Saturday, August 26, 2006

Insult Upon Injury

The fact they survived for months on raw fish and rainwater does not stop the vultures of the Mexican press from invading the lives of three fisherman.

The story captivated Mexico when first reported last week. Having disappeared in October, family members said, the fishermen and their 27-foot skiff turned up two weeks ago in the central Pacific halfway between North America and Australia, a blip on the radar screen of a tuna vessel north of Baker Island.

But the 100 or so journalists who greeted the survivors at Mexico City's Benito Juarez International Airport are more used to reporting crime and scandal than heroism. They grilled the three men at an often chaotic news conference that ended in a melee between producers and cameramen from rival television networks.

This is the tragic part: an ordeal like this alone would be fascinating were anyone to take it seriously enough to tell these fishermen's story, but the press is too caught up with themselves to do so.
Is it true that you guys are really drug dealers on a failed smuggling mission, the reporters asked. What happened to the two other men who you say were on board with you? Did you eat them? If you were at sea for nine months, why aren't your fingernails longer?

"To those who don't believe us, all I can say is that I hope that what happened to us never happens to you," Lucio Rendon, 27, said after denying that he and his comrades [Salvador Ordoñez and Jesus Vidaña] were either "narcos" or cannibals. "I just thank God for being here."

The truth should be enough, but it probably isn't sick enough for the media.
Family members say the three are typical fishermen from a stretch of coast dotted with hardscrabble fishing hamlets. When they left San Blas with two other men on Oct. 28, they didn't notify port authorities, or even many members of their family — not an unusual practice in an area where many fish illegally.


The survivors have said in interviews that they set off in search of shark, but have not said whether they were licensed. Their first night out, they lost a fishing line. While they tried to find it the next morning, their onboard engines ran out of gas. They began to drift.

One of the men, known to the others only by the nickname "El Farsero," died in January. Fifteen days later, a second man, known to the others as "Juan," died. The men either wouldn't eat or couldn't hold down the raw fish the others were eating to survive.

The other two men have not been identified, which does not seem surprising given the fishing industry of these little Mexican towns. The fact they dies so early has led to the accusations of cannibalism.
The men read a Bible they had on board. When a storm ripped out the Apocalypse chapters, they said, they took it as a good sign.

I think a case could be made that moral imagination allows people to persevere, and having the Bible with them no doubt insipred them.
They collected rainwater to drink. Ordoñez remembered advice from a government-sponsored survival course: Eat as little as possible and drink fish blood to stay hydrated. (Officials in San Blas confirmed that Ordoñez completed the course in 2004.)

Score one for a government program.
Upon hearing of his presumed death, Ordoñez's 15-year-old daughter, Gladiola, gave up her dream of being a teacher, dropped out of school and set out for the United States, the newspaper La Cronica de Hoy reported Thursday.

"My father is dead," Gladiola told her brother Angel. "What will I do here? I don't even have money for a notebook." Gladiola crossed the border illegally and reportedly is working in a Los Angeles factory, the newspaper reported. The account could not be independently verified.

The story is possible, but it sounds too good to be true, especially from a country where there is much resentment at America for acting like it has a right to defend its borders. I wonder how the "hardscrabble" life she endured in this little village would have allowed her income enough to go to school in the first place, and thus why her circumstances so changed upon her father's supposed death. That the story has not been verified illustrates the problem with how the Mexican press is treating these men. They treat the most salacious rumors as though they were true, as though these men were Brangelina.
Rendon, it turned out, was on probation on charges of stealing shrimp from a fishing company. A mortgage company was about to foreclose on the family home of Vidaña, 27. Vidaña's wife had given birth to their baby, a girl — Juliana is now 4 months old. And while talking with Ordoñez in a phone call broadcast live by the Televisa network, his family in Oaxaca learned that he had moved in with a woman in San Blas.

But little has emerged about the two men said to have died at sea. "Up to now they are only ghosts," the newspaper El Universal wrote Tuesday. "No one knows their full names or where they're from. It's as if they never existed."

We might learn the truth if the press were interested in more than the following:
At Friday's airport news conference, a radio reporter asked the three men whether they would take lie detector tests to prove that their story was true.

Yes, the fishermen answered.

After the news conference, producers from the rival Televisa and Azteca television networks engaged in a shoving match over who would get the first "exclusive" interview with the three men: Televisa ended up with two of the survivors, Azteca with one.

Reporter Carlos Loret de Mola prodded Ordoñez and Rendon until they acknowledged that, yes, at one point they had drunk their own urine to survive.

The press probably won't bother finding out who the other two fishermen are: ghosts and victims of cannibalism make better copy.

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