CORINTO – Aaron Medina was 12 years old when he tossed his first bomb.
Now 22, Medina, the only of three siblings who didn’t emigrate to find work abroad, lives a life like someone in a warzone: He’s watched as his friends have had their arms blown off by bombs; he did business with a bomb maker who inadvertently blew-up his house; and he’s looked the other way when bomb smugglers bribed local cops.
But Medina is not at war; he’s a fisherman caught up in Nicaragua’s indiscriminately destructive and fast-growing artisan industry: blast fishing.
An illegal and lucrative practice whereby fishermen throw small homemade bombs into the sea to kill entire schools of fish with a bang, blast fishing also indiscriminately wipes out everything else within the blast zone.
“We’re deteriorating the fauna. But there’s no work in this country. There’s no other way to bring money home,” Medina said, standing on the rocky shores of Corinto on a recent overcast morning.
“Many people label us as terrorists, but we’re not. It’s the only way to survive in fishing today.”
In the central Pacific town of Corinto, home to Nicaragua’s largest port, grinding poverty is rife and most men make a living by going out to sea to fish.
But over the past decade, the blast-fishing industry here has boomed in a context of rampant poverty, increased availability of homemade bombs and lax law enforcement.
Authorities estimate fishermen here drop some 40,000 homemade bombs into the sea every week, but Medina suggests the environmentally destructive practice is even more prevalent than authorities suspect.
He claims virtually all fishermen in the area have traded in their traditional nets, lines and hooks for bombs.
And now the handful of bomb-makers who quietly create the explosives in their homes are making them bigger and stronger than ever before.
Police recently caught two fishermen with 10-pound bombs – exponentially more destructive and risky than the sardine-cansized bombs normally used.
And Medina says even larger 15-pound bombs are also now on the market. The bombs have become so ubiquitous here that just about anyone can get their hands on one for 50 cordobas ($2.50), fishermen say.
Authorities claim the practice is a threat not only to the Pacific Ocean’s ecology and the sustainability of the fishing industry, but also to public safety as new concerns are raised that the lethal weapons could end up in the wrong hands.
“They’ll sell those bombs to anyone, that’s why police are paying more attention,” Medina says.
Fishermen here say local residents have used the bombs to threaten foes in street fights, in some cases in the vicinity of gas stations, though police say no such incidents have been reported.
Still, Corinto Police Investigator Lester Gomez says the fear exists that the bombs could be used for purposes other than fishing.
“That’s why we’re constantly working on intelligence,” Gomez says.
Often working undercover, local cops have seized some 1,000 bombs in the last three years, including a raid last year that netted 650 bombs at a small clandestine factory.
Nicaragua’s Navy has been attacking the practice out at sea during dangerous nighttime patrols in which naval ships stealthily traverse Pacific waters with their lights off, hoping to catch blast fishermen red-handed. This year, naval patrols have caught five boats blast fishing, and have seized about 400 bombs total, according to authorities.
Navy Captain Francisco Gutierrez, however, says that’s just a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of bombs that have been used this year.
Blast fishing is considered an environmental crime under Nicaraguan law, punishable by up to four years in prison. Prosecutors can increase jail time by tacking on illegal weapons possession charges as well. But pinning down cases is tough when evidence is so easily destroyed out at sea, says Gutierrez.
“It’s almost impossible to arrest them. When they see us coming, they just sink the bombs in the sea with rocks,” thus destroying evidence, Gutierrez says.
Adding to the problem, according to Medina, is widespread corruption among local cops, who he says he has seen take bribes from fishermen with bombs.
Police investigator Gomez admits corruption has been a problem, though he says he hasn’t come across any cases recently.
Origins of the Bomb
There are several competing theories as to how bombs for blast fishing first arrived in Corinto.
Medina says former guerrillas who learned how to make bombs during the 1980s Contra war began looking for ways to apply their skill after the war ended, so they started making bombs for fishing. But Gutierrez says guerrillas mostly used contact bombs that exploded on impact, not the kind of bombs with wicks that fishermen drop into the sea today.
Another theory is that the bombs were first made in nearby León – where there are several firework manufacturers – and then brought to the Pacific, according to Gomez.
He says the blast-fishing bombs are basically the same type of explosives used in fireworks during Nicaraguan festivities, only with special mining wicks that are readily available in the area due to Chinandega’s mining industry. Gomez also suspects fishermen from El Salvador, where blast fishing is also a common practice, might have first introduced the idea to Nicaragua.
The Bomb-Dealing Fisherman
Like a drug dealer advertising his goods, Medina rubbernecks to make sure no cops are around before pulling out a small bomb that was hidden in his pocket. It’s an old sardine can wrapped in a cement bag and stuffed with an explosive concoction of gun powder, sugar and sulphur, with a waterproof wick. This is his livelihood.
He only blast-fishes in the dark of night on 12-hour overnight trips, he says. Once out at sea, fishermen stick a light into the water to attract schools of fish – usually sardines. When the fish approach, fishermen light the water-resistant wick and sink the bomb into the sea anchored by a rock.
The explosion, which kills everything within a 10-foot radius, usually sends a few dozen sardines into the boat – which they’ll use later as bait for larger fish like snapper. Fishermen jump in with snorkel masks to net remaining dead fish.
Now bigger explosives are causing an even greater radius of destruction. Fishermen using larger 10- and 15-pound bombs, wear scuba gear to dive down deeper to reap the benefits of their powerful bombs.
“They go out to sea with one bomb and bring in 400 kilos of fish,” Medina says of fishermen who use the larger bombs.
Medina says a decade ago the first blastfishermen would bring in 500 kilos of fish from one overnight trip, which amounted to about $2,000 for a team of four fishermen to split. Now that the practice has become widespread, blast-fishermen are bringing home smaller catches, around 100 kilos from an overnight trip, according to Medina.
Work hazards in the lawless industry are punctuated by fierce competition. On their midnight voyages, fishermen often become sleep-deprived, inhibiting motor skills and increasing risks. Others add alcohol to the equation.
Medina says he knows a half-dozen friends who have lost their arms in blast-fishing accidents.
The Navy reports there have been two known deaths related to bomb explosions, while eight other fishermen have lost limbs and two have been blinded.
On a recent wind-swept morning, Medina stood out on the rocky grey shoreline of Corinto, counting the fleet of panga boats that were docked on shore. Their paint jobs hardly hid the rust.
“There’s 55 boats here. All fish with bombs and each do about five trips a week” he said.
“It will take 40 years before the fish population recuperates,” he says.
Medina laments the practices’ vicious effects, but he says he has little choice in the matter.
“If there were other employment here, we could let the sea rest.”