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On clear days, you can see dozens of ships
from Chiles artisanal eet shing the cool
waters of the countrys southern coast, their
nets extended across rings of yellow buoys. It
can take a half-dozen nets full of sh to top up
the ships fty-ton holds. For the men of the
shipswho work whenever there is light and
wherever they nd shthis means days of
hauling line, stacking and repairing nets, and
siphoning sh into the hold.
But the gatos can simply steal it.
The Jesse James of southern Chile, the
gatocat if your sixth-grade Spanish is
rustydeveloped alongside Chiles shing
industry. From poor sherman to professional
criminal, gatos became a scourge of commercial
shing companies, which have dominated
the business over the last three decades.
They became capable of seizing ships on the
high seas and stealing tons of shmostly
the metallic-blue jack mackerel or the toothy
hakefrom industrial trawlers before spir-
iting their loaded skiffs back to shing towns
and villages along the coast.
They ask the industrial crews to gift them
some sh, explained Marta Espinoza, director
of a shermens guild in Coronel, when I
visited the southern city last June. Regardless,
she said, the sh belong to us.
Before gatos began stealing sh during the
industrys peak in the 1980s, a few shermen
started taking boats out from small artisanal
ports to the commercial boats to beg for sh.
The shermen and industrial crews often came
from the same village or had worked aboard
the same boat at some point in their lives,
according to Espinoza. Taking pityor a cut
of the protsthe crew would pass on a small
load of sh to the expectant shermen, who
would then sell it back on land.
Back then, there was no ofcial difference
between artisanal and industrial shermen,
but most of the small-scale shing was done
by hand, while larger companies could afford
to invest in advanced technology like deep-sea
trawling. The adoption of the General Law
of Fisheries and Aquaculture in 1989 drew
a clear legal line between the two sectors.
Among other restrictions, the Pinochet-era
law carved up access rights to the oceans,
allotting the rst ve miles off shore for arti-
sanal shing vesselsboats under sixty feet
and leaving the rest of the countrys 200-mile
exclusive economic zone open for commercial
Ships began scooping out the oceans at
a rising clip. Expanding eets and the lure
of new markets drove the development of
new sheries. The rst shery for Patagonian
toothshknown in the United States as
Chilean sea bassopened in 1992, followed
by orange roughy in 1997. The industry
also began focusing on shmeal and sh oil
production, following a trend that began in
the 1980s. Both products require massive
amounts of biomass, and landing rates
for anchovy, sardine, and jack mackerel
The gatos smelled an opportunity. What
was at rst asking turned into an obligation,
explains Captain Manuel Cofr, the Chilean
Navys maritime director in Talcahuano, a vital
shing and shipping hub forty minutes north
of Coronel. And not only a few shesnow
the small boats were full of sh. A period of
high-seas heists and near impunity followed.
Instead of the crude wooden boats from a
decade before, the gatos were now equipped
with berglass hulls and four-stroke outboard
Chileans will tell you that if you look at the
leading industrialists across various economic
sectors, youll see the same seven family
The Ballad of Chiles Last Outlaw Fishermen
S U M M E R 2 0 1 4 DI SSENT 81
names over and over. This tight grip by such
a small group has stoked popular resentment
and recently led to several investigations.
In 2012 the Economist reported on a scandal
in the pharmaceutical industry where three
major drugstore chainswhich own, between
them, 90 percent of market sharetogether
raised prices on hundreds of products. At the
time, regulators were also investigating three
poultry breeders that provide 93 percent of the
countrys chicken for colluding with one other.
The shing industry is little different.
Chiles Center for Investigative Journalism
and Information reported in 2012 that
nine rmsmost headed by elite Chilean
familiescontrolled 90 percent of the quota
for anchovy, sardine, and jack mackerel
catches. This concentration was formalized
with the Maximum Capture Limit per
Shipowner law passed in 2001. Intended to
establish ecologically sustainable quotas for
Chiles sheries, the law granted shing rights
for commercially vital species based on past
use. Since the largest companies had been
running roughshod over the stocks over the
last decade, they wound up with the largest
shares. Smaller eets began decommissioning
their boats or selling to the larger shing
Excitement during boom times tends to
smother talk of inequality. But the Chilean sea
bass and orange roughy sheries neared the
brink of collapse in the early 2000s. Beginning
in the late 1990s, sardine entered a prolonged
crisis. It recovered around 2008, but catches
plummeted again in 2013, along with
anchovy. In the case of mackerel, their size and
number in Chiles waters also shrank over the
last few years. Years with lean catches pushed
communities to their breaking points. Crew
members aboard the boats used to receive
about a thousand dollars or more per month,
up to maybe two thousand dollars in a good
year, saids Renato Quiones, a researcher at
the University of Concepcin, and now are
receiving a few hundred dollars.
Driven by resentment over industrial
concentration and shrinking sh stocks, the
gatos popularity grew, even as they became
increasingly aggressive. Now they boarded
boats ready to take the sh by force, slyly
Driven by resentment over industrial
concentration and shrinking sh stocks,
the gatos popularity grew, even as they
became increasingly aggressive.
Fishing boats off the coast of Caldera, Chile. Photo: Alex Fuentes/Flickr.
82 DI SSENT S U M M E R 2 0 1 4
evading the Navy on the way back to port.
Captain Cofr stated that some shermen
started becoming violent toward captains and
crews who refused to part with their sh. In
2005 the Plikan, an industrial ship owned
by the commercial shing company El Golfo,
was set upon by seven gatos en route to San
Vicente Bay. According to court testimony, the
gatos carried bladed weapons and managed to
scare the crew into hiding. The gatos loaded
two tons of mackerel into crates before being
beaten back by crewmembers spraying re
Like the majority of Chiles industrial
seafood products, sh is prohibitively
expensive in Chile itself, even in shing
communities. The countrys sardine, anchovy,
and mackerel are driven back into aquaculture
by being processed into shmeal and shipped
out of the countryChina bought 53 percent
of Chiles shmeal exports in 2013or sent
to the south of Chile to feed the billion-dollar
commercial salmon industry. The majority of
Chiles marine patrimony ends up on plates in
the top importing nations of China, Japan, the
United States, and Spain, whose consumers
can afford to pay higher prices than Chileans.
That means theres always demand for the
gatos, who short the circuit from industry to
market, undercutting supermarket prices by
up to two-thirds.
Eventually, the constant harassment of
ships and crews by the gatos caught the
attention of federal authorities. An investi-
gation into one band of gatos beginning in
2001 brought together judges, the Maritime
Authority, the police, and even Chiles
Internal Revenue Service. Over twenty people
were sentenced to criminal conspiracy, and six
launches were impounded along with engines
and equipment. The gatos responsible for the
attack on the Plikan would be incarcerated in
2006 on charges of piracy, a crime hardly ever
prosecuted in the postcolonial era.
Though it broke up the biggest orga-
nized gato rings in the south, the Chilean
government did not completely eradicate
the sh-stealing outlaws. Gatos continued to
thrive off of the catch of large commercial sh-
eries, lying in wait for trucks of sh to leave
processing plants. These land gatos attempt to
climb aboard trucks and open the back of their
containers, spilling the contents into the road
where they can be retrieved. In 2007 a band of
gatos hijacked a container truck and dumped
twenty tons of mackerel, which neighbors and
other gatos whisked away in trucks and carts
within an hour. In 2011 a group of masked
men stole two tons of salmon from a ware-
house farther south in Puerto Montt. Most of
the sh was found a month later, rotten from
improper storage, in a house in the city.
It is nave to blame industrial shing
companies alone for failing stocks.
Overshing tends to happen more in the
artisanal sector, where there are thousands
more boats and oversight is lax. And extreme
weather conditions such as the El Nio
warming phenomenon also place stress on
But Chiles shermen bristle at the close
relationship between industrial interests and
the government. After the renewal of the
General Law of Fisheries and Aquaculture
in 2012, Marta Isasi, a member of congress,
was accused by her former adviser Giorgio
Carrillo of receiving a payment of 25 million
pesosabout $45,000from Corpesca, a sh
mealprocessing company controlled by the
Angelini Group.
Anger over the law reached a new high.
In July of that year, men set a boat alight in
the port of Coronel in protest. Fishermen
marched from the south up to the capital,
Santiago, and occupied ports up and down
the coastline, calling the law illegitimate.
The director of Corpesca, Francisco Mujica,
resigned in the wake of the scandal and Isasi
lost her reelection bid later that year. But the
law stayed in place, and the enemies of the
artisanal shing communities lived on.
The late historian Eric Hobsbawm
described social bandits as peasant outlaws
whom the lord and state regard as criminals,
but who remain within peasant society, and
are considered by their people as heroes,
as champions, avengers, ghters for justice,
perhaps, even leaders of liberation, and in
any case as men to be admired, helped and
supported. Artisanal shermen like the ones
in Coronel claim gatos as their folk heroes.
When I was there last summer, people from
S U M M E R 2 0 1 4 DI SSENT 83
the community hinted at their excitement
about the shermen who got one over on the
When Espinoza told me that people
around her parts dont do much sh thieving
anymore, she showed only the hint of a
smile. Her brother Claudio Bello, a sherman
from Caleta Lo Rojas, told me a friend of the
family who is often at Espinozas home is a
gato. While Bello did not admit to being a gato
himself, he talks up the gato constantly. On the
deck of the Veronica Alejandra, a fty-six-foot
steel ship owned by his mother, Bello chat-
tered constantly with the crew as they hauled
net. Eh, gato! he shouted to a crewmember
hooking an escaping sierra. Look out, gato!
he called as the captain grabbed a handful of
anchovy for a ceviche.
Onboard the Veronica one night, after the
ceviche and coffee were nished and the rest
of the crew was smoking on deck or already
in bed, Bello and I watched television in the
galley. I think you should call it Fishing at
the End of the World, he said, proposing a
title for my story.
I was thinking of calling it Who Owns the
Oceans? I replied.
He leaned back on the bench behind the
galley table. A poster above him showed
Jesus walking up to Peter and Andrew on the
shore, telling them hell make them shers of
men. In the Gospel of Matthew, the disciples
immediately set aside their nets and followed.
But on the wall, they were frozen in the
moment of indecisiveness, clasping handfuls
of mackerel, unwilling to let go.
Bello mulled over the title for a moment,
then answered quietly: We do.
Peter DAmato writes about the environment, politics, and
human rights in the Americas.