On June 3, the United States begins a capital murder trial against three alleged Somali pirates, accused of killing four Americans at sea. If convicted, the defendants could be sentenced to death. While more pirates are being convicted in courts around the world, the kingpins who profit most from the crime continue their work with impunity.
In the last decade, shipping off the coast of Somalia was subjected to relentless pirate attacks, the numbers peaking in 2011 with 176 reported cases. Now, though, international naval patrols and armed guards on ships are keeping the pirates at bay. But this cannot last for long, said Pottengal Mukundan, director of the International Maritime Bureau.
“The root cause of piracy is not at sea, it is on shore in Somalia," he said. "So long as Somalia has got parts of the country which are ungoverned without law enforcement or judicial systems, piracy is going to continue.
The pirates operate largely in the open along Somalia’s central coast, making it a high-profit, low-risk enterprise for the kingpins. They have pulled in hundreds of millions of dollars in ransom paid by shipping companies to free their vessels and crews.
Despite the current security measures, Mukundan said he is not aware of a single criminal piracy network that has been dismantled, providing crime bosses with even more incentive to keep operating.
A masked Somali pirate stands near a Taiwanese fishing vessel that washed up on shore after the pirates were paid a ransom and released the crew, in the once-bustling pirate den of Hobyo, Somalia, Sept. 23, 2012.
German marine forces as part of the European Union Naval Force Operation Atalanta, intercept a ship with suspected pirates off the coast of Tanzania, November 4, 2011.
Crew members of the Panama-flagged cargo ship MV Asphalt Venture freed by pirates look out from the ship at the Kenyan Port of Mombasa, April 28, 2011.
South Korean naval special forces take up positions during an operation to rescue crew members on the Samho Jewelry vessel in the Arabian Sea, Jan. 21, 2011.
As part of the EU Naval Force Somalia, the German Frigate 'Hamburg' patrols after destroying two fishing boats (L) which were discovered floating keel side up in open waters off the coast of Somalia, August 15, 2011.
Authorities are navigating a maze of often-conflicting national and international laws that prevent them from getting to the top players, said Donna Hopkins from the International Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia.
“We’re working very hard to identify those people and indict them for crimes of which they are clearly guilty and see that they are charged. I am not going to tell you who they are but we have a very clear idea who they are. For the last four years the international community has worked very hard to identify who so we could get at the real guts of this organization," Hopkins said.
The contact group has dozens of members, including governments, industry groups, the United Nations and the African Union. The group has found that the piracy network straddles continents and that some top government officials have been involved, Hopkins said.
“There are certainly high-level officials inside Somalia and elsewhere who have been complicit in this crime and the money laundering that’s attendant to pushing the ransom money out to other enterprises," she said.
With no central banking system in Somalia, authorities have had a difficult time following a money trail.
But the International Maritime Bureau's Mukundan sees positive signs. The new government in Mogadishu -- the first one in more than 20 years widely viewed as legitimate -- has vowed to put judicial and law enforcement systems in place.
“At the moment the signs are very encouraging," he said. "They have a long way to go.”
The IMB says that in the first quarter of 2013, there were only five reported piracy incidents off the Somali coast. But still, Mukundan warns, international naval might and shipping companies' anti-piracy efforts are just barely holding the line.