In the past year, pirates have attacked more than 35 vessels off the coast of Somalia, in the Horn of Africa, making the region second only to the Strait of Malacca in Asia as the world's most dangerous place for ships. Robbery on the high seas is an extension of the lawlessness and anarchy that has existed on land for nearly a generation.
Organized chaos is the only way to describe the scene at the port of El-Ma'an, when ships, laden with goods, come to call.
The arrival of cargo ships is a welcome sight for Somalis. Nearly one million metric tons of food and other supplies go through this port, each year, providing war-torn Somalia with a vital lifeline.
On this day, a ship has brought sacks of sugar from Brazil and generators from Dubai. El-Ma'an, like most ports in Somalia, has no infrastructure to accommodate ships of any kind. With no place to dock, the ship is forced to drop anchor about a half kilometer from shore.
Pushing dozens of wooden boats and dinghies into the water, several hundred workers head out to sea to begin bringing in the goods. Hundreds of other workers on the beach swarm around when the vessels return, unloading sacks and boxes and carrying them to waiting trucks.
The process of unloading the goods can take hours, sometimes days. That gives the pirates plenty of time to execute an assault.
Armed with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, the gunmen use their boats to pull alongside the bigger ship and threaten to sink the vessel unless they are allowed to come aboard. Once they have control, they hold the ship, its crew and cargo for ransom.
El-Ma'an has a relatively high level of security, to ward off such attacks. But the chairman of the business group that owns the port, Abdulkadir Nur, says shippers, fearing attacks, already started cutting back on the number of port calls they make to El-Ma'an.
Every ship that is canceled drives poverty-stricken Somalia further toward despair.
"A lot of ships come from the Middle East," said Abdulkadir Nur. "The ship owners are afraid to bring food. The cost is high because the insurance [companies], they are asking for more money. This is a very bad thing."
And, today, it is not just ships coming close to shore that are vulnerable to Somalia's pirates. With some shipping companies paying as much as $500,000 in ransom, attacks have become bolder in recent months, targeting ships sailing as far as 350 kilometers from the coast.
The director of the International Maritime Bureau, Pottengal Mukundan, says the pirates have developed sophisticated tactics. They will use a larger vessel to get near the target, and then launch speedboats from it that pull alongside and make the attack.
Garaad Mohamuud Mohamed had been a relatively obscure Somali faction leader in central Somalia until early last year, when his name began stirring fear in the corridors of global shipping companies.
His militia is believed to be among the largest of several militia groups, who have found lucrative work in the past year hijacking ships off the 3,000-kilometer coast of Somalia.
Mohamed refused VOA's repeated request for a meeting. But in a recent interview with Mogadishu-based radio station, Radio Shabele, the faction leader denied that his men were engaged in piracy.
Mohammed says his men do patrol the area in boats, but they merely act as coast guards. He says, without a government to do the job, it is up to men like him to protect Somali marine resources and its beaches from what he terms "foreign invaders."
The faction leader, who operates from the coastal town of Harardhere, in central Somalia, acknowledges that his men have seized ships. But he insists the money that companies have paid him to release their ships is not ransom, but taxes required for ships to pass through his territory.
A leading political analyst and civil rights advocate in Mogadishu, Jabril Ibrahim Abdulle, says so far, there is little evidence to suggest that piracy in Somalia is a source of funding for international terrorist groups, as some neighboring countries fear. Abdulle says, most likely, Mohamed is just doing at sea what is already done on land.
Since Somalia's last functioning government was toppled in 1991, Somalia has been ruled by rival faction leaders, who have carved up the country into fiefdoms. Travelers routinely pay cash bounties to pass through their checkpoints.
"This is similar to what we have inland," said Jabril Ibrahim Abdulle. "Every road in Somalia has checkpoints where you have to pay some specific money, because everybody feels this is quick money to make. The solution is government, government, government, government. Somalis need a government that cannot only take care of the land, but also the sea, as well as the air."
Last October, a Somali transitional federal government, made up of factional leaders and politicians, was cobbled together in neighboring Kenya. But squabbling among the leaders has so far crippled efforts to establish the government in Mogadishu, the capital.
In the meantime, the job of fighting piracy is increasingly falling on a U.S.-led counter-terrorism force. Its ships have been patrolling the Horn of Africa for the past several years.
Last month, a U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer chased down and seized a boat being used by pirates to attack other ships in the Indian Ocean. The Navy rescued 16 Indian hostages and arrested 10 Somali men on board on piracy charges. The alleged pirates have been sent to Mombasa, Kenya to stand trial.
Faction leader Garaad Mohamuud Mohamed in Harardhere has not said whether the accused men belong to his militia. But he has demanded their immediate release, threatening deadly attacks if his demand is not met.
"We have never harmed anyone aboard the ships we seized," he said. "But from now on, we will not hesitate to kill all of them."
For now, sailing anywhere near Somalia remains a grave risk that fewer and fewer ships may be willing to take.