Boats transport a huge portion of global trade. A shadow side to this trade is the persistence of pirates. The international Martime Bureau records istances of piracy worldwide, and display their data on a google map. Along with West Africa, Somalia, and South India, the Strait of Malacca, between Indonesia and Malaysia, is a piracy hotspot. About 50,000 vessels travel through the staits each year carrying a major part (40%?) of the world’s sea trade.
In the October National Geographic, Peter Gwin writes about on the Malacca Strait Pirates, who are known as lanun.
…The 21st-century inheritors of their tradition continue to hunt these waters, mainly in three incarnations: gangs that board vessels to rob the crews; multinational syndicates that steal entire ships; and guerrilla groups that kidnap seamen for ransom.
Modern lanun have no shortage of targets. Each year, according to Lloyd’s of London, some 70,000 merchant vessels carrying a fifth of all seaborne trade and a third of the world’s crude oil shipments transit this critical choke point in the global economy. The strait’s geography makes it nearly unsecurable. It passes between Malaysia and Indonesia, known for thorny relations, further complicating the security picture. Some 250 miles (400 kilometers) wide at its northern mouth, the strait funnels down to about ten miles (16 kilometers) across near its southern end and is dotted with hundreds of uninhabited mangrove islands, offering endless hideouts to all manner of criminals.
Since 2002, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) has recorded 258 pirate attacks in the Malacca Strait and surrounding waters, including more than 200 sailors held hostage and 8 killed. The insurance arm of Lloyd’s classified the strait as a war zone in June 2005. Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia responded by bolstering security in their respective waters, and Lloyd’s suspended the rating in August 2006.
… In a nearby restaurant, he said he knew John Palembang, whom he called a low-level seaman. The coffee shop grapevine had laughed at news of the Nepline Delima fiasco. “Amateurs,” Jhonny scoffed. He began to describe his own career, how he had piloted tugboats and a ferry before taking the helm of a small cargo vessel. In time, he built a network of friends among sailors and harbor workers. Along the way he took side jobs, smuggling untaxed garlic, cigarettes, electronics, and drugs. In the 1980s, he relocated to Hong Kong to work for Chinese crime syndicates. There his repertoire broadened to include making large cargoes “disappear.”
He estimated that 75 percent of heisted cargoes were inside jobs involving the ship’s crew, often the captain. “That’s why most are not reported,” he said, explaining that shipping companies often write off these losses rather than suffer bad press and risk losing their insurance.
It works like this, he said. A ship broker would call him and say there’s a customer who needs diesel fuel. “I know a crewman on a tanker,” Jhonny says. “I call his hand phone and ask him if he is happy. If he says yes, no problem. But if he says no, I tell him I make him happy, and then we make a plan.” But the crewman won’t work legitimately again, I said. He laughed. “Seamen have lots of names. Some have three or four passports. No problem.”