Four fishermen say the Coast Guard trapped them at sea for a month. They are from Jamaica but were fishing near the Haitian coast when they say American forces destroyed their vessel and trapped them on an uncovered boat deck for a month. Their wounds festered. Their teeth rotted. Their skin blistered in the sun. They begged to contact their loved ones and tell them they were OK. They sailed straight through Hurricane Maria. Some say they contemplated jumping overboard and killing themselves.
The Coast Guard had initially suspected them of trafficking marijuana. But after finding nothing aboard their vessel, the Americans dumped the four Jamaican nationals in Miami, thousands of miles from home, and charged them with what the men say was a bogus crime. And now, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, the men are suing the U.S. government for egregious human-rights violations, including false imprisonment, negligence, assault, and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment in violation of international law.
"It feels like sometime I will jump overboard too," one of the men, Patrick W. Ferguson, says in a video produced by the ACLU. "Enough time I think about jumping over sea and just forget about life. But sometime I think back on my kids and I just try to stay strong — to see them again, you know."
We filed a lawsuit yesterday to get justice for Jamaican men who were kidnapped and abused by the U.S. Coast Guard for over a month.— ACLU (@ACLU) June 13, 2019
The men still suffer from physical and psychological trauma as a result of their treatment. pic.twitter.com/6EyAtCO3ME
The federal suit, first reported yesterday by the Atlantic, alleges the Coast Guard regularly does this to ships traveling international waters, and says the agency often files bogus charges against sailors or fishermen to cover its tracks. U.S. agents "have a policy or regular practice of interdicting small vessels in international waters, searching those vessels and their crew members for drugs, and destroying those vessels and detaining their crew members on U.S. Coast Guard ships under inhumane conditions and incommunicado for prolonged periods of time beyond the time reasonably necessary to bring them before a court, regardless of whether any drugs are found aboard," the suit states.
The Coast Guard told the Atlantic it could not comment on the pending litigation but said it upholds U.S. and international laws. Agency spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Scott McBride "also said that the agency’s officers saw the men get rid of numerous packages of marijuana and that the officers later recovered some 600 pounds of the drug."
The average American likely isn't aware that the Coast Guard operates quite far from the U.S. shore nowadays. The military branch's mission has greatly expanded thanks to the War on Drugs — Coast Guard agents now fly and sail all over the Caribbean and portions of the Southern Hemisphere, ostensibly hunting for drugs that might one day cross American borders. The incidents raise huge questions about the level of unchecked power the American military holds over the Western Hemisphere. For example, Coast Guard agents in February burned 460,000 pounds of marijuana on a farm on Andros Island in the Bahamas — a foreign nation about 154 miles from Miami.
But the new ACLU suit alleges far more egregious conduct on the government's behalf. The four men — Robert Dexter Weir, Luther Fian Patterson, David Roderick Williams, and Ferguson — say they set sail September 13, 2017, from the fishing village Half Moon Bay, near Falmouth, Jamaica. They left in a 32-foot, wood-and-fiberglass, two-engine inshore fishing boat, the Josette. They were headed for an offshore group of islands in Jamaican waters. One man carried a bucket of clothes for his daughter and a pet fighting rooster. Their families expected them home the next day.
But they never returned. Instead, a storm knocked out the ship's main engine. When the men awoke, they realized they'd overshot their target and were drifting in international waters near Haiti. Before they could figure out what to do next, a Coast Guard cutter — the Confidence — showed up around noon. U.S. agents accused the men of trafficking drugs.
Coast Guard agents allegedly boarded the boat at gunpoint and spent hours searching the vessel and its crew for marijuana. They found none. The men, stating they'd done nothing wrong, refused to exit the boat. But Coast Guard agents allegedly pointed firearms at the fishermen and ordered them off the vessel. One American agent found the rooster and killed it.
The men were then shuttled onto the Confidence. They say they were stripped nude and forced to wear paper-thin white coveralls and disposable slippers. They were chained by their ankles to metal cables running the length and breadth of the ship's deck. Approximately 30 other men were chained in similar conditions on the ship, some from Panama and Honduras, the suit alleges.
As darkness fell, the men stared at their ship bobbing in the water near the Coast Guard cutter. A U.S. agent then allegedly fired a flare at the Josette. The boat burst into flames. As the fire grew, other agents allegedly shot holes in the boat's hull. The vessel sank as the fishermen watched from the deck.
"Shortly thereafter, the Confidence set sail in an eastward direction," the suit states. "Although the men did not know it then, this would be the beginning of more than a month of inhumane and incommunicado detention for them, chained to the decks of four different Coast Guard ships."
The ship sailed for a few days until reaching the American military base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. While at sea, the men say, they were given no way to wash themselves and were forced to stand or sit in a single location while shackled. They had to relieve themselves in buckets or over the side of the ship. Only a thin tarp protected them from the weather. They slept on thin sheets that barely softened the ship's deck. When the ship landed in Cuba September 18, most of the men onboard were flown directly to Miami, but the crew members of the Josette instead say they were transferred to a second ship, where they were held in inhumane conditions for additional weeks.
While sailing on the second vessel, the Category 5 Hurricane Maria hit. But the ship never stopped, and the men say they were kept on the top deck during the entire storm.
"As the wind howled, the ship violently pitched, rolled, and swayed, and waves repeatedly crashed over the deck; the men were consumed with terror," the suit alleges. "Chained to the ship’s deck and unable to protect themselves from the storm's ferocity, for hours the men feared that they would be severely injured during the storm or that the cables would break and that they would be washed overboard to their deaths."
The men — injured, cut by their shackles, dehydrated, and begging to call their loved ones — say they were eventually transferred to a third ship in October 2017. They bounced between the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico before eventually winding up in Miami. They'd been imprisoned for 32 days.
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This is part of a well-documented practice by the Coast Guard in carrying out “the War on Drugs.” Since then, thousands of men have been taken from their boats and held for weeks or months. For many, like our clients, no drugs were ever found.https://t.co/N9wwowDaUz— ACLU (@ACLU) June 12, 2019
The men ultimately were charged with lying to Coast Guard officers — not for anything related to drugs. The crew of the Josette claims the charges were simply filed to cover for the Coast Guard's actions. They say they each pleaded guilty to ensure they could return home to Jamaica as quickly as possible. They were sentenced to ten months' imprisonment and held for an additional two months in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention before finally being deported home to Jamaica August 30, 2018.
The men now say they suffer from flashbacks, anxiety, and other posttraumatic stress symptoms from their alleged abduction. Some are afraid to fish again, and others refuse to venture back out onto international waters for fear of being kidnapped once more. Some men lost fishing gear and can't work anymore. Another man's girlfriend left him.
"There is no human rights out there," Patterson says in the ACLU's video clip. "They treat you like animals. And I want the world to see what's really going on."