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Salvadoran castaway hit with cannibalism suit, denies he ate his shipmate to stay alive

Jose Salvador Alvarenga sits on a couch in Majuro in the Marshall Islands, after he was rescued from being washed ashore on the tiny atoll of Ebon in the Pacific Ocean.

Jose Salvador Alvarenga sits on a couch in Majuro in the Marshall Islands, after he was rescued from being washed ashore on the tiny atoll of Ebon in the Pacific Ocean.  (AP)

José Salvador Alvarenga’s story captivated the world nearly two years ago, when the Salvadoran-born fisherman was rescued in the South Pacific having spent 14 months adrift in a small fishing boat.

But this week, Alvarenga’s heartwarming story – which has been turned into a book, “438 Days,” by the English journalist, Jonathan Franklin – took a grisly turn.

Relatives of the man who he was shipwrecked with, Ezequiel Córdova Ríos, and who reportedly starved to death months into the ordeal, have filed a million-dollar lawsuit against Alvarenga alleging that he cannibalized his shipmate to stay alive, according to the Salvadoran paper, El Diario de Hoy.

Alvarenga, a Salvadoran who had been living on the Pacific Coast of southern Mexico for around 15 years, went out shark-fishing on a 25-foot fiberglass boat on Nov. 17, 2012, accompanied by a 22-year-old he knew only as Ezequiel.

According to the story he told officials in the Marshall Islands, where he was finally rescued in February 2014, a storm blew the fishermen off course, and soon they were lost and adrift. Short on food, they caught what birds and fish they could and drank their own urine to stay hydrated.

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Alvarenga says in “438 Days” that Córdova’s health declined after a couple of months and soon he stopped eating the little they had.

He dumped the young man’s body into the ocean after six days of speaking to the cadaver as if he were still alive. But Córdova’s parents in Chiapas, Mexico, are disputing that claim. They say he ate their son to survive.

Ricardo Cucalón, the Salvadoran attorney who has represented Alvarenga since his return from the South Pacific, told El Diario de Hoy that he hadn’t been notified of the lawsuit, and that they cannot prove their allegations.

“I believe the suit is a pressure tactic,” Cucalón told the paper, “trying to get him to pay part of the money that they’re all after [from the book deal], which isn’t as much as is talked about.”

He also pointed out that the timing of the suit coincided with the release in the United States of “438 Days.”

An excerpt of the book appeared in November in the Guardian. In it, Franklin describes at length the ordeal of the two men, and the topic of food and hunger constantly comes up.

Franklin wrote that Alvarenga told him, “I was so hungry that I was eating my own fingernails, swallowing all the little pieces.”

He goes on to describe how the fisherman scooped jellyfish out of the ocean and swallowed them whole.

“It burned the top part of my throat,” Alvarenga said, “but [it] wasn’t so bad.”

The excerpt also describes the moment Córdova died in convulsions on the floor of the boat. Alvarenga said he propped the young man’s body in the bow of the fishing boat because “I was afraid a wave might wash him out of the boat … I cried for hours.”

The book describes Alvarenga talking to the body in order to maintain a sense of companionship.

“Six days after Córdoba’s death,” Franklin wrote, “Alvarenga sat with the corpse on a moonless night, in full conversation, when, as if waking from a dream, he was suddenly shocked to find he was conversing with the dead. ‘First I washed his feet. His clothes were useful, so I stripped off a pair of shorts and a sweatshirt. I put that on – it was red, with little skull-and-crossbones – and then I dumped him in. And as I slid him into the water, I fainted.’”

Alvarenga is also being sued in El Salvador by a former attorney, Benedicto Perlera, who is seeking $1 million in damages over an alleged breach of contract when Alvarenga replaced Perlera with American attorneys, according to El Diario de Hoy.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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