'Ghost Boats' Terrorize Fishermen In Venezuela Amid Humanitarian Crisis

May 5, 2017
Originally published on May 5, 2017 2:38 pm
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

At least 35 people have been killed in Venezuela in the last month in violent anti-government protests. Tomorrow in Caracas, women plan to march against leftist President Nicolas Maduro. The collapse of Venezuela's economy is producing a huge wave of predatory crime. Life's become very dangerous and not just on the streets but also at sea, as NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Wilfredo Monasterios is a fisherman, and he's taking us out to sea. We climb into a small, open boat.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE IGNITION)

REEVES: It's white and battered and roughly 20-feet long. We pull away from the pier, motor past a pile of rocks crowded with pelicans and head across the warm, grey waters of the Caribbean. Eventually, Monasterios stops the boat and points at some other small boats nearby.

WILFREDO MONASTERIOS: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: These are his fishing grounds east of Caracas. Monasteries and his fellow fishermen come to these waters every day late in the afternoon. They fish all night and sail back home for breakfast. At least that's what's supposed to happen. These days, some fishermen aren't returning home because of what Monasterios calls ghost boats.

MONASTERIOS: (Through interpreter) Ghost ships that - they will come out to you once you're out there fishing. If you cannot hear them, you cannot realize until they're on your boat.

REEVES: Armed pirates are raiding fishing boats at night and stealing their outboard motors, fish and nets. Monasterios uses the term ghost boats because the pirates' vessels have no lights, and he says you don't hear their engines because somehow they silence these.

Back on land, we find a discrete spot on the beach for a longer conversation about the pirates preying on this community.

MONASTERIOS: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Monasterios says these pirates are armed with rifles and machine guns. They wear masks and use small, fast boats. He knows because he's seen them. He's been caught up in three raids in the past year, he says. The most recent one was one night about a month ago.

MONASTERIOS: (Through interpreter) You're quietly fishing, and suddenly you have someone in your boat saying, get to the ground and then start punching you and hitting you with their rifles and stuff.

REEVES: Monasterios estimates that more than 20 local fishermen have been murdered by these pirates in recent years. After these raids, the stricken boats are towed to shore by other fishermen. The crew must wait until the owner can afford a new motor. That sometimes means no work for weeks.

RAMON DIAZ: The worst of things of human beings has come out in this crisis. Everyone is prey of somebody else.

REEVES: Ramon Diaz is an English teacher from Caracas. He has a beach apartment further along the coast. Diaz says he's heard fishermen talking about these ghost boats.

DIAZ: And they were trying to find guns. So they were doing, like, a count in the town of who can get guns and planning on buying guns to protect themselves.

REEVES: Wilfredo Monasterios, the fisherman, says Fighting back is actually very dangerous. If you resist, the pirates will kill you, he says.

MONASTERIOS: (Through interpreter) I will say, take your engines. Take your cash. Take whatever you want as long as I remain alive to see my kids.

REEVES: Venezuela used to have one of the world's largest tuna fleets. The fishing industry's collapsed along with the rest of the economy. Monasterios believes the pirates on the ghost boats are fisherman from other towns who, like so many Venezuelans, are struggling to survive. Monasterios knows that struggle all too well. He has four small kids to feed. Hyperinflation means his wages are worth very little. Monasterios feels he has no choice but to carry on fishing because...

MONASTERIOS: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "...If you have a job in Venezuela these days, it's best to keep it even if there's a risk of being murdered by pirates." Philip Reeves, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARIBOU'S "HANNIBAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.