Piracy edges closer to home with wave of raids in southern Gulf

Ships traveling into pirate-prone waters with razor wire
Ships traveling into pirate-prone waters with razor wire
Ships traveling into pirate-prone waters often are hardened with razor wire, or protective water cannons, but few vessels in the Gulf of Mexico have security personnel on board.

In the brief cellphone video recorded by a crewmember on the offshore supply vessel (OSV) Remas, the pirates walk back and forth on the deck of the ship, clenching their guns and using them to point as they order around the crew. Their faces are draped in clothing and bandanas. 

On April 9, the Italian-flagged OSV, owned by the multinational oil and gas contractor Micoperi, was in the southern Gulf of Mexico when a boat approached quickly. Someone in the pirate vessel fired a warning shot and eight masked men jumped on board Remas. They took the 30-member crew captive and ransacked the ship, stealing crewmembers’ personal items and some industrial equipment before fleeing. No one was injured — this time.

Remas had endured two prior pirate attacks in the Gulf, one less than a week earlier, which played out much the same way. In November 2019, two boats of armed men rushed the ship, maneuvered to the side and leapt on board. One crewman on Remas suffered a bullet wound and another a concussion tussling with the bandits.

Incidents of piracy are increasing in the Gulf of Mexico, which had been considered relatively safe compared to hot spots like Southeast Asia and Somalia. But as oil and natural gas extraction boosted shipping activity in the Gulf, pirates have increasingly targeted vessels. The growth in piracy is centered in the southern region, prompting advisories from the U.S. Transportation Department and State Department and an increased presence by SEMAR, Mexico’s navy. 

More than 200 raids have occurred outside of territorial waters in the Gulf since 2016, said Enrique Lozano, the Gulf of Mexico inspector for the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF). From January 2018 to June 2020, U.S. naval officials counted attacks on 20 vessels and 35 oil platforms in the Bay of Campeche. Thus far, no U.S.-flagged vessels have been attacked in this spree, which seemed to reach a peak in April.

Incidents probably have been underreported due to threats of retaliation, U.S. agencies warned. Lozano added that because these are crimes of opportunity, it is likely there have been attacks in areas closer to shore that are not on the radar of national agencies. “There are probably fishermen who didn’t say anything,” he said.

Within a week of the third attack on Remas, two other ships were raided in the Gulf, according to the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Intelligence. On April 12, armed bandits boarded and looted a Denmark-flagged vessel. Two days later, a posse toting pistols and automatic weapons pursued a larger target, Telford 28, an offshore accommodation barge. The vessel is essentially a 367-foot-long floating hotel with cabins for 462 people, plus a conference room, movie theater, gymnasium and internet cafe. The robbers fired a few shots at the inhabited area of the ship, wounding one crewmember, and managed to steal some equipment before Mexican navy ships answered Telford 28’s distress call. 

Most pirates in the Gulf have a modus operandi. They approach an oil platform or vessel swiftly and late at night when crews are at their least vigilant. Lozano said pirate groups typically consist of two to five boats, each with crews of three to 10 people. They’re armed with guns, knives and even machetes. Occasionally, crewmembers on targeted vessels are injured, but the pirates don’t seem intent on kidnapping or killing. 

While kidnapping and ransom have been pirate tactics in other areas, particularly near Somalia, pirates in the Gulf are usually content to briefly hold crews hostage and ransack the vessels. They take the wallets, cellphones and laptops of anyone on board, along with specialty equipment to sell on the black market for industrial supplies and material.

“Mexico has a huge black market for copper, (other) metals, couplings and some technical equipment,” said Lee Oughton, chief operating officer and managing partner at Fortress Risk Management, a Mexico City-based security consulting firm.

Pirates sometimes steal barrels of oil. It’s the seafaring equivalent of a smash-and-grab from a parked car. The raiders grab whatever they can as quickly as they can. “It’s basically petty theft and looting,” Oughton said.

Most of the pirates are able to flee before naval forces arrive. In fact, they seem to know just how much time it takes to respond to a distress call that was probably made before they got their boots on board.

Lozano suspects that many pirates in the Gulf have a working knowledge of its maritime industries. They may have once been seafaring workers and are now partnering with criminal organizations. “Maybe these are people (who) lost jobs,” he said. “Maybe they are fishermen with some bad people.”

Lozano said some of the pirate crews have easily broken into offshore platforms managed by Pemex, Mexico’s state-owned energy company, suggesting they may have a collaborator who works for Pemex.

The raids might have started with some out-of-work fishermen and oil industry insiders, but Oughton fears they have evolved to include career criminals “once it was understood that there was money to be made.” The pirates’ methods show acute knowledge of boating, the maritime industry and robbery.

Most ship operators in the area have little or no security, Oughton added. They may have long-range spotlights or use other methods to attempt to scare off pirates, but few vessels have security personnel on board, and rarely do they have anyone prepared for naval combat. The strategy of most international shipping companies and oil and gas contractors is to comply with the intruders. “Nine times out of 10, that’s the policy, and (the pirates) know that,” Oughton said.

The Mexican navy often has been outmaneuvered by the pirates, who threaten a vital economic resource. In response, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador announced in March that he would establish a permanent security operation at the Port of Dos Bocas in Tabasco state. He also increased helicopter and vessel patrols in oil-drilling regions.

Attacks seem to have diminished recently. Reports issued by the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence in August and September included no mention of attacks in the Gulf of Mexico. But all activity in the region has diminished since last spring because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which weakened global demand for oil.

This may have allowed the pirates to regroup and ready themselves for more attacks. If oil and gas production rebounds in the Gulf, they could be waiting.  

By Professional Mariner Staff