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Pirates of the Caribbean


By William Lusk

Program Manager,


William Lusk shines a light on the threat of maritime piracy and armed robbery in the Caribbean

It’s no secret that shipping and port authorities across the Caribbean are constantly faced by threats to their safety and security, ranging from hurricanes and oil spills to theft and smuggling. Two such issues, long regarded as mere anachronisms, are maritime piracy and armed robbery. Although rare in occurrence, the threat is very real. On 16 August 2015 an officer on routine rounds on board an anchored general cargo ship near Barcelona, Venezuela, noticed three store rooms opened and their padlocks broken. According to a report published by the International Chamber of Commerce’s International Maritime Bureau (IMB), a non-governmental organization which runs a global piracy reporting center, he immediately raised the alarm and the crew mustered. It was noticed that the robbers had boarded the ship via the anchor chain, stolen ship’s properties and escaped.

Another day, 12 May this year, yielded a similar situation at a nearby anchorage close to Barcelona. Four robbers armed with steel pipes boarded an LPG tanker at an anchorage off Barcelona. The crew on routine rounds spotted the robbers and raised the alarm. Seeing the alerted crew, the robbers escaped. A search was carried out by the crew and the ship’s stores were reported stolen.


On 17 July this year robbers in a small boat boarded an anchored product tanker off Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Duty crew onboard on routine rounds noticed the robbers. The alarm was raised and the crew mustered. Seeing the crew alertness, the robbers jumped overboard and escaped empty-handed.

Forty-five attacks in the Caribbean were reported to the IMB between 2011 and 2015 (Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Guyana, Haiti and Venezuela combined). As of July this year, five incidents in the Caribbean have been reported to the IMB – twice off Venezuela and once each off Haiti, Colombia and Guyana. According to security expert Mark Gaouette, it is believed that incidents involving pirates and armed robbers are underreported and that reported figures can be increased by up to 30 per cent to more accurately reflect reality. Despite this voluntary bias, the IMB remains the most comprehensive and authoritative assessment of reported maritime piracy and armed robbery available.

What’s the difference between piracy, armed robbery and terrorism?

The Greek historian Plutarch, around the year 100 AD, gave the world its first definition of piracy as “those who attack on sea and coastal land without legal authority”. In a modern context, the actions of pirates, armed robbers and terrorists can be nearly identical – essentially using the threat of violence to achieve a goal – but motivation and location of the attacks determine how to classify the incident.

The most binding legal definition of piracy is the one offered by the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention and used by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). It cites piracy as: “Any illegal acts of violence or detention…committed for private ends by the crew or passengers of a private ship…against another ship…in a place outside the jurisdiction of any state.”

Special emphasis needs to be placed on the words “private ends”, as they serve as the key differentiator between pirates and terrorists – the latter of whom would instead engage in these acts for political ends.

Also critical to note in the UN Law of the Sea Convention definition are the words “outside the jurisdiction of any state”. These words serve to differentiate between pirates and armed robbers. Although their means and motivations of theft are often the same, armed robbers commit their acts within a sovereign country’s territorial waters instead of international open waters like pirates.

General trends

Examining IMB piracy and armed robbery reports in 2015 and 2016, there have been a number of commonalities among incidents in the Caribbean region which help us understand the threat:

1) Incidents in the Caribbean region occur while a vessel is anchored, not while berthed or steaming. We can draw several conclusions from this fact:
a. The IMB does not differentiate between a pirate attack and an armed robbery, likely because their actions of theft for private gain are the same. If the IMO definition of piracy is applied, every incident in the Caribbean is considered armed robbery rather than piracy. This is because such attacks occur at anchorages within a country’s territorial waters.
b. Vessels are most at risk of unauthorized boardings while at offshore anchorages. Vessel security is enhanced by port security assets while berthed. Without port security assets at anchorages, vessels must fend for themselves and are thus vulnerable to crimes of opportunity.

2) Incidents in the Caribbean region result in unauthorized boardings, not hijackings. Unlike their counterparts in Asia and Africa, attackers in the Caribbean are looking for small payouts rather than multi-million-dollar ransoms after a hijacking.

3) In the Caribbean there has been no reported violence to crew. Although armed, usually with knives or guns or both, attackers are quick to flee once discovered and do not usually resist or retaliate, based on IMB reports.

4) The IMB tracks both attempted and actual attacks in the Caribbean. In 2015 and 2016 there have been no reported attempted attacks in the Caribbean. There are two possible explanations why there are several actual attacks and no attempted attacks:
a. Vessel masters may choose not to report attempted or thwarted boardings since no damage or loss to the vessel was sustained; or
b. Intruders have a 100 per cent success rate and all attempts to board a vessel work. Unauthorized persons are not detected until they are actually on board the vessel. Many reports of attacks in the Caribbean cite that the armed robbers are only caught by crew on routine rounds once on board.

‘Amandala’, which bills itself as the largest circulation newspaper in Belize, has occasionally written about ‘pirate attacks’ against yachts anchored offshore. In January this year, for example, ‘Amandala’ reported that a group of American tourists anchored near Middle Long Caye were attacked by pirates and had several personal possessions, electronics and an outboard motor stolen. However, since this particular incident occurred in Belizean waters, the IMO would likely instead classify the incident as armed robbery.

Yachts and pleasure craft, although rare, are much more susceptible to armed robbery in the Caribbean than larger commercial SOLAS vessels. Not only are private vessels easier to board and/or steal, but they are far more likely to contain personal effects which can be resold at a high value. Unfortunately, there is no common and authoritative resource which compiles and tracks quantitative data on incidents against yachts in the Caribbean.

Low likelihood, high consequence

Regardless of victim (commercial vessel or pleasure boater) and location (inside or outside the jurisdiction of a country’s waters), maritime piracy and armed robbery in the modern Caribbean are currently unlikely yet potentially high consequence events.

However, the Caribbean maritime community would be mistaken to assume that this pattern will continue into the future. The likelihood of armed robbery may increase in the territorial waters of countries currently experiencing political instability in the region.

The relative ease with which armed robbers board an anchored vessel without detection – and their statistical success – is a cause for alarm. It is very possible that this weakness can be exploited by even more dangerous unauthorized boarders. It is the responsibility of each vessel crew, augmented by local port authority resources, to prevent itself becoming yet another maritime armed robbery statistic.

*Ocean County Engineering & Applied Nautical Services is a Florida-based company with long experience in improving maritime interdiction, naval architecture, survivability analysis, port and border security systems, piracy and terrorism mitigation, enterprise architecture, software development, systems life cycle management, systems engineering, and research and development.