In an expansion of the war on drugs, the U.S. Coast Guard is targeting low-level smugglers in international waters — shackling them on ships for weeks or even months before arraignment in American courts.
On nights when the November rain poured down and he had not slept at all, Jhonny Arcentales had visions of dying, of his body being cast into the dark ocean. He would imagine his wife and their teenage son tossing his clothes into a pit in a cemetery and gathering at the local church for his funeral. It had been more than two months since Arcentales, a 40-year-old fisherman from Ecuador’s central coast, left home, telling his wife he would return in five days. A cuff clamped onto his ankle kept him shackled to a cable along the deck of the ship but for the occasional trip, guarded by a sailor, to defecate into a bucket. Most of the time, he couldn’t move more than an arm’s length in either direction without jostling the next shackled man. “The sea used to be freedom,” he told me. But on the ship, “it was the opposite. Like a prison in the open ocean.”
By day Arcentales would stand against the wall and stare out at the water, his mind blank one moment, the next racing with thoughts of his wife and their newborn son. He had not spoken to his family, though he asked each day to call home. He increasingly felt panicked, fearing his wife would believe he was dead.
Arcentales has wide muscular shoulders from his 25 years hauling fishing nets from the sea. But his meals now consisted of a handful of rice and beans, and he could feel his body shrinking from the undernourishment and immobility. “The moment we would stand up, we would get nauseated, our heads would spin,” he recalled. The 20-some prisoners aboard the vessel — Ecuadorians, Guatemalans and Colombians — would often stand through the night, their backs aching, their bodies frigid from the wind and rain, waiting for the morning sun to rise and dry them.
In the first weeks, Arcentales had turned to his friend Carlos Quijije, another fisherman from the small town of Jaramijó, to calm him. They were chained side by side, and the 26-year-old would offer some perspective. “Relax brother, everything is going to work out,” Arcentales remembered Quijije saying. “They’ll take us to Ecuador, and we will see our families.” But after two months of being shackled aboard the ship, Quijije seemed just as despondent. They often thought they would simply disappear.