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Latin America Blog

Castaway back in El Salvador in an emotional homecoming (+video)

After 13 months adrift at sea, and a flight across the Pacific, José Salvador Alvarenga returns to his native El Salvador — and is too overcome for words.

By Staff writer / February 12, 2014

José Salvador Alvarenga holds a microphone intending to speak, after arriving at the airport in San Salvador, El Salvador, today.

El Salvador's Foreign Ministry/AP

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After over a year adrift at sea, castaway José Salvador Alvarenga returned home to El Salvador this week.

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Latin America Editor

Whitney Eulich is the Monitor's Latin America editor, overseeing regional coverage for CSMonitor.com and the weekly magazine. She also curates the Latin America Monitor Blog.

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Jose Salvador Alvarenga, the castaway who says he spent 13 months adrift in the Pacific ocean, arrives home in El Salvador.

The man who says he drifted some 6,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean landed last night at an airport outside San Salvador, where he was brought off the plane in a wheel chair and met by family, reporters, and fanfare. Weak, and seemingly overwhelmed, Mr. Alvarenga grasped a microphone but was unable to speak, putting his hands over his face.

“I’m so happy to know he’s alive, that he returned. I want to give him a hug,” Emma Alvarenga, an aunt, told the National Post.

Alvarenga washed ashore on an atoll in the Marhsall Islands late last month, and his story of survival has raised eyebrows. He said he survived on raw fish, turtles, and sometimes his own urine for 13 months. So far, some details of his story have been corroborated by reports from Mexican civil defense officials, who described a fishing boat having gone missing around the same time Alvarenga said he left from a coastal village in southern Chiapas. Though Salvadoran, Alvarenga had been living in Mexico as a fisherman for years.

Alvarenga and a companion, Ezequiel Cordoba, set out fishing and were swept away by bad weather, he said. The engines on their boat died and the radio broke. 

Despite the attention this story has garnered internationally, it’s not the first time a Mexican fishing boat has gone missing for months – and delivered an incredible tale of survival.

In 2005, five men on a shark-fishing expedition went missing at sea for nine months. The three survivors were picked up by a Taiwanese tuna trawler that had set out from the Marshall Islands two weeks prior.

“When the panga [small fishing boat] and the trawler converged, they were six hundred miles from Majuro [the capital of the Marshall Islands], twenty-seven hundred miles northeast of Australia, and five thousand miles from San Blas, [Mexico],” Mark Singer reported in the New Yorker.

The men left the fishing town of San Blas in southern Mexico on Oct. 28, 2005. Unexpectedly strong winds and high waves threw a wrench into their plans to catch sharks, and sent them instead searching for an expensive bait-line that had detached from the boat. The men ran out of fuel during their search, and what was supposed to be an overnight fishing trip turned into nine months. The men had no radio, cell phone, map, or GPS.

Similar to Alvarenga, the men survived on birds, fish, and sea turtles. Mr. Singer writes:

When they had consumed no food, only water, for thirteen days, a sea turtle weighing about thirty pounds showed up, swimming just off the bow. [One of the fishermen] Salvador [Ordóñez] jumped on its back and gripped its shell, which he’d learned to do in Oaxaca in his teens. The turtle suddenly dove deep, and he went along for the ride, wrestling until he had turned it toward the surface. Lucio and Jesús [two other castaways] helped him hoist the turtle into the panga. They severed a flipper; Salvador sucked its blood and passed it around. Lucio took the knife, cut off the head, and drained a dense stream of blood into a bucket for drinking. After he had removed the meat from the shell, Jesús rinsed it, and Salvador filleted it.

Lucio: “I remember we said, ‘How are we going to eat that meat?’ It’s not like a normal meal. All you can see is the meat. Pure red. I was thinking, How is it possible that I’m going to eat that? In November, we ate only two times. I’d never been hungry like that, with a desperateness that can’t be expressed. I don’t know how to explain that this is something that one feels. It’s desperateness, hunger, thirst, cold.”

When the men eventually returned to Mexico, they didn’t necessarily receive a heroes’ welcome. McClatchy reports that upon their return, "some Mexicans voiced suspicions that the fishermen were drug traffickers and had disappeared for months to avoid criminal charges.”

The accusations didn’t quiet down until the Roman Catholic Episcopal Council of bishops dubbed the survivors “examples of faith.”

There were few public accusations that Alvarenga and his fishing companion were mixed up in drug trafficking, and there was no trace of drugs in the boat, reports The Telegraph.

However, as Erik Vance wrote in Slate in December, it is quite common for fishermen to get looped into drug trafficking.

“In this area [Sonora, Mexico], it’s not blood in, blood out. Cartels have porous edges, where people drop in when they need the money and get out as fast as possible. And we are not talking about characters from Breaking Bad here – these are poor fishermen with no other choice. And mostly they hate it,” wrote Mr. Vance, a science journalist who went to Sonora to research the demise of a number of important ocean creatures.

I was in a relatively quiet part of Mexico in terms of violence but one that is nonetheless a crucial stopover for drugs going north. To states like California, where I’m from. My reporting partner—a photographer named Dominic Bracco who’s spent his share of time amid drug violence—and I always thought it was funny that people in the area seemed incredulous that we were actually reporting about fish. Oh right, sure, “fish.” We have a lot of “fish” here....

Fishermen are great mules because they know the waters and they don’t draw attention. And if you have to chuck your haul overboard to avoid the military, other fishermen can dive to retrieve it.

Alvarenga is expected to arrive in his hometown after he gets an OK from his doctors. In the fishing village of Garita Palmera, 60 miles west of the capital San Salvador, his parents and daughter – whom he hasn’t seen for 13 years – are anticipating his arrival.

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