Maritime crime in Mexico on the rise

Gulf of Mexico. Credit: NASA

A drastic increase in attacks off the coast of Mexico, along with a change in targets from stationary platforms to vessels, and poor socioeconomic conditions, could make the Mexican gulf one to watch when it comes to maritime crime.

According to reports from the US Marine Administration (MARAD), there were four incidents of armed robbery between the 4 and 14 April 2020 alone. This is a 300% increase compared to data from the International Maritime Bureau Piracy Reporting Centre, which shows only one incident for the whole of 2019. Although the number of incidents may appear small, the increase was cause enough for concern for both MARAD and Gard P&I Club to release security alerts for vessels transiting the region.

The security alerts from Gard and MARAD suggested that the spike in attacks could be in part due to better incident reporting in Mexico. When approached by SAS for comment, a representative from the Intelligence and Operations Centre (IOC) at the Norwegian Shipowners’ Mutual Warrisks Insurance Association, agreed that the area had previously been a “black spot” for piracy attack reporting. However, both the IOC and Guy Wilson- Roberts, senior analyst Risk Intelligence, agreed that better reporting was not the main reason behind the uptick in attacks. Instead they stated that the increase in attacks may be due to a change in criminal patterns and the modus operandi of the perpetrators.

Wilson-Roberts explained that the attacks taking place in the Gulf of Mexico are off two major oil service ports of Ciudad Del Carmen and Puerto Dos Bocas. The attackers target their robbery attempts on these areas as there are an estimated 100 offshore oil and drilling platforms. Previously, perpetrators would concentrate on stealing rig equipment to re-sell on the black market, noted Wilson-Roberts. “The significant change we have seen in 2020 is that they are increasingly targeting manned vessels or accommodation rigs etc rather than unmanned platforms, which were the preferred targets during 2019,” said the IOC. “As for what they are stealing, it is any type of valuables onboard, including personal effects among the crew, lap-tops, phones and jewellery”. This change seems to indicate that these items are easier to sell on the black market or are currently more profitable.

Little is known about the identity of the perpetrators of these robberies, largely because none have been caught despite the presence of a naval base in neighbouring Frontera, and naval forces responding to attacks in the area. However, they have been seen to arrive on speedboats in small numbers. “The perpetrators are mariners themselves and have often originated from maritime communities where there is a high degree of seafaring knowledge and ready access to resources,” Munro Anderson, partner Dryad Global, told SAS. The IOC concurred, putting forward that rather than being in relation to Mexican drug cartels, the perpetrators are most likely disgruntled locals who are currently suffering the negative impacts of the downturn of the oil and local fishing industries.

Wilson-Roberts noted that the Campeche province, where Ciudad del Carmen is situated, has the lowest reported levels of cartel activity in all of Mexico. “We see no real link to cartel activity. Geographically, there is little cartel activity in the vicinity of the main incident locations,” said Anderson. What is cause for concern is that the attackers boarding the vessels are armed, raising concerns for crew safety in future attacks. According to Wilson-Roberts, on reviewing camera footage from one of the vessels involved in the robberies this year, the attackers were masked and armed with handguns and were seen intimidating crew. There were also reports of shots being fired after vessels were boarded.

Comparing Mexico’s situation to previous piracy incidents in West Africa, Anderson stated that Dryad Global has yet to see a concerted effort, on behalf of the attackers, to make kidnap and ransom part of the agenda.

However, there are certain similarities with the situation in West Africa. Mexico, like in West Africa, is experiencing an economic downturn and drop in oil prices, exacerbated by a lack of global oil demand due to COVID-19. This could explain the change in modus operandi and rise in attacks in Mexico, and the rise in crew kidnaps in West Africa.

According to global risk and strategic consulting firm Control Risks Mexico is a kidnap-for-ransom (KNR) global hotspot on land, affecting not only nationals but travelers and tourists. Nigeria too shares this title. It may be only a matter of time that the perpetrators of these vessel attacks switch from stealing crew valuables and electronics, to kidnapping crew as a more valuable commodity. “They [the attackers] are heavily armed and have been known to take crew as hostages during incidents in order to ensure compliance,” warned the IOC.

While there is a risk that KNR could migrate from land to sea, Hans Tino Hansen, CEO Risk Intelligence, pointed out KNR is harder at sea than on land and as more vessels are attacked they may increase self-protection measures like in Somalia or the Gulf of Guinea. Finally, government intervention is also a factor; law enforcement and naval forces could combat the rising threat if it goes against Mexican national interests, Hansen suggested. “The whole range of components will determine the risk/reward ratio for the kidnappers, which may increase or decrease their motivation to up the game with maritime kidnappings,” concluded Hansen.