The Americas

Unemployed fishermen in Venezuela become pirates, terrorize coastal towns

Once home to the world's fourth-largest tuna fleet and a thriving fishing industry, the catch in the Venezuelan state of Sucre is down to less than a third of what it produced in 2004.

That trade has collapsed, along with virtually every industry across Venezuela. 

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As a result, gangs of out-of-work fishermen have started to 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 remain: smuggling gas, running drugs and piracy," said Jose Antonio Garcia, leader of the state's largest union, to the Associated Press.

Families along the coast got through the summer by eating "dog soup," a broth made from seawater and the small fish that are usually thrown back.

"Those little sardines saved all our lives," said Efren Pares, who lives in Punta de Araya village.

The Marval family has a story of their own.

A few months ago, seven of its members were preparing to return home after a full day fishing offshore 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.

"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. Tomorrow, it will be taking over life on the farms or in the mountains."

Based on reporting by The Associated Press.