HOBYO, Somalia — The empty whiskey bottles and overturned, sand-filled skiffs littering this once-bustling shoreline are signs the heyday of Somali piracy may be over. Most of the prostitutes are gone and the luxury cars repossessed. Pirates while away their hours playing cards or catching lobsters.
"There's nothing to do here these days," said Hassan Abdi, a high school graduate who taught English in a private school before turning to piracy in 2009. "The hopes for a revitalized market are not high."
Armed guards aboard cargo ships and an international naval armada that carries out onshore raids have put a huge dent in piracy and might even be ending the scourge.
While experts say it's too early to declare victory, the numbers are startling: In 2010, pirates seized 47 vessels. This year they've taken five.
For a look at the reality behind those numbers, an Associated Press team from the capital, Mogadishu, traveled to the pirate havens of Galkayo and Hobyo, a coastal town considered too dangerous for Western reporters since the kidnappers have turned to land-based abductions over the last year.
There they found pirates who once owned vast villas living in darkened, unfurnished rooms, hiding from their creditors.
Prostitute Faduma Ali longs for the days when her pirate customers had money. As she smoked a hookah in a hot, airless room in Galkayo last week, she sneered as she answered a phone call from a former customer seeking some action on credit.
"Those days are over. Can you pay me $1,000?" she asked. That's what she once got for a night's work. "If not, goodbye and leave me alone."
"Money," she groaned as she hung up.
The caller, Abdirizaq Saleh, once had bodyguards and maids and the attention of beautiful women. When ransoms came in, a party was thrown, with blaring music, bottles of wine, the stimulant khat and a woman for every man.
Now Saleh is hiding from creditors in a dirty room filled with dust-covered TVs and high-end clothes he acquired when flush.
"Ships are being held longer, ransoms are getting smaller and attacks are less likely to succeed," said Saleh, sitting on a threadbare mattress covered by a mosquito net. A plastic rain jacket he used at sea dangled from the door.
Somali pirates hijacked 46 ships in 2009 and 47 in 2010, the European Union Naval Force says. In 2011, pirates launched a record number of attacks – 176 – but commandeered only 25 ships, an indication that new on-board defenses were working.
The last of the five hijacked this year was the Liberian-flagged MV Smyrni, taken with its crew of 26 on May 10. They are still being held.
"We have witnessed a significant drop in attacks in recent months. The stats speak for themselves," said Lt. Cmdr. Jacqueline Sherriff, a spokeswoman for the European Union Naval Force.
Sherriff attributes the plunge in hijackings mostly to international military efforts – European, American, Chinese, Indian, Russian – that have improved over time. In May, after receiving an expanded mandate, the EU Naval Force destroyed pirate weapons, equipment and fuel on land. Japanese aircraft fly over the shoreline to relay pirate activity to nearby warships.
Merchant ships have also increased their communications with patrolling military forces after pirate sightings, Sherriff said. Ships have bolstered their own defenses with armed guards, barbed wire, water cannons and safe rooms.
No vessel with armed guards has ever been hijacked, noted Cyrus Moody of the International Maritime Bureau. A June report from the U.N. Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea said armed guards have forced pirates to "abort attacks earlier and at greater ranges from targeted vessels."
Some of those who live around Hobyo along central Somalia's Indian Ocean coastline say they never wanted the region to become a pirate den. Fishermen say piracy began around 2005 as a way to keep international vessels from plundering fish stocks off Somalia.
But in the absence of law and order in a country that has not had an effective central government for two decades, ransoms grew and criminal networks planned more sophisticated operations, launching attacks on freighters and yachts from mother ships hundreds of miles offshore.
Now things seem to be changing.
Once lively Hobyo was quiet last weekend, except for the sight of legitimate fishermen taking their boats out to sea. The price of a cup of tea – which cost 50 cents during the piracy boom – has fallen back to 5 cents. The lobster haul has replaced international freighters as the topic of conversation.
"The decline of piracy is a much-needed boon for our region," said Hobyo Mayor Ali Duale Kahiye. "They were the machines causing inflation, indecency and insecurity in the town. Life and culture is good without them."
Two pirates with AK-47 assault rifles slung over their shoulders wandered along the beach near a Taiwanese fishing vessel that washed up on shore after the brigands who seized it were paid a ransom and released the crew.
During the piracy boom, pirates could count on creditors to front the money to buy skiffs, weapons, fuel and food for their operations. Now financiers are more reluctant.
Walking along a street in Galkayo, Saleh pointed to a villa with a garden of pink flowers he once owned. Short on cash, he was forced to hand it over to a creditor.
Another pirate, Mohamed Jama, relinquished his car to a financier. European naval forces disrupted five of his hijacking attempts, he said, and destroyed skiffs and fuel he owned.
"He could not pay my $2,000, so I had to take his $7,000 car," said the creditor, Fardowsa Mohamed Ali. "I am no longer in contact with pirates now because they are bankrupt and live like refugees."
While many former pirates are unemployed, Mohamed Abdalla Aden has returned to his old job as a soccer coach for village boys. Aden said it now takes him a month to earn as much as he used to spend in a single day as a pirate.
"The coasts became too dangerous," he said, holding an old, beat-up mobile phone. "Dozens of my friends are unaccounted for and some ended up in jail."
An untold number of pirates have died at sea in violent confrontations, bad weather or ocean accidents. The U.N. says 1,045 suspected or convicted pirates are being held in 21 countries, including the U.S., Italy, France, the Netherlands, Yemen, India, Kenya, Seychelles and Somalia.
"The risks involved in the hijacking attempts were very high. EU navies were our main enemy," Saleh said.
Several pirate attacks made worldwide headlines, including a rescue in 2009 of an American hostage by Navy SEALs. Pirates still hold seven ships and 177 crew members, according to the EU Naval Force. At the height of Somali piracy, pirates held more than 30 ships and 600 hostages at a time.
The overwhelming majority of hostages have been sailors on merchant ships, though European families have also been seized while traveling in the dangerous coastal waters. Four Americans were killed in February 2011 when the pirates who boarded their ship apparently became trigger-happy because of nearby U.S. warships.
For the pirates, the risks of being arrested, killed or lost at sea are overshadowed by the potential for huge payouts. Ransoms for large ships in recent years have averaged close to $5 million. The largest reported ransom was $11 million for the Greek oil tanker MV Irene SL last year.
When the monsoons that have roiled the Indian Ocean the past two months subside in about two weeks, the number of successful hijackings – or lack thereof – will go a long way toward telling if the heyday of Somali piracy is truly over.
Still Somalia's widespread poverty and the lure of potential riches make it too soon to say whether the scourge has been squelched.
"We hope so. But at the same time we are definitely advising all vessels not to become complacent just because the numbers are down," said Moody of the International Maritime Bureau. "The reward for the Somali pirate once they get a vessel is enormous, so just giving that up is probably not going to be easy."
Abdi Farah, an elder in Galkayo, said he believes the end of piracy is near.
"Pirates brought vices like drugs and AIDS, nothing else," he said. "There were no benefits."
Straziuso reported from Nairobi, Kenya.