New Orleans — IF repossessing a used Chevrolet can be tricky, consider retrieving the Aztec Express, a 700-foot cargo ship under guard in Haiti as civil unrest spread through the country.
Only a few repo men possess the guile and resourcefulness for such a job. One of them is F. Max Hardberger, of Lacombe, La. Since 1991, the 58-year-old attorney and ship captain has surreptitiously sailed away about a dozen freighters from ports around the world.
"I'm sure there are those who would like to add me to a list of modern pirates of the Caribbean, but I do whatever I can to protect the legal rights of my clients," said Hardberger, whose company, Vessel Extractions in New Orleans, has negotiated the releases of another dozen cargo ships and prevented the seizures of many others.
His line of work regularly takes him to a corner of the maritime industry still plagued by pirates, underhanded business practices and corrupt government officials, waters the Aztec Express sailed right into.
The saga began in 2003 when the vessel's Greek owner died and his company did not keep up payments on a $3.3-million mortgage.
Bahamian court records show that an American businessman who had used the vessel to haul 235 used cars from the northeastern United States to Haiti did not pay the charter fee, contributing to the loan default.
Once the ship arrived in the Haitian port of Miragoane, the businessman bribed judicial officials to seize the vessel and sell it to him in a rigged auction, according to court records.
Meanwhile, a violent rebellion threatened to topple President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, making it impossible for the lender or the owner's relatives to contest the sale.
The condition of the Aztec Express further complicated matters. Its main engines were out of commission, having been idle and untended for months.
Hardberger was hired by the New Jersey-based mortgage holder. He flew to Haiti and drove with an armed bodyguard to Miragoane.
He gathered two important pieces of information. Watchmen stationed on the Aztec Express sold fuel from the vessel on the black market. Second, port authorities had a cellphone, but they could use it only at the harbor's soccer field, where cellular service was reliable.
Hardberger managed to get the guards off the ship by offering to buy fuel. When they came down to the dock to discuss the transaction, off-duty Haitian riot police hired by Hardberger held them at bay.
MEANWHILE, an oceangoing tugboat also hired by Hardberger slipped into port and backed up to the Aztec Express. Under a full moon, the crew began cutting the anchor chains with blowtorches.
In case harbor officials noticed and tried to call for help on their cellphone, Hardberger had paid a witch doctor $100 to cast spells on the port's soccer field. The witch doctor marked the field with gray powder, a clear warning to believers in voodoo, the nation's dominant religion. No call ever went out.
Once the freighter was freed, the tug hauled the ship out of port and headed for the Bahamas, where British-based maritime laws give a high priority to lenders' claims.
The next day, however, another tug intercepted the ship. Its captain said he had been sent to take over the operation.
Hardberger's team checked with the marine towing company hired for the repossession and found that no relief boat had been sent. It then summoned the Bahamian coast guard, which detained the other tug on suspicion of attempted piracy.
Hardberger said the second tugboat had been sent by the American businessman when he learned that the Aztec Express had been pulled out of Haiti.
In the Bahamas, a court upheld the ship's repossession and ordered its sale to settle the lender's claim.
"Haiti has a corrupt legal system where cronyism and corruption are the order of the day," Judge John Lyons wrote in his decision. "Justice is dispensed according to who can pay the going rate."
Hardberger said small-to-medium-size cargo ships such as the Aztec Express are among the most vulnerable to chicanery and illegal seizures.
Often operated by small shipping lines, these modern-day tramp steamers regularly visit developing countries plagued by unstable and corrupt governments.
In the worst-off nations, Hardberger said, it is possible to seize a $10-million ship with a $100 bribe to a justice of the peace.
"You need more than what an attorney can do in some of these countries," said John Lightbown, a ship owner who recently sought Hardberger's help to avert a seizure in Haiti.
"Deals can be bought and sold under the table. Max gets into the middle of things. He's been around the block," he said.
"I don't know anyone who does this, except for Max," said Jonathan S. Spencer, a New York-based maritime adjuster who determines the monetary losses of shipping accidents. "It's hard to say how much people like him are used. They work in gray areas of the law. They are very discreet, and the people who hire them are discreet as well."