After a spate of attacks on oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico this year, the shipping industry is demanding protection, including a stronger presence from the Mexican Navy.
According to Mexican media reports, the latest attack came on July 19 when eight gunmen boarded the Sandunga oil platform, belonging to Mexico's Goimar. The pirates fired shots into the air and began ransacking the platform while holding the crew hostage in a security area.
As in many of these attacks, the items looted included breathing apparatus, diving helmets with cameras, protective gear, communications equipment, and employees' personal belongings. According to media reports, the workers called law enforcement immediately to report the pirates, who arrived on a vessel identifying it as having sailed from the state of Tabasco. But authorities did not arrive for four hours.
This surge in piracy has sparked calls for Mexico to provide more security in the Gulf of Mexico.
Within days of the attack, the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) had written to the Ministry of the Navy, demanding regular ship and helicopter patrols and new special surveillance zones with permanent video monitoring and radar. The letter even asked whether extra Navy bases could be built to help stop the pirates.
The ITF also requested that all ships and platforms should have video surveillance and recording systems.
Mexico has registered 88 pirate attacks on oil infrastructure in the Gulf of Mexico since 2015, including 20 last year. The ITF says the number is much higher, with its records showing 180 attacks in 2019 alone, the New York Times reported.
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Despite these dozens of attacks, little proactive response has been seen from the government or the companies involved. According to a report by Oceans Beyond Piracy, this is due to a range of factors, including fears of financial liability, poor safety records and shipping delays.
In 2019, the Mexican government announced a new naval base and surveillance station would be opened in Dos Bocas, a port in the state of Tabasco. According to a report by World Maritime University, response times are still slow – at least two hours or more.
Local authorities have failed to permanently boost security levels across the Gulf of Mexico despite the frequency of attacks, the same report found.
The threat posed by pirates has escalated to the point that Panama and the United States have issued warnings to ships to increase security conditions when sailing in the Gulf of Mexico or to avoid the area if possible.
Questions on how to tighten security are brewing. In a 2019 interview with InSight Crime, Lee Oughton, the Chief Operating Officer of Fortress Risk Management, said that acts of piracy in Mexican waters were far less common than in Nigeria and Somalia, and that companies had not yet seen the need to hire private security. This could yet change.
In an interview with Forbes, Rockford Weitz, director of maritime studies at Tufts University in Massachusetts, explains that "hundreds of crude oil tankers and refined product tankers pass through the Gulf of Mexico each year when transiting to and from the refineries in Texas and Louisiana." According to Weitz, these ships lack defense capabilities, forcing them to rely on the already stretched thin US Coast Guard to protect them. With the number of pirate attacks increasing in the southern half of the Gulf of Mexico, it's only a matter of time before the violent heists occur on US waters.
Even after years of attacks, little is known about the pirates, including their identities and their level of organization. No ties to larger criminal groups have been found.
But Oughton commented that the pirates knew exactly what to steal and had clear connections to fence stolen oil and pieces of equipment, including communication devices, navigation instruments, engines, powerful spotlights, drilling rigs and pumping machinery.