There have been scores of attacks in Mexican waters, taxing the country’s overstretched security forces.
The pirates appeared out of the darkness, leaping aboard the Italian-flagged supply ship off the coast of Mexico. Weapons drawn, the eight attackers worked swiftly, taking crew members hostage while they ransacked the vessel and snatched personal belongings and equipment.
Shots were fired, according to the United States Office of Naval Intelligence, and a security video showed a pirate gesticulating wildly with a pistol before the robbers sped away with their loot.
The attack in April was part of a stunning surge of piracy in the southern Gulf of Mexico, a threat that prompted an American government security alert on Wednesday.
There have been scores of attacks, thefts and other criminal acts in the area in the last few years, according to the Mexican Navy Ministry. Other estimates suggest the number may be far greater.
The attacks — mainly on vessels and offshore platforms associated with the Mexican oil industry — have added another hefty burden to Mexico’s overstretched security forces and threatened to chill foreign investment in Mexico’s oil sector.
On Wednesday, the American government issued a special security alert about the danger of pirates in Mexican waters of the Gulf, particularly in a vast bight called the Bay of Campeche, where offshore oil wells are concentrated.
“Armed criminal groups have been known to target and rob commercial vessels, oil platforms and offshore supply vehicles,” the alert said.
Pirates have not only robbed crew members of their money, phones, computers and other valuables but have stripped vessels and oil platforms of big-ticket items to be sold in the region’s thriving black markets, including sophisticated communication and navigation equipment, fuel, motors, oxygen tanks, construction material and, in several cases, the lights from helicopter landing pads.
While the sharp rise in attacks in the Bay of Campeche over the last three and a half years seems to have caught the maritime industry and the Mexican government by surprise, this modern-day piracy has historical antecedents in the region.
From the 16th to 19th centuries, privateers, freebooters and buccaneers prowled the waters off the Yucatán Peninsula, attacking Spanish trading vessels carrying goods bound for Spain, particularly silver from the interior of Mexico and present-day Bolivia, said Antonio García de León, who wrote a book about the history of piracy in the Gulf.
In recent decades, Mexico’s territorial waters in the Gulf were mostly spared the kind of piracy that afflicted criminal hot spots like the waters off the coast of Somalia and the heavily congested seas off Southeast Asia, officials said.
But something changed in 2017, officials said. That year, there were at least 19 successful or attempted robberies or thefts of oil platforms, supply vessels and fishing boats in the Bay of Campeche, up from only four in 2016 and one in 2015, according to Mexico’s Navy Ministry, also known as Semar.
In 2018, according to ministry records, there were 16 such incidents in the Bay of Campeche. Another 20 were recorded last year and 19 so far this year, the ministry said.
But these tallies are almost certainly undercounts, maritime experts said.
The American Naval Intelligence office said that globally “many incidents” of piracy go unreported for a variety of reasons, including a desire to avoid notifying an insurer or to avoid an investigation by law enforcement.
The International Transport Workers’ Federation, which represents seafarers, estimates that there were about 180 thefts and robberies in the Bay of Campeche last year alone. Enrique Lozano Díaz, the federation’s inspector for the Gulf of Mexico, said the estimate was based on accounts from seafarers, local media coverage and emergency radio calls from vessels under attack.
The sudden increase in crime in the Bay of Campeche has come as the Mexican government has sought, without much effect, to arrest soaring violence on the mainland.
The escalation has also dovetailed with a growth in foreign investment in Mexico’s oil sector after sweeping reforms in 2013 allowed the government to auction exploration and production rights to investor-owned businesses.
There are now more than 200 oil platforms dotting the Bay of Campeche, the source of most of Mexico’s oil. Hundreds of vessels crisscross the bay ferrying supplies and workers to and from platforms. More exploration and more activity has led to more opportunity for criminals, analysts said.ImagePemex oil rigs in the Bay of Campeche. A surge in oil drilling in the bay has created more opportunities for criminals.Credit…Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg
Piracy and sea robbery are “viewed as a growth opportunity for the international criminal organizations,” said Rockford Weitz, director of maritime studies at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. “With the kind of economic troubles we’re seeing globally, it’s only likely to increase.”
The pirates — armed with assault rifles, shotguns and other weapons — typically move in small groups of 5 to 15 people and attack at night, using the lights of ships and platforms to guide them, according to American and Mexican officials.
They travel in small boats that often resemble local fishing vessels but are equipped with powerful outboard motors that enable them to surprise their prey and flee before government security forces can respond.
“They are plenty aware of Semar’s reaction time and lack of resources to tackle this crime,” said Lee Oughton, chief operating officer of Fortress Risk Management, a Mexico-based security consultancy, referring to the Mexican Navy. “Bad actors know that resources are strained and offshore is particularly vulnerable.”
The assault on the Italian-flagged supply ship in April, in which no one was injured, was among at least six attacks that month in the Bay of Campeche, according to documents from the Mexican and American government and representatives of the Mexican merchant mariners.
Among the other targets were vessels registered in Gibraltar, Denmark, Panama and the United Arab Emirates, officials said. In two instances, the vessels’ captains thwarted the attacks, but in the other cases, the pirates managed to board the ships and steal equipment and other valuables before escaping.
For the Italian-flagged vessel, the Remas, it was the second time in five months that it had been hit. In November, armed men forcibly boarded the ship in the Bay of Campeche, wounding two crew members, including one who was shot and required evacuation by the Navy. Calls and emails seeking comment from the ship’s owner, the Italian company Micoperi, were not returned.
There have been few arrests in any of these pirate attacks in recent years.
“There’s impunity,” said Antonio Rodríguez Fritz, a representative of the Order of Naval Captains and Officers, a merchant mariner trade union in Mexico. The criminals, he continued, “evidently know that they can keep committing crimes.”ImageThe Italian-flagged Remas was attacked by pirates twice in five months.Credit…EPA, via Shutterstock
Leaders of Mexico’s merchant mariners have implored the government to do more to control the Bay of Campeche.
The Mexican government has acknowledged the problem and has taken steps to strengthen its antipiracy capabilities, particularly since the spate of attacks in April.
In recent weeks, the Navy has expanded its surveillance, beefed up its patrols of the bay and provided a guarded, offshore anchorage for ships not docking in harbors.
These efforts appear to be having some effect: The ministry said it has received no confirmed reports of robberies in the Bay of Campeche this month and received three last month.
But industry experts say it is too early to tell whether the decline is sustainable, or whether criminals will simply adapt to the government’s new strategies.
“I think the attackers — the modern pirates, as we call them — are adjusting to how the Navy is operating,” Mr. Lozano of the transportation workers’ union said.
Government officials have also foisted some of the blame for the rise in maritime criminality on the merchant mariners and other civilian workers on ships and platforms, insisting that some attacks have benefited from inside help from crew members.
“There is collusion,” Adm. José Rafael Ojeda Durán, Mexico’s navy minister, said at a news conference in April.
That assertion enraged merchant mariners.
In a letter to Mr. Ojeda Durán, representatives of 10 maritime organizations demanded an apology and turned the accusation against the government itself, suggesting that if there were any collusion, it might be among elements under the command of the Navy.
“They are always late to respond to the emergency calls,” the letter said. “We are the victims because of the failure to patrol this zone.”