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Sala Hama International Headquarters Come Visit us for LUNCH! In addition to our organic coffee, pizzas, empanadas, pastries and pies, we now prepare made to order sandwiches, salads, and even black bean gazpacho. 3601 S. Congress off E Alpine Penn Field under the water tower c’nc , our sda for mon!nli ca efulr it tried to guess how many kilos they’d caught. Six hundred? Seven hundred? There were blacktips, hammerheads and sandbar sharks, almost all of them cazones, or juveniles, about 2 feet long. The crew would be paid 25 cents for every pound of shark meat and $15 for every pound of fin. As he loaded the lancha, Hernandez was seeing dollar signs. Then he noticed the hull sinking, saw the boat start taking on water. It was too late to ditch fish or gear. Water was coming from all sides, pouring over the lancha’s rails. A few minutes later, the three fishermen were swimming, trying to grab anything that would keep them afloat. The boat carried no rafts, no signal flares, and only one life preserver. Hernandez drifted from the sinking lancha, staring up at the moon to gauge where land might be. He paddled slowly west until he saw what looked like a lifesaver ring. He reached for it, threw it over his head, and started his ii-hour swim. Lt. Mickey Lalor, the Coast Guard commander, got the call around noon, after Hernandez was found by a Border Patrol agent. “Capsized lancha. Six miles out.” Lalor was used to getting calls about Mexican lanchas. At least twice a week his men chase down illegal fishermen at 30 or 4o knots, often blasting the outboard motor with a shotgun or firing pepper balls at the motors of fleeing boats. Mexican shark fishermen catch more than 55,000 sharks in American waters annually, according to an estimate by NOAA. Keeping them south of the border has become the focus of the island’s station. Illegal shark fishing wasn’t always a problem on the TexasMexico border. Mexico’s first shark fisheries, founded in the 189os, were on the country’s Pacific coast. Even then, most of the catch was transported to Asia. But in the 19705, as demand for shark fins grew, Playa Bagdad’s fishery began to grow. Bagdad became one of the country’s most reliable sources of sharks. Lalor had coordinated more apprehensions than he could count. But this was the first time he had been called to save a lancha’s crew, the first time he’d be trying to do shark fishermen a favor. He sent three boatsthe same ones used for high-speed chasesto search for Hernandez’s friends. The Coast Guard’s plane and helicopter left Corpus Christi to scan the Gulf from above. The helicopter found the lancha first. It was overturned, surrounded by floating debris. La Cherna was holding onto the boat, waving with one hand at the pilot. The helicopter dropped a harness and lifted him out of the Gulf. Officers took him to the Coast Guard station, administered first aid, and asked about the third fisherman, El Pelon. “He told us the other survivor was within shouting distance of him:’ Lalor says. “So that really concentrated our efforts:’ In his office at the foot of South Padre Island’s 25-story highrises, Lalor looked at a map of the Gulf on the wall, calculating where the current might have taken the missing fisherman. Coast Guard officers swept the area for almost 36 hours. When the sun set on the second day, Lalor called off the search for El Pelon. The station went back to its normal routine, running morning patrol missions to the border. N of long after he swam ashore, the Border Patrol dropped Hernandez off at the Brownsville Matamoros international bridge. That’s always been the government’s policy: Confiscate the equipthe fishermen back across the border. For now, there’s no jail sentence and no fine for Mexican nationals who fish illegally in American waters. Still, the costs are high for fishermen like Hernandez. Not long after returning to Playa Bagdad, he heard news that the Coast Guard had called off the search for El Pelon. It was a Sunday. He walked to Playa Bagdad’s plywood church. Hernandez couldn’t will himself back into a boat, which left him unemployed and with plenty of time to pray. “I hope my friend is alive,” he recalls saying. “I hope he’s across the border, starting a new life for himself.” Inside the church, Pastor Rafael Garcia leaned on a row of teal-blue pews, preparing to lead the Sunday service. Garcia, who divides his time between preaching and shark fishing, had done this several times in the last yeardelivered a sermon while one of the community’s fishermen was lost at sea. “It’s a hard life we have here,” the pastor said. “So much tragedy.” Garcia mentioned El Pelon briefly and obliquely, asking his small congregation for prayers. Then he moved on to the scripture. Hernandez, who can’t read, opened his Bible and tried to follow along. Through the church’s open windows, he saw the Gulf ebb quietly. For weeks, Hernandez waited for news of El Pelon. Hearing nothing, he started to hope his friend had somehow survived. Then he got a call from someone down the beach. A body had washed ashore across the border. The authorities needed someone to see if it was El Pelon. When Hernandez met the group of uniformed men at the Matamoros international bridge, there was no body, only a photograph. The face in the photo was missing its eyeballs. It barely looked human. The torso was bloated and sunburnt. Hernandez recognized El Pelon’s torn clothing, including a piece of orange rain gear. 12 THE TEXAS OBSERVER AUGUST 21, 2009