“There’s no way to run when you’re stopped dead in the wa­ter, so I just started pray­ing, ‘God, let them leave with­out hurt­ing us.’ ”

The Denver Post - - NATION & WORLD - By Han­nah Dreier

punta de araya, venezuela» The pi­rates had killed Flaco Mar­val’s brother and two cousins, and word was they were com­ing for the rest of the fam­ily.

So the skinny 17-year-old and the other Mar­val men ran to grab the guns they’d sol­dered to­gether from kitchen pipes, smoked an acrid-smelling drug to boost their en­ergy, and went out into the night to pa­trol the sandy vil­lage streets.

“We just have to kill these thugs, and then we can go back to fish­ing like we al­ways did,” Flaco said.

Pi­rates are ter­ror­iz­ing the coastal state of Su­cre, once home to the world’s fourth-largest tuna fleet and a thriv­ing fish­ing in­dus­try.

That trade has col­lapsed, along with vir­tu­ally ev­ery in­dus­try across Venezuela. Gangs of out-of-work fish­er­men prey upon those who still ven­ture out into the open sea, steal­ing their catch and their mo­tors, ty­ing them up, throw­ing them over­board, and some­times shoot­ing them. The rob­beries have taken place daily this year, and dozens of fish­er­men have died.

“Peo­ple can’t make a liv­ing fish­ing any­more, so they’re us­ing their boats for the op­tions that are left: smug­gling gas, run­ning drugs and piracy,” said Jose An­to­nio Gar­cia, leader of the state’s largest union.

The warm Caribbean Sea in­creas­ingly is be­com­ing a grim free-for-all.

Seven mem­bers of the Mar­val clan were pre­par­ing to re­turn home one night in Septem­ber when they heard shots.

“There’s no way to run when you’re stopped dead in the wa­ter, so I just started pray­ing, ‘God, let them leave with­out hurt­ing us,’ ” 42-year-old Ede­cio Mar­val said.

In­stead, af­ter steal­ing the boat’s mo­tor and the night’s catch, the men shot dead Ede­cio’s old­est child, who had kept the group laugh­ing all night with cheesy jokes, and two oth­ers.

As they pre­pared to kill Ede­cio’s teenage nephew, one pi­rate shouted for the oth­ers to stop. “No, that’s my friend,” he said. They had fished to­gether un­til last year.

So the group sped off, leav­ing the sur­viv­ing Mar­vals to send flashes of light into the dark­ness. They wept as the bod­ies of their loved ones grew cold be­side them.

Back home in the vil­lage of Punta de Araya, they told po­lice that they’d rec­og­nized the pi­rates’ leader: It was El Beta, a 19-year-old killer with 40 men at his com­mand who lived a half mile down the road.

El Beta be­gan call­ing Fla- co Mar­val, threat­en­ing to come back and wipe out the whole clan.

“Now I’m com­ing for all of you snitches,” he said in a taunt­ing voice mes­sage the fam­ily turned over to the po­lice.

The Mar­vals hun­kered down. Along with their neigh­bors, they gave up go­ing to the state-run hospi­tal up the hill be­cause that area was con­trolled by El Beta. They stopped send­ing their kids to school. And they started nightly pa­trols.

“It’s not safe to leave the house,” said Tibisay Mar­val, whose son was killed.

On the night they pre­pared to face down El Beta, Flaco spot­ted a sol­dier dart­ing be­neath a street­light with his Kalash­nikov ri­fle drawn. Soon, the streets were filled with vil­lagers hop­ing the coast guard had caught a group of pi­rates.

“Let’s see if some­one gets killed!” a neigh­bor shouted.

As the throng pushed in, sol­diers loaded three men onto a cargo truck. But the vil­lagers started to protest that they had the wrong guys; they knew those sus­pects to be hon­est fish­er­men. The sol­diers let the men go.

Women be­gan crowd­ing around a lieu­tenant. Why hadn’t he helped get their mo­tors back? When was he go­ing to take a stand against El Beta?

The lieu­tenant urged pa­tience. But later he con­fessed that he too wanted to see El Beta dead. Of­fi­cers have ar­rested one of El Beta’s men for the Mar­val mur­ders, but are re­luc­tant to make mass ar­rests be­cause the jails are al­ready packed full.

“You hear piracy and you think of guys rob­bing con­tainer ships in Africa. But here it’s just poor fish­er­men rob­bing other poor fish­er­men,” said Su­cre lawyer Luis Mo­rales. “It’s the same kind of crime we’ve seen in the streets, but spread­ing to the sea.”

Shortly af­ter the sol­diers left Punta de Araya, the Mar­val women started get­ting warn­ings from friends in El Beta’s neigh­bor­hood that 15 mem­bers of his gang were pre­par­ing to at­tack.

The women de­bated whether to call back the coast guard and risk be­ing la­beled rats. Just as they de­cided to make the call, the vil­lage’s power and cell ser­vice went out, as if cut by a hos­tile force. Pan­icked, they went to alert Flaco and the oth­ers.

The cousins rushed to their ar­mory of homemade hand­guns and ri­fles, hid­den in a cin­derblock hut with a sheet hung for a door.

Laugh­ing at each other’s cough­ing fits, they smoked co­caine-laced marijuana through a long glass pipe they’d fash­ioned out of a flu­o­res­cent light bulb. They tried to psych them­selves up for battle by lis­ten­ing again to El Beta’s threat­en­ing mes­sage, crowd­ing around a half-bro­ken flip phone.

“Re­mem­ber how we used to take naps on the beach with money in our pock­ets?” one cousin said.

“This isn’t go­ing to be over un­til some­one kills that guy,” said another.

Sud­denly, the dogs be­gan to bark. The young men shot out to the street to see if the gang was on its way. They kept up their pa­trol for hours, paus­ing ev­ery once in a while to smoke from the glass pipe.

Even­tu­ally, the bark­ing died down. The power came back on. El Beta did not show up.

The Mar­val women stayed awake un­til dawn, play­ing domi­nos near a shrine to the three slain men. Flaco’s aunt Pe­tra Mar­val said they worry about the cousins but see no other op­tion. “Flaco could be killed here in the streets,” she said. “But he could be killed out at sea, too.”

Ro­drigo Abd, The As­so­ci­ated Press

Fish­er­men from the Mar­val fam­ily give in­struc­tions to a skiff tow­ing their boat to sea as they head out for a night of fish­ing in Punta de Araya, Venezuela. Ev­ery night, the fish­er­men risk get­ting robbed or killed by pi­rates, many of whom are for­mer fish­er­men who have turned to crime be­cause of Venezuela’s eco­nomic col­lapse.

The Den­ver Post

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.