The captain of the coastal trader on which I bought passage was steering south along the Pacific coast, in mild seas, listening to vallenato music, a pile of crushed beer cans at his feet. It was 4AM and crew and passengers were asleep when suddenly there was a blinding light in the captain’s eyes and a loudspeaker order to cut his engines and prepare to be boarded.
The Colombian Coast Guard had arrived to do a little interdiction.
The costaguardas launch, carrying four men and an officer, slid alongside, and in a moment the four sailors had taken positions at various choke points across the freighter, while the officer went to the bridge to chat with the captain. Someone shouted from the darkness for the passengers to present identity cards and passports. A look at the coast guard launch was enough to discourage any thoughts of escape.
The freighter had one 350-horsepower engine and we had been crawling along at less than ten mph. The coast guard launch, perhaps one-twentieth the size and weight of its prey, had an hydrodynamic aluminum frame and canopy, with three 350 HP outboard engines yoked side by side and, according to the freighter’s helmsman, who had seen it in action, was capable of something approaching flight. Somewhere—off in the dark—the mother ship, the coast guard cutter that had sent the launch, was waiting in case backup was needed. The old days when traffickers in this part of the smuggling world had faster boats than the people chasing them, or when the traffickers had more and bigger guns, are apparently past on Colombia’s Pacific coast.
My bunk, just behind the bridge, offered a perfect view of the interaction between the coast guard officer and the captain. The officer asked to see the captain’s cell phone. We were about a mile offshore and the captain had been making and receiving calls all night, as had everybody else on board when they were awake. The officer began to scroll down through the phone’s memory of calls while asking an occasional question of the ship’s master, without actually looking at him.
“Five crew and ten passengers,” the captain answered one inquiry.
“Scrap metal,” he answered another, about his cargo.
That much was true. I had seen it loaded, up the coast, near the Darien Gap from which we had sailed. There are few roads on either the Panamanian or Colombian side of the border and everything inanimate going in or coming out moves by sea. Beer and foodstuffs going north, as well as bicycles and motorcycles, medicine and military supplies. Various kinds of hardwood and any kind of recyclable debris that the captain can make a profit on coming back to the port at Buenaventura. At least that describes the legal trade.
The coast guard officer took his time and finally finished scrolling through the phone and handed it back to its owner. The officer made a quick search of the bridge, looking into cabinets. He stepped into the passenger berths, identified himself to me, and asked to see my papers. “Guardacostas,” he said, rather apologetically, by way of explanation for the disturbance. He thanked me for my cooperation and disappeared, with his men, over the side. What they had really come for was just to look at the captain’s phone.
The crew, which had disappeared into the nooks and crannies of the ship at first sign of trouble, reappeared on deck and joked nervously after the launch was gone. In the morning I asked the purser, “What was the coast guard doing here?”
“They were doing their job,” he said matter-of-factly, which increasingly describes the Colombian public’s attitude, with some exceptions, to the heightened security of recent years. He also explained about the captain’s cell phone.
“There’s a lot of wiretapping that goes on,” he said approvingly. “Suppose they are listening to a particular telephone in Medellin, and there is a conversation about a shipment coming in tonight by boat, but the boat’s name is never mentioned. Or they just have a telephone number that they know is involved in the traffic . . . .”
If the coast guard had found the wrong number on the captain’s cell phone, the ship would have been seized and searched painstakingly, and the crew held, until the authorities knew what was what. Another captain, along the same route, running between Buenaventura, the country’s main Pacific port, and the border of Panama, told me that tracking devices had been placed on his bridge, paid for by the U.S. government, that showed the ship’s position at all times to a surveillance station in Chile. If the ship went off course for any reason, like to meet a smuggler, Bogota got a call from Santiago to send a vessel and investigate. It’s a good thing too. My last trip to Buenaventura, two years ago, pirates boarded a boat just outside the port, ordered crew and passengers into the water without lifejackets, and just took the vessel. That was all they wanted. It’s a rough coast—the Pacific side—much more dodgy than the elegant, Old World charm of the Caribbean and Cartagena, where cruise ships and yachts run.
In the morning, the crew was mostly over the coast guard’s rude shock. We had seen whales breaching the day before. Now we were beginning to see trash in the water, which meant civilization, in this case Buenaventura, was near.
The captain was asleep. He only took the wheel at night and during the problematic actual entry into port.
“How many states in the United States?” the helmsman asked me suddenly.
“How many did Obama win?”
“Thirty-six,” I answered at random.
The Pacific coast is heavily-Afro descendants, and most of this crew was black. Barack Obama is the “Black Whale” in these waters—a kind of talisman, the most that any black man can aspire to be short of Pele or God. The helmsman and pursuer both assured me that the President will win reelection.
My attention was elsewhere. On the horizon there was a big patrol boat moving fast, cutting through the waves, on its way to meet a container ship crawling in from Asia. Maybe they’d ask to see that captain’s cellphone too.