Mexico Pirates Target New Treasure: Shrimp

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Heavily armed pirates have been hijacking shrimp catches along Mexico’s Pacific Coast, perhaps the work of cartel gunmen with time on their hands, or a sign of an interruption in cocaine shipments.

According to an investigation by El Universal, around $800,000 of shrimp has been stolen from shrimpers working off the coast of the state of Sinaloa following 14 robberies during the 2013 to 2014 shrimp season — an almost five-fold increase on the three robberies reported during the 2012 to 2013 season. The pirates using go-fast boats to ambush the shrimping vessels at sea and are equipped with bullet proof vests and assault rifles.

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Raul Benitez Manaut, an investigator at Mexico’s National Autonomous University, said the breakdown in the Sinaloa Cartel after the recent captures of important leaders — including boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman — may be behind the increase in shrimp boat robberies and that the problem will likely escalate. He warned that authorities need to ensure that these robberies do not “begin to be become modus operandi” for armed cells within the drug cartels. According to Benitez, a shrimp price increase of 30 to 40 percent has led to it being labeled “blue gold” and may also explain the rise in robberies.

This appears not to be an isolated example.  In Honduras it is estimated nearly 3.5 million pounds of shrimp — about $10 million worth — are stolen each year, according to the National Aquaculture Association of Honduras.

InSight Crime Analysis

The equipment and methods used to carry out these crimes — speedboats and military-grade weaponry — suggest the robbers are highly organized.  It is unlikely they were formed to rob shrimp catches, but rather worked for the drug trade. Criminal organizations often move cocaine via maritime routes along both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, using go-fast boats, submarines, yachts and fishing vessels, or a mix of them all.  The shipments often travel with their own protection and also employ local fisherman as drivers and watchmen, or to bring drugs to shore. 

Such ties have often brought drug violence to fishing towns and islands, including Nicaragua’s BluefieldsColombia’s San Andres islandislands off Panama’s coasts, and Ecuador’s province of Manabi. Mexico has drug cartels using both its Gulf and Pacific coasts

With the increasing fragmentation of the large international drug cartels, criminal organizations often subcontract out select jobs along the drug chain to local criminal groups, with transportation being one of them. It is quite possible that, as security services operations have disrupted the flow of drugs, one or more groups dedicated to trafficking along the Sinaloa coast could be using their knowledge of the seas, and fishing practices, to make up for lost profits. If so, this would be just another example of the diversification of criminal portfolios away from a total reliance on drugs, to activities like extortion, kidnapping and now it seems, shrimp piracy.

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