The seizure of an Italian oil supply vessel by pirates in the Gulf of Mexico in November was but the latest in a series of hundreds of similar attacks seen across ships and oil platforms in Mexican waters.
On November 12, the ship “Remas” was attacked off the coast of Campeche by eight pirates in two small boats, who robbed the crew and shot one of them, Reuters reported.
Mexico has been seeing a staggering rise in attacks on maritime oil infrastructure. According to Milenio, attacks went up by 310 percent between 2016 and 2018, with this number having risen only further in 2019.
The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) has reported that an average of 16 attacks a month were registered between January and September 2019, wrote La Silla Rota.
And it is not just ships being targeted. On November 5, pirates took over the oil platform “Independencia,” located one hour by ship from Paraíso, Tabasco, and robbed the crew.
Many of these attacks also show a remarkable level of sophistication and knowledge by the pirates. According to the ITF, oil or the personal belongings of the crew are not the only items on the attackers’ shopping list. Communication equipment, navigation machinery, engines, expensive spotlights, drilling rigs, valves and pumping material have all been taken, presumably, to be sold on the black market, Lee Oughton, COO of Fortress Risk Management, told InSight Crime.
The government has sought to react, especially as complaints have mounted from the energy sector. Two days after the Rema incident, Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced the construction of a new naval base in Dos Bocas, Tabasco, at the heart of Mexico’s oil industry. This base will serve specifically to fight piracy in Mexican waters.
This base is intended to provide a military deterrent at a time when the pirates are getting bolder. In September, pirates even targeted a tourist boat near Dos Bocas, robbing over 50 passengers.
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The escalation of maritime piracy in Mexico has received comparatively little attention from the government, as opposed to the crackdown on land. For Oughton, this is to avoid causing public alarm and putting sizeable private investments in Mexico’s energy industry at risk.
According to Fox News, the opening-up of Mexico’s oil industry to private investment has been too tempting for criminal gangs to resist, offering them a smorgasbord of new targets where once only Pemex operated.
But it is difficult to see how the government can quickly and efficiently crack down on these thefts. There is little information available about where and how these pirates plan the attacks, although given Pemex’s track record of having information leaked to criminal gangs, similar ties to staff within Mexico’s oil industry are likely.
Besides the planned naval base, Dos Bocas saw a naval search, rescue and maritime surveillance station open in April 2019, equipped with a command center, go-fast boats, jet skis and even drones. But the results have not been promising so far.
For Oughton, the Mexican Navy does not have the capacity to assist in every situation, making it important for private companies to coordinate amongst themselves to ensure their security. Unlike other piracy hotspots such as Nigeria or Somalia, there is currently a lack of private security options available for ships passing through the Gulf of Mexico.
“A lot of the international operators were unaware of the actual piracy issue as previously, it was going unreported,” he said.
This sense of security also meant that ships in the region were unlikely to carry armed guards. But does this reversal mean that vessels will soon include a stocked weapons cabinet and trained security onboard?
In the mid-term, such a rise would seem inevitable. The first foreign-owned oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico achieved production in 2019 and investors will want to protect their assets.
The long-term consequences are uncertain. Will gangs, when met with more resistance, move on to other criminal economies? When looking at the results of other examples of militarization in Mexico, that seems unlikely.