Analysis: Treasure Island Revisited - II

By SAM VAKNIN, UPI Senior Business Correspondent  |  July 19, 2002 at 12:54 PM
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False documents are an integral -- and crucial -- part of maritime piracy. The International Maritime Board says: "Many of the phantom ships that set off to sea with a cargo and then disappear are sailed by crewmen with false passports and competency certificates.

"They usually escape detection by the port authorities. In a recent case of a vessel located and arrested in South-East Asia further to IMB investigations, it has emerged that all the senior officers had false passports. The ship's registry documents were also false."

As documents go electronic and integrated in proprietary or common cargo tracking systems, such forgery will wane. Bolero -- an international digital bill of lading ledger -- is backed by the European Union, banks, shipping and insurance companies. The International Maritime Organization is a proponent of a technology to apply encrypted "digital signatures" to electronic bills of lading. Still, the industry is highly fragmented and many ships and ports don't even possess rudimentary information technology. The protection afforded by the likes of Bolero is at least a decade away.

Pirates sometimes work hand in hand with conspiring crew members (or, less often, stowaways). In many countries -- in East Asia, Latin America, and Africa -- coast guard officials, corrupt drug agents, and other law enforcement officers, moonlight as pirates. Renegade members of British-trained Indonesian anti-piracy squads are roaming the Malacca Straits.

Pirates also enjoy the support of an insidious and vast network of suborned judges and bureaucrats. Local villagers along the coasts of Indonesia and Malaysia -- and Africa -- welcome pirate business and provide the perpetrators with food and shelter.

Moreover, large tankers, container ships and cargo vessels are largely computerized and their crew members few. The value of an average vessel's freight has increased dramatically with improvements in container and oil storage technologies. "Flag of convenience" registration has assumed monstrous proportions, allowing ship owners and managers to conceal their identity effectively. Belize, Honduras and Panama are the most notorious, no questions asked, havens.

Piracy has matured into a branch of organized crime. Hijacking requires money, equipment, weapons, planning, experience and contacts with corrupt officials. The loot per vessel ranges from $8 million to $200 million.

Pottengal Mukundan, director of the International Chamber of Commerce's Commercial Crime Service states, in a recent International Maritime Board news release: "(Piracy) typically involves a mother ship from which to launch the attacks, a supply of automatic weapons, false identity papers for the crew and vessel, fake cargo documents, and a broker network to sell the stolen goods illegally. Individual pirates don't have these resources. Hijackings are the work of organized crime rings."

The IMB describes the aftermath of a typical hijacking: "The Global Mars has probably been given a new name and repainted. Armed with false registration papers and bills of lading, the pirates, or more likely the mafia bosses pulling the strings, will then try to dispose of their booty.

"The vessel has probably put in to a port where the false identity of vessel and cargo may escape detection. Even when identified, the gangs have been known to bribe local officials to allow them to sell the cargo and leave the port."

Such a ship is often "recycled" a few times. It earns its operators an average of $40 million-$50 million per "cycle," according to The Economist. The pirates contract with sellers or shipping agents to load it with a legitimate consignment of goods or commodities. The sellers and agents are unaware of the true identity of the ship or of the unsavory hands it is in.

The pirates can produce an authentic vessel registration certificate that they acquired from crooked officials, and provide the sellers or agents with a bill of lading. The payload is then sold to networks of traders in stolen merchandise or to gullible buyers in a different port of destination -- and the ship is ready for yet another round.

In January, the Indonesian navy permanently stationed six battleships in the Malacca Straits, three of them off the coast of the secessionist region of Aceh. A further 20-30 ships and 10 aircraft conduct daily patrols of the treacherous traffic lane. Some 200-600 ships cross the straits daily.

A mere 50 ships or so are boarded and searched every month.

The Greek government has gunboats patrolling the 2 miles wide Corfu Channel, where yachts frequently fall prey to Albanian pirates. Brazil has imposed an unpopular anti-piracy inspection fee on berthing vessels and used the proceeds to finance a SWAT team to protect ships and their crews while in port. Both India and Thailand have similar units.

International cooperation is also on the rise. About one third of the world's shipping traffic goes through the South China Sea. A conference convened by Japan in March 2000 -- Japanese vessels have become favored targets of piracy in the last few years -- pushed for the ratification of the International Maritime Organization's 1988 Rome Convention on the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation by Asian and ASEAN countries.

The convention makes piracy an extraterritorial crime and, thus, removes the thorny issue of jurisdiction in cases of piracy carried out in another country's territorial waters or out on the high seas. The Comite Maritime International -- the umbrella organization of national maritime law associations -- promulgated a model anti-piracy law last year.

Though it rejected Japan's offer for collaboration, in a sharp reversal of its previous policy, China started handing down death sentences against murderous pirates. The 13 marauders who seized the Cheung Son and massacred its 23 Chinese sailors were executed two years ago in the southern city of Shanwei. Another 25 people received long prison sentences. The -- declared -- booty amounted to a mere $300,000.

India and Iran, two emerging "pirates safe harbor" destinations, have also tightened up sentencing and port inspections. In the Alondra Rainbow hijacking, the Indian navy captured the Indonesian culprits in a cinematic chase off Goa. They were later sentenced severely under both the Indian Penal Code and international law. Even the junta in Myanmar has taken tentative steps against compatriots with piratical predilections.

Law enforcement does not tolerate a vacuum.

The Economist reports about two private military companies -- Marine Risk Management and Satellite Protection Services -- which deploy airborne mercenaries to deal with piracy. SPS has even proposed stationing 2,500 former Dutch marines in Subic Bay in the Philippines -- for a mere $2,500 per day per combatant.

Ship owners are desperate. Quoted by The Economist, they "suggest that the region's governments negotiate the right for navies to chase pirates across national boundaries: the so-called 'right of hot pursuit.' So far, only Singapore and Indonesia have negotiated limited rights. Some suggest that the American navy should be invited into territorial waters to combat piracy, a 'live' exercise it might relish. At the very least, countries such as Indonesia should advertise which bits of their territorial waters at any time are patrolled and safe from pirates. No countries currently do this."

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