Running with Salts: A Tale of Human Trafficking in the Caribbean

by Owen James Burke

owens illustration

Illustration by Andrew Bobrek

Salts worked for the energy company in the Virgin Islands, received his pension, and got out. He would have had enough to finance the rest of his days, had he not fathered eight children by five different women. In his retirement, he took it upon himself to enter an entirely different occupation. In the black of night with no lights, he would make a 90-mile run to Saint Martin and back within a night, carrying various arrays of commodities and plunder.

Salts drew my attention. Much more so, generally, than the rest of the lot on that desolate island. The premise of our first meeting, I’ll never forget.

A good source of protein was scarce in the markets on the island unless you were willing to settle for Tyson’s frozen chicken or pay top dollar for fresh fish at the docks, and neither appealed to me. An acquaintance had sent me down a rough road of coral and shell to a lagoon with a reef protruding along its outer edge, where I was to look for whelk in the surf. He waited atop the cliff, for having grown up on an island, he feared the water more than anything. I stepped off the road which, little did I know, was private and onto a beach which, also unbeknownst to me, happened to be private as well. I started on my way toward the reef and came upon a boat locker. Thinking nothing of it, I continued on past it.

“Hey!” came a man’s voice come from over my shoulder. It was the first sound I’d heard in a while other than the waves pummeling the reef, and I was shaken.

My reaction brought my glance to my right, where, much to my surprise, was a man on a bed with a machete inside the boat locker to which I had daftly payed no mind. I didn’t imagine that locker could have contained much more than a few fishing rods and some oars, let alone a bed, or a man and his machete. (That boat locker would later become my bedroom for a time.) I stared back with nothing to say.

“What you doing on my beach?”

“Your beach? I didn’t see that it was private. I’m sorry, I was just told by a friend that I could find some whelks out at the point and—“

“Well why you walk right by me?” he enquired.

“I didn’t see you,” I timidly replied, unable to distract my gaze from his machete.

He didn’t really seem to mind, and appeared to be more curious than anything. He calmly invited me to continue on my way.

“Thank you,” I smiled. He grinned.

I’m sure he was expecting me, barefoot, foreign and white as the bleached coral on his beach, to come back hours later red-necked and donning sea urchin spines and pulverized lumps for feet, or maybe he figured just the same that I’d not return at all.

I came back about an hour later with enough whelk and conch to put both of our stomachs at ease for the rest of the evening.

“Not bad. Let’s eat.” He seemed impressed, or lightly tickled at least.

I was supposed to bring food back to the “friend” that had so carelessly flung me into what might have been a very serious altercation (or disfiguration) with a machete, who was likely sitting back in his car, stoned and asleep. Then on second thought, he nearly had me done in, and here’s a guy pouring me rum as he lights a fire to cook me dinner on his beach. I settled in with the idea that I might be better off with my new companion, sunk deeper into my chair and drew a sip from my glass of Cruzan as the sunlight dimmed.

He picked some fruit, gathered some coconuts, and we burned on into the night with sliced conch salad, curried whelks and rice, and more rum.

It wasn’t until a few visits later that we got to know one another, apart from our love of the sea, its offerings, and a good aged rum. Salts isn’t an old guy, which is why it made such little sense to me that he would spend his days puttering around, landscaping his property, building his dock, or repairing his boats. He was only 41 years old, but he found government work right out of high school and did not stop until he received a pension.

The pension that the government provided for Salts, although comfortable, could not support his lifestyle. Had he been without multiple women and children to support, he might have been just fine, but Salts was proud when he told me that he had eight children, and that, although none of whom lived with him, he was on good terms with all of them and their mothers (more or less). They were all set up with health care, but he could not provide enough to send them all off to college, and continuing to work for the government was not in his interest.

Salts took contracting jobs and the odd construction gig with other employers, but the work was rough, dangerous, and the payout wasn’t worth the trouble in his eyes. If he were going to go through such trouble, it should pay. The Caribbean is full of opportunities for anyone prepared to go out in a blaze or spend the rest of their lives in prison.

One night, Salts asked me to go out for a boat ride with him. He came up to the beach with a massive wooden skiff — an arc, you might call it. We loaded the boat with several 5-gallon canisters of gasoline.

We shoved off the beach and I sat on the forward thwart in the bow listening to the fuel canisters slide back and forth across the deck as the island we’d left grew smaller and we prowled into the cool, gray night. There was no moon, and there were no stars. I watched the warm lights of the bars and houses in the hills shrink and fade. I never thought to ask where we were going, but I had no reservations, and I guess I must have just assumed that we were going to fish or dive for lobster like we had any other night.

I don’t remember speaking for some time, but occasionally I’d turn back and catch his oversized diamond earring glimmering against what little light the moonless, starless  cover allowed, and he would eye me from time to time. Maybe he was wondering whether he hadn’t made a mistake in bringing me along.

I finally asked him where we were going, and then immediately wished I hadn’t; he revealed that we’d be navigating nearly 100 miles to Saint Martin, all on a foggy night with no lights. There were two very large outboard engines on the transom, painted it gray, and he’d removed the lighting. It was nearly coastguard-proof: almost too small for the radars, and much too dark to see at night. Visibility was low, which promised us a better chance at going unseen, but I could find no means by which to set myself at ease, and I still hadn’t a clue what our cargo would be.

Saint Martin is east-southeast of the Virgin Islands, sandwiched directly between Anguilla and Saint Barthelemy, and all three of which are well-lit enough to distinguish themselves formidably in the night. Still, I pictured us overshooting our mark, lost in the middle of the Atlantic with nothing but a couple of fishing lines and a half-drunk bottle of rum.

A few hours later, the lights on Saint Martin peered out over the horizon, and shortly thereafter we were lifting the engines up and the hull was scraping the sand. Two men were waiting in a row of sea grape trees just at the edge of the beach.

First, two pallets were loaded, which went to the stern and remained covered with tarpaulins. Then eight people peered through the shadows of the trees who, wide-eyed and trembling, quietly and orderly filed over the rails and into the bow, where they would hide until we were out of sight of land. No sooner than we had pulled in, were we turned back around. The two men shoved us off the hard and vanished into the brush.

Our ‘cargo’ was mostly men, but there were a couple of women. I’m sure the presence of a caucasian male on this trip perplexed, intrigued or frightened them to some degree. When we found ourselves in open water again, I decided that everybody’s guards had come down, and resolved to engage in what I thought would be small talk, relative to the circumstances.

“Why are you going to the States?” I asked with ignorance and callousness.

“I don’t speak English,” a man responded from the deck.

I caught on, and in my atrociously broken French, asked them where they were going.

“America,” they said.

That’s a pretty big place, I thought, but saw no sense in sarcasm.

They were from Dominica, an island farther south, down in the Lesser Antilles. I asked them why they were leaving and told them that I’d heard it was beautiful in Dominica.

Mais pas de tout,’ they said. Things were bad, they explained, and they had nothing. Hurricanes had destroyed their crops, tourism was on the decline, and the state of the economy — not that it was ever necessarily stable or supportive of its people — was inducing exodus.

“What are you going to do in America?” I asked.

“We don’t know, but it has to be better than it is back there,” a woman said looking back at me and pointing south, cracking a smile wrought with fear.

I decided I would take what good sense I had remaining to understand that — for the lot of us — this moment was full of uncertainty, and more questions would only bring about more terror. It would be better not to talk anymore, so for the rest of the crossing I kept a quiet lookout from the bow. They stayed seated on the thwarts, bundled in clothing. It was wintertime, and it wasn’t particularly warm that night.

We arrived home at three or four o’clock in the morning where a garbage truck — about ready to make its “normal rounds” — was waiting with its lift gate open. In went the cargo — from Saint Martin, Dominica, and in some cases beyond — and the truck was off in a matter of several minutes. Just before the island awoke, they would be released into the town square and the truck would drive off to report for duty. They were now in United States territory and were therefore required to receive some sort of amnesty, it was explained to me. I wished them the best, and I was hopeful for them.

The pallets stayed on the beach with us. I helped Salts drag them across the sand into a corner in the brush before asking him what they contained.

“Just a lil’ weed and a coup’la guns mon.”

I could only assume where they were going, and asked no more. It was widely known that guns were readily available within the islands, and that just about any twelve-year-old on the street in the islands could be presumed to be carrying one.

Our hearts were running to an extent at which no alcohol could relieve them. Salts and I lay on the beach as the sky absorbed the light of the upcoming sun. I felt the erratic pulse of his chest through the sand as it slowly resolved to a slow and heavy rhythmic pounding. I suppose that no matter how many times he did this, he’d never run out of nerves; and I guess, in that much, I found my own comfort in knowing that boredom ultimately only comes to those who are willing to give it the chance.

I haven’t heard from Salts in a while, and time and again I wonder about him, and where he might be. It’s hard not to assume the worst for my roguish friend, but I like to picture him on that same beach, a cooler full of fish and a glass of rum in hand.

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