A pirate tale this be, a tale of bloodthirsty marauders who invade cargo boats, looting and attacking the crews.
Only these pirates don’t descend on their prey in sailing ships, flying the Jolly Roger, amid cannon fire and clanging swords. They don’t even set sail. They show up in pickup trucks, wearing baseball caps and brandishing .45s.
A new breed of buccaneer threatens those who run the trade routes between Florida and Haiti.
These plunderers wait for the ramshackle boats to come chugging up the Miami River and dock at grimy boat yards where the vessels are loaded with used appliances, bicycles, cars and other goods bound for Haiti. They creep up in the dark and have beaten, tortured and even kidnapped crew members.
“In Haiti, they’ll rob you. But burn you or stab you with a screwdriver? They don’t do that,” said first mate Enel Jean Philippe. “In Miami, they do that.”
The river is a dingy setting for this pirate tale. It smells of bilge water, diesel fuel, rotting fish and exhaust. It’s navigable about five miles from Biscayne Bay to a dam that separates the river from the Everglades. The boats coming under attack range from 50 to more than 100 feet.
Police in the inland city of Hialeah and workers along the river said the robbers are looking for drugs and money.
“It’s basically a land pirate swoop-down,” said police Sgt. David Magnusson, who heads a task force that investigates crime in Miami’s Haitian community. The task force is helping to investigate the riverfront attacks, at least six of which have been reported since November.
The new pirates are every bit as brutal as their predecessors.
In a December attack on the St. Pierre, deckhand Erol Dolcine, recently arrived from Haiti, was held down and repeatedly burned with a heated metal spoon. Four months later, he still has scars. Engineer Yves Fondala was pistol-whipped.
One of the pirates came aboard firing two handguns at once.
“The captain was crying like a baby, and he said, ‘I have 10 kids,”’ said Philippe, 24.
During another attack, a crew member was kidnapped off the Sigrid, moored near the St. Pierre, and taken to a Miami-area home and beaten. In that same April attack, a Sigrid crew member was shot in the leg, dock workers said.
After the attack on the St. Pierre, Philippe was prepared when his boat returned to the river in April.
After docking for the night, he perched on the ship’s bridge, cradling a shotgun. The six other crew members were asleep. A few hours later, a pickup pulled up, lit by the neon glow from the sign atop the Pink Pussycat topless lounge across the street. The would-be bandits slipped through the boat yard fence.
As the men were about to board, Philippe flashed a large spotlight. “I could see them, but they couldn’t see me,” he said.
A shootout erupted, but no one was hurt. The gunfire attracted police, who arrested four men on burglary charges. Several others escaped.
On another night in March, five armed men jumped into the river to escape but were caught.
Police have stepped up patrols to halt the plunderers. But the victims don’t always cooperate.
“They’re from a different country, where the police aren’t so friendly, and they don’t trust us,” said Hialeah Detective Sam Fadel. “And some of them are involved in illicit activity themselves.”
Like the corsairs of yore, the Haitian cargo boats may soon disappear anyway.
In an unrelated effort to clean up the river and improve its image, the Coast Guard plans to enforce tougher safety standards on small foreign-flagged boats starting this summer. Many of the aging freighters from Haiti won’t meet the standards.
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