dollars a night in cocaine up this coast. The entire police force for the state of Oaxaca [just north of Chiapas] has been paid off.”
Alvarenga was not a narco or willing to run even the occasional
cocaine bale up the coast, despite the promise of riches. At sea off the coast of Mexico, he had seen the savage fate of fishermen who gambled in the business of “Los Kilos” and run afoul of drug lords. Once he had motored up to a fisherman’s half-sunken boat and found the hull riddled with bullets. He tried to haul it home but it sank. There was no sign of the crew. Being eaten alive by sharks was probably the least violent way they could have died. At least sharks didn’t torture.
When he arrived in Costa Azul, Alvarenga said little. His actions spoke volumes as he quietly found a broom and began sweeping the streets, picking trash up from the docks and making himself a home under a tree. As he opened up to the locals, Alvarenga’s enthusiasm, his generosity in lending a helping hand to local fishermen and his diligent sweeping up of the touristy part of town quietly impressed them. “Without anyone telling him what to do, he would pitch in, he was always helping. That is how you win people over,” recalls Jarocho, a veteran fisherman who works in Costa Azul. Alvarenga appeared too clean and organized to be a vagabond yet he shared few personal details regarding his past. When he chose, he was a dazzling storyteller, eager and able to entertain the audience as he unveiled stories of his adventures at sea.
A local chef initially paid the stout and muscled young man for his labor in food. Then he gave him a few fifty-peso notes [worth four dollars], and before the first month was over Alvarenga gained work as a fisherman’s assistant. “These jobs fixing the lines are boring but he liked to bring them in perfect,” remembers Jarocho. “He would say, ‘Boss, Boss, this one lacks twenty hooks.’ And if the nets weren’t stored just right he would unroll them and he would fold it
perfectly; he would say, ‘This is what brings in the money, a missing hook here and there and you catch less.’ He would always pay attention to the details.”
Alvarenga’s goal in Costa Azul was to join up with its clan of some one hundred fishermen. The protected lagoon allowed them to escape the wrath of seasonal winds that form in the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea but through a quirk of geography hit hardest on this, the Pacific side of Mexico. These storms begin in the Gulf of Mexico then swirl southwest, where the winds are channeled through a narrow gap in the Sierra Madre mountains. The bottleneck doubles or triples the wind speed—meaning that a fresh 20 mph wind in the Caribbean Sea comes out as a 60 mph blast that scientists describe as “a wind jet.”
This screaming wind tunnel blasts into the Gulf of Tehuantepec, an area just off the coast of Costa Azul. For years Alvarenga had been fishing farther south—near the Guatemalan border—but he knew the deadly legacy of these storms was measured in missing boats and lost fishermen. He had heard late-night stories of being trapped by winds that locals simply called a Norteño. These northern winds were so frequent that local newscasts did not even bother to give them a proper name like Katrina or Sandy, but simply referred to them as Cold Front #6 or Cold Front #26 and warned fishermen to stay at port.
This wind tunnel is so notorious and well marked on nautical charts that sailboats often chart a detour hundreds of miles out to sea to avoid the dreaded Gulf winds. “During the winter months . . . you can expect gales almost every day . . . winds of fifty to sixty knots [70–80 mph] are not uncommon,” reads a description in Roads Less Traveled, a respected online travel guide. “Every year,
hapless vessels both large and small get caught out in the 200-mile-wide gulf when it shows its malicious side. Even large ships are unable to resist the storm force winds and fast building and breaking seas. Vessels have no option but to turn downwind and brace themselves for a long and frightening ride south and out to sea for 200 to 300 miles, at which point the effects of the Tehuantepec winds begin to fade.”
If ever there was a place not to head to sea in a small, easy-to-roll boat, this was it. But jobs are scarce in Chiapas. Overfishing has decimated the fish population along entire stretches of the Mexican and Central American coast. The high-value fish—what’s left of them—are driven farther out to sea. So the fishermen follow. To fill the icebox, these fishermen now commute 50 miles, 75 miles and even 100 miles off the Chiapas coast. Only after a dangerous five-hour trip crashing through the waves can they cut the motor, drop their 2-mile-long line studded with up to seven hundred hooks and hope the tuna, mahimahi, marlin and sharks are biting. Sharks are their preferred catch. Unlike some nations where only the fins are sold, in Mexico shark steak is a traditional offering on restaurant menus. Despite attempts at conservation and evidence of a population collapse, thousands of tons of sharks are hauled every year from the dangerous waters of the Gulf of Tehuantepec.
In recompense for the risks, fishermen are paid minimal wages. They live on the long tail of a global economy that prices a single half-pound serving of tuna at $25 in the Costa Azul resort restaurants but for which they earn only 40 cents. But when the fish are running and a sixty-hour shift can earn a man $250 cash, straight into his pocket, there are no limits on the fervor and party madness that erupts on Costa Azul’s left bank. A band of outcasts and society’s castaways, they are bound together in tribal unity and by the codes and deadly instincts of professional hunters. The Wolfman explains the philosophy in simple, deadly terms. “Poverty makes you do strange things. Poor people have to do whatever is necessary to get food. If you don’t have a job other than fishing in the ocean, what option do you have?”
Like fishermen in villages worldwide, the local crews that launch from Costa Azul face a bleak future: give up fishing or every few years adjust to the realities of overfishing and travel farther out to sea. Alvarenga chose the latter. He didn’t even see it as a risk. He preferred to live on the water. In his first thirty years, life on land had provided as many problems as pleasures—some nearly fatal, as a pair of deep scars on his head and arms so clearly attested.
The bar fight was partly his fault—Alvarenga was drunk and rowdy that night at the bar in El Salvador—but four men versus one? Or was it six versus two? Alvarenga stood no chance of winning the fight, and not content with punching him to the floor of the bar, the hooligans took Alvarenga outside, stabbed him repeatedly and left him for dead in the street. When his mother showed up to recover her son she said a prayer and called a priest—clearly her son was about to die. But Alvarenga fought back. He never lost consciousness and he comforted his mom, told her to hold on, that he wasn’t leaving yet.
Alvarenga received eleven stab wounds, three broken ribs and a concussion. His memories of that signature event are scattered, as he only remembered waking up inside a hospital room covered in bandages. Doctors were impressed that he lived. Three weeks later when he returned to his home in the small village of Garita Palmera, he received a new shock. In his absence, someone had slit
the throat of one of his assailants. A war of revenge commenced and Alvarenga was allegedly next on the hit list. El Salvador has a murder rate that regularly out-bleeds Baghdad and Kabul. Alvarenga knew all too well the Spanish saying Pueblo Chico, Infierno Grande [“Little Town, Big Hell”] and was fearful that he would be killed before the year was out. Friends begged him to flee, called him stupid for staying a day more. Alvarenga tried to make a go of it in town, but the shadow of violence was never far. He went on the run—not just out of town but out of the country. He stopped running in Guatemala, where he lived under a false name, and then migrated to Mexico. He’d left behind his entire life, including his girlfriend, his parents and Fatima, his one-year-old daughter.
He went on the run and found his refuge aboard boats. Alvarenga never felt steady on land, as if solid ground was an illusion for a spinning planet. Home was a rocking boat, far from shore and its false advertising of stability. At sea he felt free.
Rising through the ranks during his four years in Costa Azul, Alvarenga ruffled few feathers as he bounced from boss to boss, searching for his ideal balance of independence, cash and decent treatment. “I will tell you something, I am very protective of my family, and I invited him to eat at my house. Why? He looked and acted like a good person. I would tell him to sleep at my house, and we gave him a hammock,” says Jarocho. Eventually, in a privilege rare among his tribe, Alvarenga was awarded private living quarters.
In time, various fishing patrones competed to lure Alvarenga away from his current boss. They were constantly tempting him with offers of a new boat, new lines and gear in exchange for
switching teams and home port. Alvarenga, however, was content in his position—he earned enough to live out his modest fantasies and, unlike in his native El Salvador, the violence in Mexico tended to focus around the drug trade and its easily identifiable tentacles. If he avoided that world, he could revel in the simple anonymity of life in Costa Azul.
Alvarenga was free to work as hard, as long and as sporadically as his party lifestyle permitted. During his four years in Costa Azul, he was rarely involved in fights or ugly incidents. His longtime fishing partner Ray explains, “I never saw him get into a fight except when some guys were breaking up the furniture at Doña Mina’s [a local restaurant]. There was an ugly fight with chains and you could tell this guy knew how to rumble. But he was always looking for a laugh, he was the life of the party.”
Alvarenga’s own scarred history plus a decade of watching colleagues drink themselves into jail had convinced him that he was safer drinking and partying with a few trusted friends than mixing it up at the tequila-infused cantinas that his fellow fishermen routinely trashed. For Alvarenga it was the ideal lifestyle. Four-day drinking binges might be followed by ten days of nonstop fishing. Or vice versa. Hangovers were inconsequential at this stage in Alvarenga’s life—he either drank them off or went on a two-day fast where his body simply purged the alcohol out of his pores. Despite brutal thirty- or sixty-hour shifts far from shore in the open ocean, he never complained. Optimism was his trademark. “Even if he didn’t catch more than one or two fish, which for many guys would have made them sad, he always came in happy,” says Bellarmino Rodríguez Beyz, who was his direct supervisor onshore, a former colleague and a close friend. “Even if he had nothing when he came
to shore he would be yelling as he docked his boat, ‘I nailed it, absolutely nailed it.’?” Oblivious or immune to the woes of the world, Alvarenga lived in peace, the type of guy who could snore on a public bus, allow his head to slump onto a random shoulder in the movies or dream under a tree in a park.
Decidedly low tech and dangerous, the fishing operations out of Costa Azul allowed a man to gamble with his life and his luck. No patrón would ever order a man out to sea if a sudden Norteño storm was forecast, and unlike larger, more commercial ports along the Mexican coastline, in Costa Azul there was no pesky harbormaster with the ability to prevent boats from heading to sea during raucous weather. Each man was free to calculate (or miscalculate) the cost/benefits for himself, to stay ashore or head out to sea. Alvarenga, a simple but generous man who could barely read and could write little more than his name, reveled in this ancient mariner’s world. He saw beauty in the simplicity. One long line with seven hundred hooks. A small fishing boat. One mate. Scattered on the deck of his boat were the ingredients of his life: the assorted flotsam of knives, buckets and bloodstained utensils. Man versus the elements. It fit his style. “If you are a real fisherman, you fall in love with the ocean,” said Alvarenga. “Some fishermen like to go out one day and then stay ashore the next, not me. As soon and as often as I could, I went out to sea until the bosses told me not to. It is love because the ocean gives you food, she provides money and it is a habit. When you love the ocean you love the adrenaline, the energy. You battle the ocean. It is your enemy. You share combat and you fight. She might kill you but you are defying death.”
Alvarenga risked his life every time he ignored the warnings to stay in port and instead braved the sea seeking an extra day’s
catch. He was confident he could outmaneuver the waves and routinely arrived home with his icebox packed to the brim, a thousand pounds of fresh fish testament to his skill and courage. When fellow fishermen were flipped, sunk or lost, Alvarenga was among the first to volunteer to search for missing colleagues, regularly risking his life to do so. All this bravery made him very attractive to many local women. Alvarenga laughed as he described the chaos when girlfriends crossed paths outside his humble beach home. “My boss Mino used to radio me from shore and say ‘Warning! Warning! Multiple women outside your palapa!’ When that happened it was better to stay at sea.”
The evening of Thursday, November 15, 2012, was a moment to celebrate. Packed on ice in two trucks lay four thousand pounds of fresh fish from the deep sea: tuna, marlin, mahimahi, hammerhead and thresher shark. A hundred miles offshore—where only the bravest fishermen dared travel—everything was biting. At the market price of 20 Mexican pesos a kilo—roughly 70 cents a pound and subtracting the 50 percent share for the boss and huge gasoline expenses, the men had, on average, US$150 in pocket. In a local economy where a meal for two cost $4 and a beachside hotel room ran $7 a night, each man packed a substantial bankroll.
The compañeros were together and a beach party commenced. Instead of a three-day bender, the men were raging half speed. With the fish biting, most planned to drink only until two a.m., catch a few hours’ sleep, then head out to sea after breakfast. A northern storm was forecast, which meant dry, gusty winds, sometimes reaching hurricane strength, but no rain. This was likely the last shift for days—there would be plenty of time for heavy-duty partying while they waited out the cold front.
Alvarenga and friends lazed in hammocks inside their beachside hut. Corona beer cans, tequila bottles and pint-sized plastic bottles of Quetzal, a cheap grain alcohol, littered the yard. Reggaeton music bleated from a stray cell phone and the men lamented the perpetual shortage of single women. They had purchased enough Sierra Madre marijuana to stone the entire Sixty-first Battalion of the Mexican Army, which, due to a raging cocaine war, was posted just up the road. Fat joints—like props from a Jimmy Cliff reggae film—circled the room. Two naked lightbulbs swung in the night breeze. Iguanas thumped noisily as they walked across the roof. Nighthawks and owls hunted for prey as fruit bats looped through the palms. Loony, a massive crocodile, was set to make his nightly midnight crossing of the lagoon, his eyes reflecting a bright red from the lights on the docks.
The men’s banter was nonstop slang, profanities and inside jokes. Alvarenga was known as Chancha—an affectionate version of Piggy—thanks to his voracious appetite. Mino, his supervisor, describes Alvarenga as a man who ate practically anything that landed near the grill. “We had just roasted a tuna fish and he already had a mahimahi sliced open and ready to cook. . . . He could eat and eat and never get fat. I told him, ‘Chancha, you must have parasites.’?” Another colleague suggests Alvarenga’s nickname was a reference to his skin color. Unlike the coffee brown of most local fishermen, Alvarenga’s skin was closer to pink, like a piglet.
Although they had polished off platefuls of food in a massive multicourse meal, marijuana provoked a mad hunger. Greedily but with a collective humor, the fishermen harassed their patrón, Willy, to buy more food. Willy, a quiet mustachioed man, watched over his flock of fishermen like a veteran teacher stuck with a class of
juvenile delinquents. But he agreed and sent a teenager running with orders to restock the table.
As they awaited the grilled chicken and more cold Coronas, Alvarenga opened a fiberglass cooler that held bait for the next day’s fishing trip. The fishermen were planning to lay 2,800 hooks, so they had stocked the coolers with hundreds of pounds of sardines to use as bait. But Chancha was hungry now. “It will be yeeeeeeearss before the food arrives,” he said impatiently as he grabbed a sardine as long as his hand. Its eyes were stuck in a glazed stare and its flesh was cold after being flash frozen with a blast of nitrogen. Alvarenga lifted a tortilla off the foot-high stack in the middle of the communal dining table where the fishermen always ate. He plopped the sardine on the tortilla, rolled it like a jellyroll and, knowing he had an audience, bit off the entire tail. With a broad smile on his round face he began chewing through the raw, half-frozen sardine.
“You are going to get food poisoning,” Willy groaned.
“It gets cooked by the juices in my stomach,” laughed Alvarenga as he prepared a second sardine.
When the chicken arrived, the men ate with gusto, chugged beers and tossed the cans in the lagoon. There was little risk of driving drunk—few of them owned a car. Nor would wheels much serve them. Their world was the sea—their commute was into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Mexico. While lesser men fished the lagoon for snapper and flounder and the shrimpers went out twelve miles to work the farms, the deep-sea guys, this crowd, would motor straight out to sea, long past the point where they could see shore. Only when they reached fifty miles, sometimes a hundred miles, would they prepare their lines. They called themselves Los Tiburoneros—“The Sharkers.” It didn’t matter that they often
caught more tuna or mahimahi than shark; they still cultivated the association with the ocean’s most notorious predator. Among the hierarchy of coastal fishermen, Sharkers were elite and viewed as a bit mad. Sharkers had their own slang, private jokes and deep scars or missing fingers that chronicled the day-to-day brutalities of fishing in the deep sea from tiny boats. Sharkers earned more. And died younger.