Over a high frequency radio an oil rig worker raised the alarm. “We have pirates climbing aboard! ... They are shooting at us! Do you copy?”
At least three armed men had scaled the Cahua-Alfa oil rig, about 20 miles off the coast of Veracruz under the cover of darkness just after 11.30pm on July 26.
A marine radio operator for Marine Traffic Control responded, asking for confirmation if the rig was truly under assault. “Copy that, copy that; Can you confirm, is or is it real?
“It's real, it's real. They are firing at us”, replies the oil rig worker.
The attack was the latest in a troubling surge of piracy in the Gulf of Mexico that is causing alarm in maritime circles, as well as catching the attention of the U.S. government.
There have been dozens of reported pirate attacks in the area in the last four years - 16 so far this year - mainly on vessels and offshore oil platforms, according to maritime officials, though some estimates suggest the number may be far greater. There are scores more reports, 160 or more this year, of petty theft and looting, not necessarily related to piracy.
The attacks, which have intensified during the covid-19 pandemic, have created a new headache for Mexico’s government, already dealing with rampant organized crime and drug cartels, and threatens to undermine its vital offshore oil sector.
In June, the U.S. embassy in Mexico issued a special security alert about the danger of pirates in Mexican waters of the Gulf, particularly in the Bay of Campeche, where offshore oil wells are concentrated. “Armed criminal groups have been known to target and rob commercial vessels, oil platforms and offshore supply vehicles,” the alert said.
U.S. intelligence agencies which monitor reports of piracy, described four serious incidents in April, in which robbers opened fire and stole high-value equipment.
U.S. officials recognize that the real number of attacks is likely under-reported. “There certainly seems to be an uptick … but there’s only so much we can see,” said Chris Janus, the Branch Chief of Maritime Safety Watch at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), which delivers provides time-sensitive navigation warnings for the U.S. Navy.
The number of armed attacks off Mexico’s east coast is now ten times greater than Somalia, which earned the reputation as the global hotspot for piracy,” said Captain Kelly Sweeney a Master Mariner, who began his seafaring career in 1980. “2020 is trending to be a record year. It’s serious business. These people are desperate and it seems to be escalating,” he added.
Unlike the pirates off Somalia, who gained Hollywood fame in the Oscar nominated movie Captain Phillips, the incidents in Mexico have so far not involved ransoms. Nor have they involved any deaths, so far.
Instead, pirates typically steal whatever they can get their hands on, from the belongings of crew members to the ships’ expensive communication and navigation systems, diving equipment, and copper wiring, which can be sold on the black market.
“They arrive at night in fast boats with powerful outboard motors and between five to 12 people on board," said Captain Enrique Lozano Diaz, the Gulf of Mexico regional inspector for the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), which represents local unions.
The pirates are armed with different type of weapons including assault rifles, shotguns, pistols, machetes and knives. They listen in to maritime high frequency radio bands to evade Mexican Navy patrols and catch oil workers by surprise, often striking unmanned platforms.
“The pirates have so far operated with virtual impunity. No one's been arrested," said Lozano.
The pirate attacks are mainly concentrated in the Bay of Campeche between Puerto Dos Bocas and Ciudad de Carmen, according to Lozano, who is based in Veracruz. But the latest attacks in July came further west, off the coast of Veracruz.
On 24 July robbers boarded a Mexico-flagged offshore supply vessel, Natalie, which was conducting operations in the vicinity of an offshore platform 13 miles northeast of Coatzacoalcos. They took crew members hostage and stole the crew’s personal belongings.
Two days later, pirates attacked the Cahua-Alfa oil platform, about 21 miles from Coatzacoalcos. The crew managed to secure themselves in the “panic room” and sent out an alarm signal. However, the Mexican Navy arrived several hours after the robbers had made off with equipment and the crew’s personal belongings.
In the most recent act of piracy, on 29 July armed criminals came ashore in boats to raid a PEMEX facility in the city of Ciudad del Carmen, stole equipment and also robbed workers.
“We tried to raise the alarm for several years but the government was silent,” said Lozano, adding that the government’s own reports played down the number of incidents.
But these days we better technology, it’s harder to hide the truth, he said. “We get better reports now thanks to crew members sending Whatsapp messages,” he said. “It can't be hidden any more,” he added.
Mexico’s Navy says it recognizes the robberies are a security issue, but prefers not to use the term pirates. “It is a problem that exists but we are a long way in Mexico from what happens in the Horn of Africa,” said Navy spokesman, Admiral Jose Orozco.
The Navy suspects the pirates are local fishermen likely working in collaboration with oil workers.
After one highly publicized incident in November last year, Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, recognized publicly that there was a problem.
“Regarding the piracy in the gulf … the extortion, the assaults on boats, the looting of PEMEX platforms, in Campeche, we are already taking care of that,” he said.
Videos and audio of the attacks have begun showing up on social media from crew members.
In one black and white surveillance video, a masked man can be seen pointing and waving a gun as a group of pirates held the crew hostage while raiding an offshore oil supply vessel, the Remas, off the coast of Tabasco.
The U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence reported that “the pirates ransacked the vessel, stealing personal belongings and ship's equipment before releasing the hostages and escaping.”
The April 9 incident was the third time pirates had attacked the REMAS, an Italian-flagged vessel, in the space of less than six months. In a priot attack in November, one crew member was shot in the leg and two others suffered head injuries from being beaten with a pistol butt.
While most of the incidents involve petty theft and looting, security experts warn that the pirate attacks are a sign that the situation could be developing into a more serious threat. Mexico’s energy reform program has recently sought to attract foreign investment in its offshore oil sector to boost declining production, creating a potentially attractive new opportunity for organized crime and drug cartels operating on the mainland.
The cartels are already have their claws into the onshore oil pipelines, where fuel theft is one of Mexico’s most pressing economic and security dilemmas, as the so-called ‘huachicoleros’ have sucked more than $1 billion in annual revenue from state coffers, by terrorizing and corrupting workers employees at the state-run oil company PEMEX.
“That’s the worry,” said Lee Oughton, chief operating officer of Fortress Risk Management, a Mexico-based security consultancy. “They are beginning to drill. All the activity is offshore now. It’s a huge area of bad actors to grow into,” he added.
The private companies operating in the gulf are not allowed to carry guns, but are equipped with non-lethal technology, such as water cannon, powerful infrared lasers that can illuminate a potential attacker from far away, as well as long range, high-decibel acoustic devices and floating barrier systems.
The scores of large oil production platforms and many more unmanned drilling rigs clustered in the southern Gulf of Mexico, employ thousands of oil industry workers. Some live on the platforms, while others reside on mobile crew ships which service the rigs.
As a result, the global maritime community is also paying more attention. Panama and the Marshall Islands, two of the world’s largest shipping registries, issues high risk warnings for the Gulf of Mexico in July. Panama’s Maritime Authority urged all Panama flagged vessels to “keep the utmost vigilnce and increase security conditions aboard, in case it is necessary to protect the vessel and crew during the time of passage in these waters,” it stated.
The World Maritime University in Sweden published a report at the end of July warning that the Mexican Navy was not properly reporting incident investigations to International Maritime Organization (IMO), the United Nations agency responsible for regulating shipping.
The Mexican Navy this summer implemented a safe anchorage protection plan denominado ‘Refuerzo Sonda’ para inhibir el ingreso de delincuentes a instalaciones petroleras en Campeche. But a survey of ship security officers by the Swedish researchers found widespread criticism of Mexican Navy’s response times, as well as concern that the Navy lacked resources.
Orozco, the Navy spokesman said a major effort is being made to tackle the problem using patrols ships with helicopters, but it wasn’t easy to track small boats that are hard to detect by radar at sea. “It's a big sea and difficult to cover it," adding that there had been several high-speed pursuits and assaults on vessels prevented.
The Swedish report urged international cooperation with the US Coastguard to reduce security threats, such as a bomb attack on an oil platform that could cause an environmental disaster.
“Mexico needs to develop an anti-piracy plan. It’s happening in their waters,” said Sweeney. “At this point they are proving themselves to be ill-equipped to handle it. There’s no sign of it abating any time soon,” he added.