Reporter’s Notebook: Maritime ‘Repo Men’ in Haiti

The Times reporter Ian Urbina provides an inside look at work he did and the people he met for a series about stolen ships and lawlessness at sea.

By IAN URBINA

The last time I was in Haiti was to cover the 2010 earthquake. Obviously, the country was a disaster then. The suffering was acute and the tension palpable.

In going back in October, I was depressed to find that conditions in Haiti were not much improved. Downtown Port-au-Prince had an edgy, crowded, desperate feel. Many buildings were still in ruin. The hotel where I stayed had only intermittent electricity.

At one point, I was riding in a cab through the city when traffic abruptly stopped. It was a full ten minutes before the taxi started moving again, slowly, past a cadre of uniformed police officers, some with machine guns. They were standing over the body of a man who had recently been shot to death. (I later found out that the man had been a robbery suspect.)

I hired a Haitian photographer, Josué Azor, and headed to Miragoâne because it is an infamous haven for illicit maritime activity, the subject of a series called The Outlaw Ocean that I have been writing for The Times that included a Page 1 article on Dec. 29. “It’s where you go to make boats disappear,” one repo man told me.

In third-world countries, port towns tend to be the armpits of the nation. And I had to resort to a dive hotel in Miragoâne because the others were fully booked with campaign staff connected the presidential election, which was a week or so away.

The first night in the hotel, I woke up to the feeling that my feet were on fire. When I turned on my headlamp and made my way to the bathroom, I discovered bed bug welts. Needless to say, I did not go back to sleep. The next morning, I presented my freakishly swollen feet and complained to hotel staff members, who seemed barely able to contain laughter. (The joke didn’t end here: A week after I returned home from Haiti, my credit card company called to find out why I still had an open tab, now topping $3,000, at the same hotel.)

I spent much of my trip to Miragoâne on sea patrols with the Haitian Coast Guard, which was hunting for a “suspicious vessel” that the United States Coast Guard had spotted entering Haitian waters. The boat was large, unlicensed, most likely stolen, and believed to be armed and carrying drugs.

As we looked for the vessel, one of the Haitian officers, Louhandy Brizard, described two heists that had been the subject of recent investigations. The first involved the theft — and subsequent recovery — of a private ship hired by the Haitian government to search for gold in the country’s national waters. The second involved a small ship, owned by a wealthy former Haitian government official, that had not yet been located.

Insurance officials had told me that boats and ships were among the toughest types of property to recover because they disappear easily on the open sea. Pilfered cars, on the other hand, tend to stay in the country where they are taken; planes, which are tracked globally in response to terror threats, are much harder to steal.

To find missing ships, investigators post reward notices, comb sale listings, contact port officials, publish fake job advertisements and contact any relatives, ex-wives or jilted girlfriends of the ship’s former crew. When they recover a ship, they often verify its identity by checking the serial number on the engine, which thieves frequently forget to remove.

Soon after I started reporting in Miragoâne, a source gave me a copy of a how-to manual that had been circulating among port officials, law enforcement and, presumably, maritime criminals. It described how to steal a ship, change its identity and surreptitiously siphon fuel or pilfer cargo, in addition to outlining a variety of common port scams.

I went to Haiti for the same reason that I had closely studied that manual: So much of crime offshore stems from corruption onshore, and to truly grasp lawlessness at sea, one needs to understand the world of dodgy players and the crafty tactics they deploy.

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