Maritime Crime: South America

Maritime crime continues to effect vessels operating in South American waters and much of it is likely to have gone unreported. For the calendar year so far, there have been seven reported robberies at anchor and three boardings in Venezuela. Five robberies in Colombia, two robberies at anchor in Peru, and two incidents of maritime crime in Ecuador along with a robbery at anchor in Guyana have also been recorded.

The criminal activity that takes place across South America is largely opportunistic and does not mirror the pirate action groups that operate off the Niger Delta Region and offshore Somalia. However, it is present within most regional states and can be violent in its nature.

Venezuela has recorded the highest level of maritime crime for the region so far this year, particularly within the ports and anchorages around Puerto La Cruz and Barcelona; recording ten incidents alone this year, in comparison to five incidents recorded in 2016 and one in 2015. The rise in maritime crime is likely linked to the dire economic situation ashore, which Dryad highlighted in late 2016 and is unlikely to improve in the near future. Of particular note this year are three incidents where crew members were assaulted and at least five others injured when crew members (on watch) were tied up whilst the robbery took place. On 24 June, an AB was assaulted by robbers whilst conducting routine security rounds aboard MT Seletar Spirit, whilst all three robberies at anchor that took place in September saw duty crew on routine rounds tied up whilst the incidents took place.

In Colombia, levels of maritime crime have remained at similar levels to previous years, taking place on both its Pacific and Caribbean coasts. There have been three robberies of merchant vessels this year, all of which took place at Cartagena Anchorages. This compares to four robberies at anchor in 2016, three of which occurred in Cartagena and the other in Buenaventura. Locally in Buenaventura there have been two reports of passengers vessels being boarded and robbed by armed local gangs who stole passengers possessions.

Two incidents of maritime crime have been reported in Ecuador this year, the first reports since 2013, although it is likely that many opportunist crimes go unreported. There has been one robbery at Esmeralda port and one boarding in Guayaquil. Elsewhere in Ecuador, there are high levels of domestic maritime crime, namely the smuggling of narcotics, associated violence towards local fisherman by criminal gangs and Ecuadorian-Peruvian fishing disputes.

Nevertheless, levels of maritime crime have improved for some countries in South America. Peru has seen an 81% decrease in maritime crime, particularly in the anchorages in Callao where there were 11 robberies at anchor in 2016. The majority of maritime crime in Callao has previously occurred when ships were anchored or docked in port and assailants climbed up the anchor chain and forced their way into the forecastle store, stealing supplies. This decrease is largely linked to an increase in the security of the port of Callao and the city itself that was placed under a state of emergency for over 12 months from 2015-2016.

It is almost certain that much greater maritime crime takes place across the South America region than is reported, particularly in remote and up-river areas. Conflict between fishermen is not unusual and there are regular attacks and territorial disputes between Peruvian-Ecuadorian and Guyanese-Surinamese fishermen, whilst Venezuela has seen an increase in attacks against fishermen over the last year in waters off northeast Sucre State. The direct targeting of fishermen is often violent with the fishermen thrown overboard or shot before the robbery takes place.

Similarly, the robbery of passenger vessels in areas up river or in estuaries is another common occurrence. Dryad has recorded four robberies and one hijack of such vessels near the port of Santos alone this year. These issues are often compounded by an ineffective coastguard which fails to provide a deterrent because of regional trends of inherent corruption and political apathy.

Dryad’s general advice for vessels in the region is to adopt basic security measures and remove any opportunity for criminality. Mariners should ensure that all upper-deck fixtures are secure, duty watch keepers maintain vigilance on the outboard side and gangway and that any suspicious sightings are immediately reported to local authorities and the IMB. Furthermore, across the region, but particularly in Venezuela TTW, crew members are strongly advised against resistance if targeted by criminal groups.


Kidnap for Ransom

Kidnap for Ransom At Sea Hits 10-year High in 2016

Waters off Nigeria and the southern Philippines continue to pose a significant threat to seafarers according to Dryad Maritime. In the company’s most recent report which reflects on 2016, 62 people were kidnapped worldwide in comparison to 19 in 2015 and only 9 in 2014. While the number of mariners involved is small compared to those held hostage at the height of the Somali pirate attacks in the Indian Ocean, it is nevertheless a significant increase.

Last year alone the number of pirate attacks off Nigeria increased by over 50%. The figure of 49 attacks at sea for 2016 is a marked increase on the 2015 total of 20 attacks. The number of crew kidnapped (51) is also significantly greater than the 31 abducted for ransom the previous year.

Dryad maritime reports that kidnaps in the Sulu Sea and West Africa are likely the result of an increase in the activity of armed groups linked to militant organisations such as Abu Sayyaf whose modus operandi is to ambush ships and seize crew for lucrative ransoms.

Graeme Gibbon Brooks, CEO Dryad Maritime;

“The overall global decline in maritime security incidents last year comes as welcome news to the industry but there is no place for complacency. The rise in the number of kidnaps at sea for ransom continues to pose a significant security challenge to seafarers and shipowners that cannot be ignored.”

Despite the 12-month spike in kidnappings worldwide pirate attacks continue to fall as a result of the improved safe guarding of vessels and more efficient international naval patrols. Since 2012 world piracy has steadily dropped off; in 2016 only 191 cases of piracy on the high seas were recorded as opposed to 246 in 2015.

“Certain shipping routes remain dangerous and although the continuing decline of piracy is good news, the escalation of crew kidnap for ransom is of extreme concern,” Graeme added.

While the Mediterranean remains in the headlines for continued concern over the maritime migration from North Africa, the end of Daesh/IS territorial control in Sirte is a small sign of improvement in a country that remains wracked by civil war. In the Indian Ocean, piracy has now taken a backseat compared to the risk to shipping from the ongoing conflict in Yemen that has seen ships involved in the conflict attacked and the first alleged Waterborne IED attack of a commercial ship in over 5 years.



December 9, 2016

With Venezuela in the midst of economic and political crisis, we examine the impact on maritime crime in the region.

A sustained period of falling oil prices and a socialist-inspired presidency has seen Venezuela enter an economic and political crisis. Oil accounts for roughly 95% of Venezuela’s export revenues and has been used to finance some of the government’s generous social programmes. The lack of oil revenue has forced the government to curtail these programmes and spiraling inflation in the country has resulted in widespread poverty and an economy in ruin.

Set amidst the backdrop of the second highest homicide rate – as high as 120 per 100,000 in Caracas (Citizen’s Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice) – and regular outbreaks of looting and rioting, it is no surprise that the dire situation ashore has led to increased concerns surrounding maritime criminality.

Fishing Piracy

Whilst basic maritime crime has always existed in Venezuelan waters, as it does across most of South America, there has been an increase in attacks against fishermen in the region, particularly in waters east of Puerto La Cruz.

Many out-of-work fishermen are now targeting active fishermen operating in open sea off Sucre State. These former fishermen and those with access to boats have formed armed ‘gangs’ and are intercepting operating fishing vessels and taking anything of value from them; this includes the catch, fishing nets, generators and outboard motors.

More alarming are the reports of fishermen being thrown overboard or shot as is it is often simpler for the perpetrators to eliminate the crew before robbing their vessels. This issue is further compounded by an ineffective coastguard, which fails to provide a deterrent because of inherent corruption and political apathy.

Whilst fishing conflict is not unusual in South America, there are regular attacks and territorial disputes between Peruvian-Ecuadorian and Guyana-Suriname fishermen, the direct targeting of fishermen solely for profit, and its violent nature, is concerning.

People Trafficking and Smuggling

In addition to attacks on fisherman, Venezuela’s coast has also seen a rise in people trafficking and it is something that is likely to continue; when Venezuela opened its border with Colombia for just two days in July, 120,000 people poured across, simply to buy food, with an untold number remaining over the border. Trinidad and Tobago authorities have already increased port security to deal with a regular influx of Venezuelan migrants who are leaving the country’s north-east coast via maritime vessel.

At the same time there are growing concerns that smuggling, particular of oil, will increase across land and maritime borders. In September 2015, three ships were detained in Venezuela’s refinery-rich Paraguana peninsula accused of smuggling oil. There have also been multiple reports of criminals using small vessels to steal equipment from oil wells in Lake Maracaibo throughout 2014 and 2015; whilst these rarely effect merchant vessels, watch keepers should be vigilant in the area.

Risk to Merchant Vessels

2016 has witnessed a slight increase in the boarding of merchant vessels in Venezuela, although the numbers remain modest. There have been four reports of merchant vessels at anchorage being boarded since the start of the year; all of which occurred at the ports of Puerto La Cruz and Barcelona. In comparison, 2014 and 2015 each saw just one boarding (IMB).

Despite the increase in overall criminality throughout Venezuela, the threat from maritime crime to merchant vessels is assessed as moderate. Most criminal activity in the region has been opportunist and non-violent in nature and when spotted, the assailants have fled.

As such, Dryad’s advice for vessels in the region is to adopt basic security provisions and remove any opportunity for criminality. You should ensure that all upper-deck fixtures are secure, duty watch keepers maintain vigilance on the outboard side and gangway and that any suspicious sightings are immediately reported to the IMB and local authorities.



Security Advice for the Mandeb Strait

Words: Mike Edey

During the evening of Sunday 9 October, it is alleged that two missiles, fired from Yemen, targeted US Navy destroyer USS Mason operating in the Bab al Mandeb. Neither missile was successful but, following the attack earlier this month on the HSV-2 Swift, it raises further questions about the security of commercial shipping transiting through the narrow waterway. Although the Houthis have denied being involved in the failed attack, in contrast to their earlier celebration of the attack on the Swift, they have stated an intention to take the necessary measures to protect their forces.

Two attacks against shipping in 8 days in a similar location indicates that this group has the capability and intent to attack shipping in the Strait. While it is possible that the attack was deliberately carried out against a US warship, there is no evidence to prove it. It is equally possible that the Houthis misidentified the USS Mason and the missiles were intended for a coalition warship rather than an American one.

Dryad believes that it is unlikely that the missiles will be deliberately fired at innocent merchant traffic but does not rule out the possibility that a merchant vessel could suffer collateral damage if it happened to be in the vicinity of an attack on a coalition vessel. As we saw from the attack on HSV-2 Swift, the Houthis are willing to target commercial shipping that they believe, rightly or wrongly, to be supporting the coalition and so could hit a vessel that is innocently transiting through the area.


Dryad echoes the advice supplied from the maritime authorities and offers the following recommendations:

  • Commercial vessels in the region of Yemen should operate under a heightened state of alert, having full regard for the ongoing conflict in the country.
  • The threat may come from a variety of different sources such as missiles, projectiles or waterborne improvised explosive devices.
  • Vessels should maintain the maximum distance possible from the coast of Yemen; use the traffic separation scheme lane to the west of the Hanish Islands during daylight and do so at maximum speed.
  • Vessels in the region should report hostile activities immediately and contact coalition naval forces via VHF bridge to bridge radio but also consider calling UKMTO to report any suspicious activity.


Update: Following the publication of this blog on 11/10/2016, new information has emerged regarding the incident involving the USS Mason. Latest media reports state that the USS Mason fired three missiles to defend itself, and the nearby USS Ponce, from a missile attack believed to have been fired by Iran-backed Houthi-forces situated on the Yemeni shore (Source: Media).   




August 8, 2016

Author: Ian Millen

Last week witnessed a highly publicised maritime security exercise with the cross-channel ferry, Mont St Michel, boarded by French Sea Marshals whilst on a passage from Portsmouth to Caen. The exercise with the Brittany Ferries ship was ‘part of a potential ramping up of security in light of recent terror attacks in France and elsewhere in Europe, amid fears that there may be more to come.’

Following the exercise, I was interviewed by Sky & BBC Television news on the subject of maritime terrorist threats and the use of Sea Marshals in this exercise. Whilst interviews are necessarily reduced to short sound bites, I thought it might be useful to document some of the thinking drawn from the interview with Dryad Maritime to prompt some wider debate on the subject in the form of the Q&A below; which is representative of those questions asked by television and print media.

What’s the likelihood of a terrorist attack at sea?

Acts of maritime terrorism are relatively rare, but that doesn’t mean that there couldn’t be a threat to ferries or cruise ships.  Whilst maritime terrorism accounts for less than 1% of all terrorist acts, there are some notable events, both successful and thwarted. In 2004, the world’s deadliest case of maritime terrorism saw a bomb and subsequent fire kill 116 people on the SuperFerry 14 off the Philippines. Plans to target ferries have also been foiled, such as by the Basque separatist group Eta’s attempts to place vehicle-based bombs on Spanish to UK ferries in 2001 and 2007. Other serious incidents have been successfully resolved, as in the case of the 200 passengers held by pro-Chechen hijackers on a Black Sea ferry in 1996 before the incident was brought to a peaceful conclusion.  We have to go back even further to 1985 to the most well-known act of maritime terrorism in the case of the Italian liner, Achille Lauro, which was hijacked by Palestinian terrorists enroute from Alexandria (Egypt) to Ashdod (Israel), resulting in the brutal killing of an American passenger. Whilst acts of terrorism against ship passengers are rare, especially when compared to the vast number of victims in land-based acts of terrorism, history can point to a number of events where ship passengers have been the target of terrorist acts, although relatively few at sea.

Is there any intelligence to suggest ISIS or other terrorist groups could shift to maritime targets?

If there is any hard evidence of emerging terrorist plans to target ferries, cruise ships or other vessels, such intelligence is best dealt with by those whose job it is to uncover such plots: the national security and law enforcement services of the nations likely to be targeted.  What we have seen is terrorist propaganda that urges a move to maritime targets, either to interrupt western maritime trade or to use the maritime domain to enable the movement of terrorist fighters and their supporting materiel. Such claims must be taken seriously, but put into the context by examining the actual capability of such groups in assessing whether they are able to carry out such threats.

In early 2015, sensational claims in the media about ISIS in Libya were made, suggesting that they would use their strongholds along the Libyan coast to launch attacks against transiting superyachts or merchant shipping off the coast. A detailed capability assessment of the terror group, conducted by Dryad Maritime, showed that the group was heavily tied down in fighting ashore and had little by way of capability to attack ships at sea, although the inshore threat in support of fighting on land was a real one. The subsequent deteriorating position of ISIS in the coastal regions of Libya and the heavy presence of naval forces monitoring the situation ashore and assisting with the rescue of Mediterranean migrants have only diminished the threat further. With the latest reports of US military strikes on ISIS strongholds, it seems that things are not getting any better for ISIS, and the prospect of launching maritime attacks off the coast of Libya, or smuggling weapons and fighters amongst desperate migrants is lessened.

All of the above does not mean that plans do not exist; terrorist atrocities have continued to surprise us and have proved to be difficult to predict. There is no reason to believe this situation will change and so all options need to be considered and prudent planning needs to take place, with appropriate action to counter such threats.

Why are ferries and cruise ships attractive and vulnerable targets?

Like any form of mass transportation, ferries carry large volumes of passengers; hundreds of people concentrated in a relatively small space.  By their very nature, their operations feature fast turnarounds. They run to tight schedules and rely upon the speedy embarkation and disembarkation of passengers and vehicles. Such operations put a lot of pressure on security measures and any increased levels of security, especially on vehicle checks, can quickly result in severe backlogs, long delays and commercial penalties. Such a situation was in evidence recently when French border controls were stepped up in Dover, resulting in significant delays and miles of traffic tailbacks as holidaymakers and freight attempted to cross the channel.

Ferries and cruise ships are also predictable. The former run to regular schedules and the latter to well publicised itineraries, so their locations are known. Transiting through choke points, such as harbour entrances or narrow straits, can make them vulnerable to terrorist action, albeit from small arms or rocket grenades which are limited in their effectiveness, but can nevertheless achieve the aim of a successful terrorist act. But it is in the ability to buy a ticket, negotiate security and be amongst large numbers of passengers at sea and, therefore, at some distance from normal law enforcement protection that gives the most cause for concern.

Mont St Michel 2

What are the keys to success in combating maritime terrorism?

Countering terrorists and their acts of violence is best done through a layered and intelligence led approach; the latter of which stops them from getting to the point of attack in the first place. For every successful terrorist act that results in an examination of intelligence failures, there’s a vastly larger number of plots that are foiled before they are executed. This is achieved through diligent intelligence gathering and law enforcement activity by police forces and intelligence agencies. Effective action is also heavily reliant upon international cooperation and intelligence sharing, something that must continue in Europe whatever the outcome of the UK’s BREXIT process.

The next layer of defence comes from effective port and ship security, aimed at preventing terrorists from boarding vessels with weapons and explosive devices should they get to the port of departure. With the advent of the International Ship and Port Security (ISPS) Code, alongside traditional border controls in some areas, we have the ability to identify suspects and ensure that they do not embark with the means to conduct acts of violence. Whilst the ISPS code moves maritime transportation closer to aviation style security, the sheer volume and associated pressures make this less effective than the equivalent measures when boarding an aircraft.  Sadly, as evidenced by the recent atrocities in France where knives and vehicles have been used to diabolical effect, a terrorist group does not always need guns or bombs to conduct acts of violence. Put simply, security measures in ports and on board ships need to be diligently applied and quality controlled by well-trained and well-motivated security staff.

Should law enforcement and traditional security fail and a terrorist act takes place, the quality of the response is vital in reducing the impact of the situation and ensuring the safety of those affected. This is achieved through the execution of well-constructed, and regularly exercised, security and crisis management plans – in ports and on board vessels. It is also important to draw upon the assistance of additional support from the police and military to deal with such situations. Last week’s exercise by French forces at sea boarding the Mont St Michel with a helicopter insertion is an example of how such forces need to be capable of taking control of a vessel to protect passengers and crew and bring a terrorist act to a successful conclusion. Such a demonstration of capability can act as a deterrent and is a confidence building measure for passengers. Rather than a pure capability demonstration of the boarding of a ship underway – let’s remember that it was pre-planned and unopposed – the boarding of the French-flagged vessel in transit was likely as a result of jurisdictional issues outside of UK territorial waters. If so, this is clearly an area for Anglo-French bi-lateral cooperation should such security measures become commonplace. The last thing we need is exploitable ‘seams’ between different security methodologies.


Last week’s security exercise with a cross-channel ferry was clearly aimed at countering a terrorist threat against a relatively vulnerable mass transportation target. This exercise is one of a number that have been conducted by security forces in recent months, albeit with greater publicity on this occasion. Such publicity may also be aimed at serving a different need, that of shoring up public confidence in the ability of the state to protect its citizens. This is particularly important in the current climate and following recent events on the European continent. Whether any plans to attack ferries or cruise ships are in progress is unknown and very much a matter for those who are charged with protecting the public, but there is no doubt that there are vulnerabilities to be addressed if passengers and crew are to be kept safe.

The ISPS code can go so far, but those of us that travel internationally have seen varying degrees of security and border control that sometimes give cause for concern. Whilst we can never completely remove the threat of those that wish to harm us, there’s plenty we can do to reduce the risk of a successful attack and, as I said in my recent TV interviews, ‘It is incumbent upon everybody who has a duty of care to passengers and crew on vessels to ensure that we do prepare in the most diligent way possible to counter these threats if they emerge.’ The French security exercise in the channel last week is an important element in such preparation.




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