Luxury yacht owners have been warned of a surge in piracy in the southern Caribbean, as Venezuela’s economic collapse spurs its penniless fishermen into banditry.
According to a new global survey of global maritime security, 71 piracy incidents took place in the region last year, compared to just 21 the year before.
Researchers for the charity Oceans Beyond Piracy, which compiled the survey, said that a majority of the attacks had been off the coast of Venezuela, which is currently engulfed by political turmoil and hyperinflation.
The local fishing industry, which used to operate in the Caribbean waters off Venezuela’s northern coast, has been decimated in recent years, causing many to turn to drug trafficking and – increasingly – sea robbery.
The trend has direct echoes of the Somali piracy crisis, where impoverished fishermen likewise turned to hijacking passing vessels after the country’s collapse into lawlessness in the 1990s.
"The incidents we’ve logged have been concentrated mainly in Venezuelan waters," the report’s lead author, Maisie Pigeon, told the The Telegraph. "As in Somalia, insecure areas on land can breed wider insecurity at sea."
The warning comes as Venezuela continues to lurch towards all-out collapse, following new international sanctions imposed on Caracas after Sunday’s disputed election that returned socialist president Nicolas Maduro to power. Mr Maduro, who denies claims that the election was rigged, responded to the sanctions by expelling two top US diplomats on Tuesday.
Hyperinflation caused by Mr Maduro’s continuation of his predecessor Hugo Chavez’s command-economy nationalisation policies has hit particularly hard in poor Venezuelan coastal states like Sucre, where fishing was once of the sole livelihood.
Such is the shortage of goods on the shelves that some of Sucre’s pirates now make a living smuggling nappies and other basic goods in from Trinidad.
In late April, a pirate attack off the coast of Suriname, east along the coast from Venezuela, left at least a dozen fishermen feared dead. In a separate incident in May, a fishing boat captain was shot dead after his vessel was attacked off Suriname.
While most of the piracy victims are fellow fishermen or passing commercial vessels passing close to shore, yachters sailing to nearby Trinidad and other Caribbean islands could become increasingly at risk.
In March 2016, a German sailor was murdered and the yacht’s captain seriously injured when masked pirates armed with guns boarded their vessel anchored in St Vincent’s Wallilabou Bay, where Pirates of the Caribbean was filmed.
There are fears that if the Venezuelan crisis gets worse, the pirates may be tempted to range further out to sea – as their Somali counterparts began doing a decade ago.
Among those who sail in the Caribbean waters are the entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, who has a catamaran based at Necker, the private island he owns.
Gerry Northwood, a former Royal Navy captain who commanded the UK counter-piracy force off Somalia, and who now runs MAST, a maritime security company, said the threat in the wider Caribbean did not yet seem to have worsened.
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But he added: "There is a continuing ongoing level of criminality, partly-drug fuelled, but in the Caribbean it comes down mainly to observing sensible precautions and being careful if straying off the beaten track. Often these are attacks where a yacht has anchored off a remote shoreline somewhere, and is robbed by someone who has spotted it from land."