As Venezuela disintegrates, a scourge returns: the pirates of the Caribbean

Photo: Map of the Caribbean Sea. Th. de Bry, 1594.Photo: Map of the Caribbean Sea. Th. de Bry, 1594.By Anthony Faiola The Washington Post

CEDROS, TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO — In the flickers of sunlight off the cobalt blue of the Caribbean Sea, the vessel appeared as a cut on the horizon. It sailed closer. But the crew of the Asheena took no heed.

“We be lookin’ for our red fish as normal, thinkin’ they be fishin’, too,” said Jimmy Lalla, 36, part of the crew that had dropped lines in Trinidadian waters last April a few miles the lawless Venezuelan coast.

The other vessel kept approaching. “They be needin’ help?” Lalla recalled wondering as it pulled aside their 28-foot pirogue. A short, sinewy man jumped on board, shouting in Spanish and waving a pistol.

“Then we knowin’,” Lalla said. “They be pirates.”

Centuries after Blackbeard’s cannons fell silent and the Jolly Roger came down from rum ports across the Caribbean, the region is confronting a new and less romanticized era of pirates.

Political and economic crises are exploding from Venezuela to Nicaragua to Haiti, sparking anarchy and criminality. As the rule of law breaks down, certain spots in the Caribbean, experts say, are becoming more dangerous than they’ve been in years.

Often, observers say, the acts of villainy appear to be happening with the complicity or direct involvement of corrupt officials — particularly in the waters off collapsing Venezuela.

“It’s criminal chaos, a free-for-all, along the Venezuelan coast,” said Jeremy McDermott, co-director of Insight Crime, a non-profit organization that studies organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Comprehensive data on piracy is largely lacking for Latin America and the Caribbean. But a two-year study by the non-profit Oceans Beyond Piracy recorded 71 major incidents in the region in 2017 — including robberies of merchant vessels and attacks on yachts — up 163 per cent from the previous year. The vast majority happened in Caribbean waters.

The incidents range from glorified muggings on the high seas to barbaric attacks worthy of 17th-century pirates.

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