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The Mystery of Mexico's Modern Pirates
Gunmen robbing oil rigs and fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico was a sign of Mexico's decaying rule of law. In January attacks suddenly halted. I ask why.
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The oil driller had just started his grueling night shift on the rig in the Gulf of Mexico when the pirates came aboard and started shooting. There were only six buccaneers against a total of 200 workers on board. But the pirates had AK-47s and it would be 45 minutes before a boat of Mexican marines could come to the rescue. The workers were also terrified of escalating a firefight on an oil rig that could blow them all to kingdom come. So they gave the pirates what they wanted: dozens of industrial breathing kits worth thousands of dollars a piece.
“Working rigs is extremely demanding and it takes you away from your family. But you shouldn’t have to fear for your life like this,” the worker tells me. “It adds a lot more stress to an already stressful job.”
The night raid was one of hundreds of pirate attacks to have hit oil installations, supply vessels and fishermen in the southern Gulf of Mexico from 2010 to late 2022. Last year was one of the worst on record with 12 robberies of rigs of Mexico’s state oil company Pemex causing a loss of 30 million pesos ($1.7 million) worth of equipment, and a further 10 assaults on private contractors. The attacks were concentrated in the Bay of Campeche, an area of 6,000 square miles that contains the vast Cantarell oil field. Pirates also robbed various fishing boats, stealing motors or valuable hauls of seafood that had taken weeks to catch.
Yet since January, the piracy has abruptly halted. Journalist Gabriel Graniel has been monitoring the raids from his base in Ciudad del Carmen which sits on the bay, and tells me he has received no reports of attacks on oil rigs this year. Santiago Jiménez, a commercial fisherman in Carmen also says he has no more news of robberies of his fellow anglers, although he has heard of some further up the coast towards Yucatan.
Mexican security forces have not announced detentions of the pirates that could have stopped them. But talking to oil union reps, businessmen, and other fishermen in Carmen, I hear various speculations as to what could have changed. One is that two gangs of pirates had a shoot out and most were killed. Another, which sounds more plausible, is that a drug cartel murdered some of the pirates and chased others away.
The respite in raids may of course be temporary and buccaneers could be back in force. Either way, the fact piracy carried on for years in a strategic oil area is a sign of Mexico’s decaying rule of law.
As the drug war raged, gangsters ramped up other crimes from stealing crude oil to wildcat mining to good old piracy. The cartels have moved into a portfolio of these rackets. Yet it may also be the cartels who are eliminating petty criminals in chunks of the country
From Captain Morgan to Zambumbia
The Bay of Campeche boasts a history of piracy with a force of privateers including Henry Morgan sacking the city of Campeche in 1663. Three centuries later, Pemex discovered the Cantarrel Complex and it became the second biggest oil field on the planet, producing two million barrels a day by 2001.
Pemex built hundreds of rigs and secondary installations and money poured into government coffers. Yet after major reserves were sucked out, production tumbled from the late 2000s and it’s now down to a 160,000 barrels a day. Many of the rigs and secondary platforms were left abandoned - and undefended.
The pirates emerged from about 2010 robbing the unmanned targets, swiping copper or whatever they could find, the journalist Graniel tells me. They gradually got bolder and went after manned rigs and expensive equipment. A problem was that Pemex officials did their best to cover up the robberies rather than confront them. Information was guarded and the workers were banned from talking to the press.
“When the workers are victims of a robbery, instead of Pemex giving them psychological support for the trauma, it submits them to an investigation, like they are the guilty one,” Graniel says. “When they are subcontractors, it will often just fire them.”
Alarms of piracy are bad for Mexico commercially. When the attacks finally made the news from 2019 and Pemex was forced to release numbers, shipping organizations put out warnings. “The Bay of Campeche remains the epicenter of maritime crime and piracy within the Gulf of Mexico,” it said in Dryad Global’s Maritime Security Threat last year. “Currently there is believed to be a significant degree of under-reporting of incidents”
I go on a boat round the Gulf with the fisherman Jiménez looking at the shacks on the coast, a navy ship in the harbor and the rusty rigs out at sea. Jiménez describes how the robberies can bankrupt them. A fisherman will borrow money to buy a motor and be devastated if it’s stolen. The seafood comes from hard work on long trips. In one incident, the pirates robbed an entire ton of shrimp. The assailants will fire into the water and have shot dead at least one fisherman, in 2021.
“The compañeros were scared to go out fishing,” Jiménez says. “We tried to go to the prosecutors to find a solution but they didn’t respond. So we had to organize to defend ourselves.” They went out in groups, keeping patrols and coordinating with radios in a form of self defense squad, he says.
It’s murky as to who the pirates really are especially as the security forces have done such a bad job of detaining them. Some say they could be fishermen themselves, maybe from villages down the coast. Others claim they are foreigners. The Zetas drug cartel used to be a force in the southern Gulf but was decimated by the security forces and other cartels; some of its gunmen became rogue stick up guys and could be involved with the pirates.
Last year, there was a shoot-out in Carmen and a man was taken to the hospital with bullet wounds. Graniel spoke to the nurses who said he was feverish and rambling that he had been attacked by pirates working for Zambumbia - which would indeed be a fine pirate name if that were true.
As the old school Zetas faded out in the region, new mobs have emerged. In May 2022, narco mensajes, or banners, were put up in Carmen declaring the so-called Pura Gente Nueva, or PGN, was in town and threatening local criminals including a female Colombian loan shark. Cartels often claim to rid communities of thieves and rapists.
The affiliation of the PGN is blurry. The Gente Nueva in the north of Mexico work for the Sinaloa Cartel. But a narco rap song links the “PGN” to the Jalisco mob. And Carmen’s public security secretary said they were a regrouping of the Zetas. Either way, the mobsters have left a trail of bodies in Carmen and nearby towns over the last year. Several sources say the gangsters are charging protection to businesses, including fishermen. Extortionists will sometimes actually deliver and remove rival threats.
Ciudad del Carmen sits on an island between a mangrove swamp and the Gulf, a towering Virgin on the pier offering warmth to the fishermen and oil drillers. The Mexican government failed for a decade to offer basic protection to the breadwinners in this oil-rich corner of the republic; those who can help them will give themselves real power.
Photos by Ioan Grillo
You can also see Alasdair Baverstock’s CGTN report, “Pirates in the Gulf.”
Copyright by Ioan Grillo and CrashOutMedia 2023