Secure at Sea: Yachts off Mexico need plan for piracy

Dec 21, 2019 by Corey D. Ranslem

Secure@Sea: by Corey D. Ranslem

Piracy off the Gulf Coast of Mexico has been prevalent for several years. Pirates in this region are typically organized gangs that specifically target the Mexican offshore oil rigs owned by Pemex, the state-run oil company. Pirates typically try to steal petroleum products, along with equipment and personal belongings they can readily sell on the black market. Some security and energy experts believe that the losses resulting from these activities are close to $1 billion annually. 

There have been sporadic reports of attempted piracy against pleasure vessels and commercial ships, but those incidents are typically isolated incidents. The concentration of the worst piracy has been in the region off Ciudad del Carman, located in the southeastern Bay of Campeche. Pirates have been changing tactics in this region over the past year. 

The Mexican navy and security experts report that pirates carry out an average of 16 attacks per month against ships and offshore oil platforms. The latest attack was on Nov. 11. Local media reports that seven to eight armed pirates in two go-fast vessels attacked an Italian-flagged offshore supply vessel off the coast of Ciudad del Carmen. The Italian ship had 35 crew members on board. Two crew members were wounded when they tried to fight the pirates. Their injuries were not life-threatening. The pirates looted the ship, took what they could carry of value, then left. 

Large yachts have not yet been targeted in this region or other parts of Mexico, but that could change as the pirates continue to increase the number of attempted attacks. Regional instability in Central and South American governments could also exacerbate the potential for piracy in various parts of the larger region. 

The Mexican pirates typically disguise themselves as fishermen or even as Mexican navy officials. This makes it much harder to detect a potential attack. The Mexican government has promised to increase surveillance patrols in this region of the Gulf, as several large yachts transit just west of this region through the Yucatan Pass. 

When planning to travel in or near Mexico, there are some precautions to consider. First, it is illegal to carry weapons into Mexican territorial seas. Even if you declare the weapons upon entry, you could be arrested. It’s possible to petition the Mexican Embassy for a permit to carry firearms and ammunition, but that process is long, typically not easy and usually not successful. The Mexican navy and other law enforcement agencies follow very strict policies when it comes to weapons on board vessels without a permit. 

Second, consider using some type of maritime intelligence service that can provide real-time information on the dynamic and ever-changing security situations around the world. Many providers can give you strategic information, but very few can accurately deliver real-time information. 

Finally, there should be a security plan in place that deals with piracy,  along with other security issues, and how the crew should handle these situations.

If the decision is made to bring weapons or even armed security teams on board to protect the vessel, be sure to  understand any requirements of the flag state and insurance company, and the regulations of the other countries the yacht will transit through on the voyage. As we’ve discussed in previous articles, there are some flag states that don’t allow weapons, and several countries where weapons are banned or must be declared. 

Most flag states have put forward guidance on carrying weapons and armed security teams. The common flags within the large-yacht community typically allow weapons and security teams, but these regulations do change from time to time. 

Make sure to check with the insurance company as well. Even though the flag state may allow the weapons, there might be restrictions within the vessel insurance policy, and sometimes insurance companies require an additional policy for weapons or security teams.

Corey Ranslem, CEO at International Maritime Security Associates (, has more than 24 years of combined Coast Guard and maritime industry experience. Comments are welcome below.


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