Mexican fishermen: All at sea - or a fishy tale of survival and drugs?

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The Independent US

Three Mexican fishermen found drifting in the Pacific with a remarkable survival story are to be investigated for possible links to drug smuggling, amid speculation about cannibalism.

Since they were found two weeks ago close to the Marshall Islands, more than 5,000 miles from the Mexican port they had left, the Mexican media has been full of speculation and comment, raising doubts about their story of 11 months lost at sea, after their boat's engine broke down. The stories have been extraordinary: commentators have even wondered whether they may have eaten two missing crewmen.

Asked by reporters about a possible drugs link, Ruben Aguilar, a spokesman for President Vicente Fox, said: "There will no doubt have to be an investigation. There are questions and the corresponding authorities will have to investigate."

The Mexican attorney general, Daniel Cabeza de Vaca, said there was no evidence that the fishermen were smuggling drugs, but added that officials would look into the case because their hometown, San Blas, is in a region known for drug trafficking.

He went on: "But as long as we have no hard evidence against these people, or some kind of concrete, formal accusation, for us they are simply shipwrecked fishermen who were rescued."

The men told the Taiwanese crew of the fishing vessel who found them that they had survived by eating raw fish and seabirds, and by drinking rainwater. They said they read a bible as their 27ft boat drifted.

The survivors, due back in Mexico by tonight, have adamantly denied they were involved in drug smuggling. "They are wrong because we went out to catch sharks," Jesus Vidana, one survivor, said in a television interview before he left the Marshall Islands for Hawaii. Another survivor, Salvador Ordonez, said the two other men who had been with them - a deckhand and a man called Juan who had hired them for the fishing expedition - had died because they refused to eat the food that was available.

"Juan never wanted to eat raw food," Mr Ordonez said. "He vomited. Time passed and he began to vomit blood." The survivors said that after the two men died, they threw their bodies overboard.

One report said one of the three had completed a survival course that had recommended drinking the blood of sea animals if lost on the ocean. Captain Francisco Ramirez, of the National Merchant Marine, said Mr Ordonez had attended the course he teaches.

"It made me so happy [they survived] because I wanted to believe I had contributed in a tiny way to this man saving himself," he said. "It looks like the knowledge we gave him in our institute was useful in some way."

Mr Ordonez told the Mexican newspaper El Universal that he had drunk the blood of the animals he was able to catch. "I drank it as if it was a soft drink," he said. "At first my stomach hurt, but the next day I felt better and spent the day fishing in the sun." They had repaired their broken gear, unwound cables and fashioned hooks from engine parts, they said.

The governor of the state of Nayarit, Ney Gonzalez, said the mayor of San Blas was preparing a welcome-home celebration for Mr Ordonez, Mr Vidana and the third survivor, Lucio Rendon. He said: "I'm sure the town of San Blas will recognise them as the personalities they are."

The crew of the Koo 102, which found the men, said they had originally believed the boat had been abandoned. Lanbe Lajjiur, who had been fishing for tuna, said: "At first, we didn't think anyone was on board but when we got closer the three men jumped at the bow and started waving frantically at us. Even when we got up to their boat they continued to wave."

He added: "They were very weak-looking and their clothes were really ripped up. They were very skinny and weak."