Crossing the Gap - Cartel, Cocaine and Corruption in the Caribbean

The bed pitched from side to side as hushed bodies hurried through the small dark hull. I stirred to the sound of deep, whispered words murmured in spanish and the white and red of the head-torches flashing, searching. 

“We have a problem. No, not an engine problem, a different kind of problem.” I laid still, listening to the Captain on the phone. He was above me in the wheelhouse whispering in his deep, thick polish accent. The report switched to spanish after a pause, “we are going to stay here”. A few minutes went by and he was out of earshot on the deck. “Ok, Ok guys we need to have a meeting, everybody up and on deck now”. The fifteen passengers woke and made their way out of their bunks in the dark of the red cabin lights and squeezed through the small hull of the 60ft cruiser onto the deck in the early hours of the Caribbean night. The light from the stars revealed a big horseshoe bay and sodium lamps lit one small pueblo in the corner. Mountains framed the landscape against the sky. It was quiet and the entire boat sat on the floor and waited for the Captain to speak. 

There were murmurs of speculation amongst the group but nobody was prepared for the what was about to happen. The Captain sat on the cool box in the middle of the horseshoe and the crowd quietened, intrigued by what would be so important as to wake everybody up at three AM. We had been sailing all night through the Caribbean from the San Blas Islands to Panama. This was the last night of our five day passage from Cartagena, Colombia. The Darien Gap, a dense jungle area between Colombia and Panama is impossible to cross by land; guerrillas, dangerous animals, cartels, corrupt police, tropical disease, no fresh water supplies. To cross between South and Central America you have to fly or sail; we had all chosen to sail. Over the five days the group had bonded, we were eleven countries represented in one boat; we ate together, drank together, swam, talked and dozed on deck under the stars together. We made connections that we will keep forever. 

He took another draw from his cigarette and said calmly “Somebody brought Cocaine onto the boat and now it has been taken”. If there is one sentence that you don't want to hear crossing from Colombia to Panama by sea, this is it. My mind started to race, immediately I assumed he had brought the cocaine on board, that was how it came out and it felt like ultimate betrayal of trust, a personal attack on our safety. My first emotion was anger directed at him and I wasn’t alone in this until somebody demanded a name. He said it was Maria, one of us. 

“She hid it behind the toilet in underwear she was wearing to bring it on the boat in Cartagena; the underwear is there but the package has gone. One of you has taken it and we need it back. The Cartel are waiting on the shore; we have armed ourselves with flare guns and rockets to protect ourselves. They know we are here and we want the drugs so we can put them in the sea before the cartel get here.” None of it made any sense but the seriousness of the situation resonated in every one of our minds. At some point he added that Maria was scared because they have been threatening to kill her children in Mexico.

A few cries came from the group aimed at Maria who was sat in the corner; we were all scared, confused and angry that we had been put in this situation. Amongst the group a few ideas were passed around, the first one was to search our bags to check if it had been planted on one of us before the Police turned up. Another was to keep the Captain on board; he wanted to leave on the dinghy to get the police. Not one of us thought for a minute that it had been taken by one of the passengers. 

The Captain seemed reluctant to call the Police. We questioned his motives, nothing ever seemed consistent. Everyone questioned the other two crew members too, we watched their moves and tried to make sense of their possible role in the situation. In mine and everybody else's mind a clear timeline of behaviour and movement from everybody in suspicion was being formed mentally; as we all spoke, a few alarm bells were raised, most of which made no sense. The Captain told us there were five kilograms of cocaine onboard the ship last night, now it has gone. He was too calm and so was Maria. She sat on the back deck chain smoking, not begging any of us to search our bags, not pleading with us for the safety of her children, very strange. We sat on the front deck going over conspiracies and possibilities as a group. For every plausible theory came a series of inconsistencies in the plot. We knew something was happening; there was a twist in the story, it felt like who ever was in charge was manipulating it all perfectly but for the ones not in the know it was unnerving to say the least. The inconsistencies made it impossible to know what was actually happening. 

An hour passed and no change; the Captain had taken Maria’s phone battery, she had been on the phone in the early hours. He told us he had called the police, he didn’t know how long they would be. We sat on deck and watched the one road into the town for Police cars, a few cars passed but nothing stopped that looked like Police. We were two hours from Panama City and an hour from Colon, they should be here by now. The threat of the Cartel was still very real at this point; we imagined men with guns in the jungle with the Howler Monkeys watching our every move as we sat in the dark, floating in clear view in the bay. We searched our bags and demanded that we took our large bags from the hold at the front of the boat, despite the Captain telling us this was pointless. He had a ziplock bag with all of our passports inside; he didn’t want to give them back but we demanded them and he gave in. 

After another hour passed and no sign from the police or cartel. We saw every vehicle that came in and out of the village and debated who they were. One girl had a phone with signal and we decided to call and inform our Embassies of the situation we were in. Most were shut as it was a national holiday; those that weren’t didn’t pay much attention. Just work with the local Police was all they had to offer. None of us had ever been to Panama before; we don’t know if the Police could be trusted or not, we were scared for them to come on board and search through our bags. We wanted the issue to be resolved but it is always a worry to have anybody know you are carrying a laptop, camera gear and other desirable items, most of us have travelled enough not to trust anybody; unfortunately not even the police. Embassies informed, bags searched; we had nothing to do but sit and wait for the Police or Cartel. The sun rose in a burst of colour over the hills and we sat gently swaying in the morning warmth which quickly turned to an uncomfortable heat. The immediate threat of the Cartel faded with time; if they had wanted us, we were there.

A few people exchanged words with Maria but most couldn't make eye contact with her, for me the main reason being I knew that anything she said couldn’t genuinely be believed. She had an agenda and I wanted to be as far away from it as possible. She was twenty nine years old, from Mexico City. After the bombshell was dropped she told us for the first time that she had two children; the eldest being fifteen. She told us she was forced to do it, she had no choice. Some people in the group took pity on her, the situation for young women mules in South and Central America is frightening and the Cartels in Mexico are violent and powerful beyond our understanding. Maria wasn’t a poor, innocent girl plucked from the slums of the city. She had the Latin American ‘artesano traveller’ look; a look that takes a long time to develop; fading tattoos, one long dreadlock amongst her thick dark hair with the sides of her head shaved, she was part-way through laser surgery and trendy piercings and more stylish outfits than most of the other passengers on the boat. She was quiet; she didn’t speak much English but she told us she had lived in the USA for two years. She seemed to understand more than she could speak. She would snorkel with us, eat with us and drink until the early hours with us. She would take self portraits or get people to take photos of her on the boat in the sunset, on the last night she spent a good while looking through my photos, some of which had her in and commenting on how she liked them. When we were on dry land she would text a lot but we never saw her talk on the phone. Maybe Maria was telling the truth, I don't know what to believe and what I want to be the truth. 

At around nine-thirty, a Lancha boat arrived at the boat with six or seven police officers, some with faces covered, all with guns. We were all on deck and the Captain offered them water. He told them that the deckhand was actually the Captain. It took us by surprise when he told us this, it was set up that way due to licensing issues and the deckhand was Colombian. A couple of the policeman stood on deck with us while others spoke to the crew and checked paperwork. The Captain explained the situation in Spanish. He repeated the story that he told us; someone had bought cocaine onto the boat and now it was gone. He was very calm and casual, the police didn’t seem bothered. It twigged with a few of us that he hadn’t told the police that we knew who it was that had bought the cocaine on board. We pointed to Maria and asked the Captain why he had not told them who it was, he asked why we needed to. As far as we were concerned, in the eyes of the police, if it wasn’t her, it was one of us. The story had changed over the course of the morning, the Cartel weren't mentioned again and the accusation that one of us had found and taken the cocaine was dropped. The police were told neither of the two vital details that sparked the drama at three o'clock that morning. 

At this point I was expecting them to take Maria for questioning, to take her passport, radio in background checks, check her ID wasn’t fake, pat her down, cuff her, talk to her. But nothing. She sat with us all, rolling and smoking, rolling and smoking. Some of the policemen started to search downstairs in the hull. None of our bags were emptied, nothing was disrupted, store cupboards were left untouched, there were no sniffer dogs. There was nothing you would expect from a drug search. 

One policeman talked to Maria quietly while she sat on the edge of the group on the deck cross legged, smoking. They spoke quietly in quick Spanish, they laughed together and she smiled occasionally but let out a few tears or dropped her head in her hands in the quiet moments. If she was worried about the cartel; I think this was her way out. I expected she might have been begging for the Police to take her, to involve the Mexican authorities or ask for them to somehow protect her or her family. Five kilograms of Cocaine goes missing and she is about to get the blame, she wasn’t frantic or panicked. It seemed odd to me that she would rather be in trouble with the Cartel than the Police but then I don’t know the intricacies of the situation. The other two crew members weren't with us, they were downstairs with the police. 

Two hours passed and they seemed satisfied there was no cocaine on the boat. They left, leaving us all to enter Panama with no issues. Maria too. Two more hours passed while the Captain took the RIB to the immigration office in the pueblo with all of our passports in order to stamp us into Panama, a prospect none of us were that excited about. A lancha came to pick us up and we reached dry land. Maria, the Captain and the two crew members stayed on board the boat. 

Most people had been changing plans; two young girls cut their travels short and booked flights for first thing in the morning to get out of Latin America shortly after they arrived to safety. A couple talked about doing the same and I am sure they did. Everyone else headed to Panama City to stay in a hotel and plan their next moves. 

We, alongside the three people our bikes had separately been shipped with, slept in unlocked rooms in an unmanned hostel in plain view of where the now-gone boat had been moored. I slept for maybe two hours in the heat of the night, waking with any noise; passing cars, footsteps or passing boats. The one thing that made us feel safe was the call we made home. Interpol agents had arrived at the home of our UK contact an hour after we called and had stayed there until that evening when we had called to say we were safe nearly seven hours later. They knew who we were and where we were staying and assured us they were confident that given their contacts in Panama they could pretty much guarantee our safety.

I don’t want to speculate on the exact situation that occurred on that boat that morning; I don't know who was innocent or guilty. I don’t know why the Police were involved, why Maria stayed on the boat, why neither the boat or Maria were ever searched properly by the Panamanian (or Colombian) Police, whether there was even cocaine in the first place, where it went if there was or whether the Captain and crew were involved. These are all questions we will likely never find the answer to but I do feel confident in saying that whatever needed to happen on that trip from Colombia to Panama happened.