Modern-day piracy has once again made international news with the capture of 20 American hostages on the cargo ship cargo ship Maersk Alabama. The Alabama was the sixth vessel in a week to be hit by pirates who have extorted tens of millions of dollars in ransoms. Who are these pirates, and how have they become so pervasive?
They aren't like the pirates in the movies. "Colorful pirates don't exist. They're either well-organized gangs, making a lot of money out of it, or opportunistic thieves," Ian Taylor, editor of Cargo Security International, told the BBC in 2006. With no patrols along the shoreline, commercial fishing fleets from around the world exploited the chaos and plundered the waters. Somali fishermen armed themselves and turned into vigilantes by confronting illegal fishing boats and demanding that they pay a tax. "They got greedy," a Somali diplomat said. Some started taking hostages for ransom and robbing boats. Pirates tell reporters that they don't want to hurt anyone; they only want money.
Piracy has grown in Somalia with the 1991 collapse of the government. The money is tempting in a country where almost half the population needs international food aid.
"Even now, pirates are marrying the most beautiful ladies, with nonstop dancing at weddings that go a couple of days," one former pirate told Time. "Some pirates are even sending their girlfriends to hospitals abroad to give birth. Imagine that."