Sea Transportation: Pirates And The Price Of Hashish

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October 22, 2009: The heavy international anti-piracy patrol in the Gulf of Aden is hurting the pirates in many ways. The piracy operations are run by several gangs, all of which, in one way or another, began as smuggling operations. The two big moneymakers for smugglers are drugs (usually hashish, a form of concentrated marijuana, and widely produced in Africa) and people. The drugs are much more valuable, with a ton of hashish costing $100,000 a ton in Kenya or Uganda, but $7 million a ton once sold to users in Europe. Most of the increase in price goes to middlemen, mainly those who transport it across the Gulf of Aden, then north through the Middle East and into various European countries (some of which are more difficult, and thus more expensive, to operate in than others.)

Thus the recent U.S. Navy capture of four tons of hashish in the Gulf of Aden, cost one of the pirate gangs up to half a million dollars. That hurts, The American sailors simply tossed the hash overboard, where it sank to the bottom. No arrests were made, as the employers of the hapless smugglers would take care of punishment. There have been over half a dozen such seizures this year, and the anti-piracy patrol watches carefully to spot the drug smugglers.

Carrying people across the Gulf of Aden is much less lucrative. You're only going to make about $1,500 a ton, and a boatload of people is easier to spot, and harder to handle, than a boatload of hashish. But the hashish hauling jobs are not as numerous as the people transporting ones. Moreover, the people smuggling boats are often towed to Yemen, where the crew are jailed, or worse. They lose their boat, although the boss back in Somalia still has the crossing fees, which are paid in advance.

Much of the pirate activity has now moved to the high seas off the east coast of Somalia, where the pirates spend more time just getting to where the ships are, and then searching for the much less concentrated traffic. But the anti-piracy patrol remains intense in the Gulf of Aden. The only pirates active there now tend to be smuggling something, and the pirate gangs are unhappy with their mounting losses. The maritime nations realize that the only way to get rid of the anti-piracy patrol is to halt the piracy. That's won't happen, because there are too many Somalis willing to keep at it, no matter what. The current crop of pirate gang leaders also control most lot of the smuggling activity, and they are not ready to give it all over to some second or third tier gang. The smuggling losses are just a cost of doing business, and tolerable as long as the multi-million dollar ship ransoms keep coming in.

But the more astute gang leaders know that the nations running the anti-piracy patrol will eventually get tired of the expense and frustration, and send in ground forces to destroy the coastal towns the pirates use as bases, and keep destroying boats and towns the pirates need to keep operating. Won't be the first time that has happened along these coasts. But for now, the pirates have a license to steal, because the Western nations are too politically correct and sensitive to send troops ashore, and risk civilian casualties.

 


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