What are the Causes and Consequences of Piracy in the Gulf of Mexico?
Piracy is caused by many factors and cannot be pinned on one thing alone.
This article will detail the defining nature of piracy in the Gulf of Mexico and outline the potential consequences if piracy in the region escalates to greater levels.
Between different areas of the world and throughout history, elements have connected different types of piracy in commonality, whilst each case has its distinctive characteristics.
Comparing GoG to the Gulf of Mexico
We will use a comparison with piracy in the Gulf of Guinea and Nigeria to demonstrate this. In doing so, we will outline how piracy in the region has come about and how it is legitimised. Furthermore, the consequences will show that the geographical location of the Gulf of Mexico can cause several issues in terms of increasing security problems.
Many factors can contribute to people turning to piracy. The most apparent factor is geography. There needs to be proximity to water and shipping to be able to commit acts of piracy.
On a more nuanced level, access to hideaways in which to launch attacks and hide after them is critical. In addition, hunting grounds either cram shipping in tight areas or have ships with profitable goods on board. Such places are close to international shipping lanes, like the Suez Canal, the Gulf of Aden or oil fields like the Niger Delta next to the Gulf of Guinea.
Notions of poverty are linked to piracy. The term notions of poverty can be relative, which we will explain in the next section. What can be defined now is that notions of poverty are the feelings of impoverishment compared to one's surroundings or what one thinks one deserves. These notions can push people towards piracy. However, direct empirical links between poverty and piracy are lacking; it is essential to consider this with all other factors.
Others point to feelings of desperation or relative poverty, where people believe they deserve better. Such ideas are linked closely with the failings of government. In Nigeria, the government has failed to implement regional projects to keep the area's citizens at the same level of development as the oil industry. Feelings of social exclusion follow this.
Poverty on its own is not the cause of piracy in Nigeria, but the oil trade causes wealth disparity.
Youth unemployment has led to the development of gangs. These gangs are referred to as "cult groups" and are involved with violent crime and have branched out to piracy. Insurgency groups have also developed in the region due to the lack of wealth distribution from the oil trade, contributing to different piracy groups.
Poverty on its own is not the cause of piracy in Nigeria, but the oil trade causes wealth disparity. The many targets that this trade created, along with favourable geography and weak government response, are factors that led to the rise of piracy in the area.
As the money made from piracy can improve some communities more directly than the government, this can lead to a sense of acceptance from said communities.
Government corruption and neglect also contribute to the development of piracy. Government neglect has been seen despite the rich oil reserves of the Niger Delta.
The local area has not experienced growth on par with the investment in the oil industry. As a result, the local people are left behind, leading to notions of poverty and the feeling that they deserve more. The Niger Delta Development Committee, which the government created to start development in the area, also woefully underperformed with poor projects and corruption, resulting in the embezzlement of funds. A lack of housing, social programmes, healthcare and law enforcement leads people to criminality to find belonging and sources of income.
Now Let's Take a Look at How this Compares to Mexico.
Firstly, geography provides an oil-rich area with oil platforms and shipping for targets. The Bay of Campeche offers more angles of attack from the land due to the bay area and a
tropical coastline to quickly launch and return to. Trees on the coastline make it easy to arrive and return relatively undetected. As a result, this is where most attacks take place.
"The notion of relative poverty plays a role in legitimising piracy."
Government Corruption and Lack of Investment
As for poverty in Mexico, the notion of poverty being relative plays a role in legitimising piracy. To understand this concept, a comparison to Somalia will help.
The average citizen of Somalia is poor by empirical standards, and the state lacks any authority or financial backing to provide help or opportunities to the populace.
Compared to Mexico, the state is more developed in terms of providing security, job opportunities and so forth, with the average Mexican being far better off than the average Somali. Despite this, notions of poverty can still be seen.
Romantic Notions of Pirates of Olden Times
There is a romanticisation of piracy within the area as well. In the Age of Discovery, the Spanish Empire colonised and traded the area's vast natural resources, such as rubber, natural dyes and sugar cane.
As such, the area became a prosperous trading centre which attracted pirates in the Golden Age of Piracy across the Caribbean and Americas. These pirates are revered in the Campeche Bay area, which may play into the cultural acceptance of practices today. On top of this is the issue of government neglect.
A CIA report stated that over 20% of Mexico was controlled by drug traffickers
When piracy first started, critics accused the government of sidelining the piracy issue as they had their hands full dealing with the drug cartels. There are certainly merits to these claims. In 2018, a CIA report stated that over 20% of Mexico was controlled by drug traffickers.
Homicides and kidnappings were also at the highest levels in over 30 years. Therefore, seaborne robberies would not grab the authorities' attention in the first instance compared to the extreme violence and existential threat of the multi-billion dollar drug cartels. However, this notion has changed due to external pressure as outlined in our previous article.
Drug cartels have turned Mexico into the kidnap and ransom capital of the world
What are the possible consequences of this new typology of piracy?
The main effects surrounding the area's geography involve internal support, advancement, and proximity to the world's significant naval power. Firstly, internal developments may lead to substantial criminal elements becoming involved in piracy to diversify their revenue streams.
These groups already have skills available to excel in the region's current business model practised by pirates and develop it more reminiscent of that seen in the Gulf of Aden and the Gulf of Guinea. Drug cartels have turned Mexico into the kidnap and ransom capital of the world and have mariner skills most commonly seen through narco submarines which traffic drugs. In theory, besides being heavily armed and well-connected criminals, these skills would transfer over to piracy very well, resulting in another revenue stream.
The US Navy?
Another issue may arise from the intervention of the US Navy. Given that the area is vital for US oil and gas supplies, the US could intervene if the situation was too heightened.
However, the current consensus is that intervention would mean that the piracy problem would end rather quickly due to the power of the US Navy. Despite this, as seen in Indonesia and Malaysia, it may take significant levels of piracy for the Mexican government to green light any international help within their exclusive economic zone.
Overall, piracy in the Gulf of Mexico is a problem that started from similar factors to other piracy clusters but has unique characteristics. Aspects concerning geography, lack of government oversight, poverty and feelings of social exclusion, and a cultural acceptance of piracy merge to create conditions for a piracy cluster.
Other factors, such as existing elements of a criminal organisation, also play a role. These elements can be seen in Nigeria and Mexico, with each area having slightly different regional identifiers.
Time will tell whether the Mexican government's newest efforts to curb piracy will be enough to stop it from developing to the levels of piracy that ships experienced in Nigeria and the Gulf of Guinea in the 2010s.