Everything was running smoothly. The agents, local authorities and funeral parlour all boarded for respective formalities, and were eventually taken down to the galley, where the body had been lain.
I was at the office when my mobile rang. “Hey, Tanya?” said the agent, “I think you better get yourself over here to the ship.”
“Why, what’s happened?” I asked.
“Put it this way – our friend didn’t die of natural causes, mate. You should see the state of him. The police are on board, they’re arresting the ship.”
Over the next 3 days, which felt like years, we entered a surreal world of mystery and intrigue. The whole crew was arrested, except for the Captain and Officers, who were German. The vessel was sent out to anchor and the body taken ashore for a post-mortem, which revealed that he’d been severely and repeatedly beaten and raped (possibly by more than one person) and that he had died as a consequence. We immediately contacted an independent maritime solicitor from Mexico City to travel to Veracruz to try and release the vessel.
That evening (oh yes, what a fine Saturday evening it was!), starting at about midnight, the police decided to interview each and every crewmember, whose knowledge of English was, shall we say, rudimentary. There wasn’t anyone who spoke Philippino in Veracruz, and I had no option but to act as translator (English-Spanish). In view of the violent nature of the crime, the scene at the police station was grim to say the least and the questioning technique direct and shocking.
It came to light during these interviews that the cook had been quite flamboyant and had made no excuses for being extravagant in dress and manner. Having said that, he appeared to have been well-liked and respected by one and all, mostly, they said, because the food was good. And so the mystery deepened. There were only 17 people on board when he’d died, and one or more of those 17 people had killed him.
I remember entering his cabin, and noting with surprise that it was filled with soft-feathered and brightly coloured scarves, make-up and nail polish, multi-coloured clothes. Everything was tidy and in place. The bathroom, where he was apparently found, was spotless and had evidently been thoroughly cleaned and disinfected.
In the meantime, the Members had dispatched a new skeleton crew to join the vessel, in the hopes that it would be released. An investigator was sent by the Club to look into the matter further and help resolve the situation. Authorities in Veracruz didn’t know what to do with the 12 murder suspects they’d arrested, but wouldn’t release them either.
In the end, we consulted a second independent maritime solicitor who, after listening to the facts, suggested we inform Mexican authorities that given that the event had taken place in international waters, it wasn’t within Mexico’s jurisdiction to solve it, and that the crewmembers and the vessel should be released and the investigation taken up by the correct authority. Within 24 hours the vessel was released and over the next few days, the crew.
It’s easy now, in retrospect, to sit and write about this case, but during that time, during those days when everything was chaos because we had a vessel that couldn’t continue on its way due to a murder having been committed on board, events merged into one another, there was no sleep to be had by anyone, and the atmosphere could be cut with a knife. It is impossible to be dealing with people – some of who were visibly terrified at being locked up in a Mexican detention centre without understanding the language – and feel detached.
As a side note, Mexican authorities never questioned the Captain or Officers but concentrated solely on the crew. We never discovered the author(s) of the crime, but were able to deduct from statements and circumstances that the original intent might not necessarily have been to kill him.
This was one of the most challenging cases I ever attended at Veracruz, and it has contributed an incredible array of material to my life. I’ve used it to teach language, in social occasions it never fails to liven up a conversation, and at work, it’s helped me put things into perspective, take a step back and understand the responsibility that comes with such a fascinating job.