Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Pirates and Mexico Narco Violence

You can’t go on an extended sailing trip without getting asked a lot of times about pirates and safety by friends, family and acquaintances. The recent killing by Somali pirates of four Americans on the sail boat Quest highlights the reality of it.

Besides the Somali kidnappings, when listening to the news reports of drug-related violence in Mexico you end up with two somewhat extreme positions. The mainstream media paints a picture of radical shootings and causalities that is unfathomable to US sensibilities. The other extreme is rags like Latitude 38, a San Francisco-based monthly that has a large focus on cruising in Mexico, where the editor claims all is beautiful and wonderful on the Pacific coast of Mexico. The mainstream media leads with 34,000 people killed, almost all Mexicans, since Mexico declared war on the narco gangs. That’s a huge number and it should scare people. At the same time, how many gun deaths does the US have per year? Oh yea, 52,000 deliberate and 23,000 accidental. So compare the numbers and see if you would ever travel in the US. The border cities of Mexico are out of control. But then so are/were parts of Oakland or Detroit.

The Latitude 38 editor’s cheerleading for Mexico downplays risks with statements about incidents in Mexico like “ 'very minor ones' near the cruise ship terminal this year" and "we didn't hear a single report of a cruiser, RVer, or ex-pat having any incidents." Innocent bystanders do get shot in narco gang shootouts. A Canadian tourist was hit by a stray bullet in Mazatlan recently while stepping outside a pharmacy. It isn’t all safe south of the border for cruisers.

In the Latitude38 story on the recent killing of the crew on the sailboat Quest, the majority of the article actually focused on a trip made by another boat without consequences. Like they didn’t have enough to say about four murdered cruisers so they diverted to some meaningless unrelated story that implies that cruising is risk free. When called on about the rosy cheerleading, the editor of Latitude 38 always points out some article buried somewhere in the mag that shows there commitment to reporting all. About as Fair and Balanced as Fox News.

The sailboat Quest was leaving Cochin, India to travel to Oman and then up the Red Sea. The area they were transiting at the time of the hijacking was not considered to be at great risk for attack by Somali pirates. In other words, at the time they weren’t heading into a really stupidly dangerous area. Now the area is obviously to be considered high risk. Latter parts of their trip would indeed have taken them through the pirate alley. The ship piracy that is taking place these days is overwhelmingly Somalian based, and this includes small cruising boats. The other accounts of attacks on small boats tend to be related to theft gone wrong rather than kidnapping for ransom, not what I would call true piracy. There continue to be occasional issues and even murders in parts of the Caribbean side of Central America.

Why is there so much Somalian piracy? It’s simple- it is good business. The average ransom for a hijacked crewman is US$4 million. The shipping and insurance companies have done their calculations and figured it is cheaper to buy back their crew and ship than to face up to the pirates. A cold blooded capitalistic calculation. It is better for the individual corporation to make the payoffs, even though it hurts all other shipping by encouraging more piracy. Capitalism and the Free Market gone bad. Unfortunately for sailors, this effect has been carried over to private cruising boats and individuals who don’t have these resources available. The Somali pirates don’t make a distinction. An example is the British couple, on the small cruising boat Lynn Rival who were hijacked off the Seychelles and held for ransom for over a year until family was able to raise approximately US$1 million for their release. Now in the last few days a Danish yacht ING with family including three teenagers has been taken while sailing between the Maldives and the Red Sea.

Given the US’s recent experiences with nation-building, it is unlikely that Somalia will gain an effective central government by any acts of ours.  Barring that, the next best approaches are to aggressively blockade Somalia coast. This would mean searching 100% of all seaborne traffic that exits or enters the seaway within some short distance from shore, say 12 miles. This could be done with the existing naval forces in the area that are currently trying to patrol thousands of square miles of seaway. Then enforce an international ban on any ransom payments. If you can’t be straight in saying what you are doing, then call it a ban on funding terrorism. Either way, any shipping company that pays a ransom has their ships banned from US and European ports. When the blockade is enforced and the money dries up, so will the piracy.

So how does that answer the question of what do you do about piracy while cruising. You take calculated risks all through life. Nothing too stupid, but enough risk to know you’re alive. Without taking any risks bad things still happen. For instance, we have family facing some medical issues that are scary and hit randomly and very unfairly. In the end we are all leaving this planet and the most important thing is that we can leave with others looking at our life ‘as a life well lived’.



  1. Great post Paul.

    Love and miss you both.


  2. Paul,

    I see your letter on this subject was printed in the March Lat38.