Friday, October 14, 2016

Lost At Sea

At daybreak on 4 November 1587 the King of Spain’s great Manila galleon, the Santa Ana was in sight of Isla de California. It was a crisp, clear day, without a single cloud in the sky. Tomás de Alzola stood on the prow of his command searching for signs of life on the desert hills. He knew the place was inhabited by Pericú indians. But they were peaceful and kept a low profile. Pirates were his main concern.

The nabobs of the South Sea Admiralty, in their infinite wisdom, had decided to remove his cannons before he left Acapulco in April, and use them to protect the port against pirate raids. "That way you’ll have more room for cargo" they said. Now all he had to protect his ship was blunderbusses and stones.

Alzola took a deep breath. The air, though dry, was saturated with warm fragrances from the coast: mimosa, prickly pear, and sun dried coral. “I can already smell the fresh water of Aguarda Segura,” he sighed, putting a hand on his first mate’s shoulder, “and we’re not even past the cape yet.” 

The arced promontory of Cabo San Lucas was a welcome sight. Awash with surf and sunlight it looked like the hand of Neptune fumbling in the shallows for errant mermaids. 

He reached into his jacket pocket and took out an antique brass navigational instrument, an astrolabe that was a gift from the Archbishop of Seville, Cristóbal Rojas Sandoval, who had died the very same day that he had given it to him. Along with his spyglass, it was one of the captain’s few keepsakes.

"Another 700 miles of this wretched 9,000-mile journey to go," thought Alzola. "After watering at Aguada Segura we should reach Acapulco in ten days." He was delighted to have crossed in such good time, just four months from Manila. For the first time since setting sail, he was happy. 

A turkey vulture circled overhead. The pallor of corpses yet clung to the decks. Nearly half of those who had boarded the Santa Ana in Manila Bay had perished at sea. “La muerte en el mar debe ser esperada, cotidiano incluso, solamente nunca es aceptable,” the captain often said. “Death at sea is to be expected, quotidian even, but it is never acceptable.” 

Sea lions on the cape were barking. “They sound more like sea donkeys,” he laughed. Just then a sailor in the crow’s nest cried, “Vela! Vela!”  Alzola raised his telescope and spotted two small ships on the horizon. “English pirates!”  he cursed. “Pinche cabrón, pendejo!

At Sampeguita, the gated community where my parents live on San Jose del Cabo Bay, every unit has a second-storey master bedroom. The old man hasn’t climbed those stairs in years, but my mother usually sleeps up there. The room has a spectacular view of the bay. 

Lately, when I’ve come to visit, she’s given me this room and moved into the garage. My sister gets the same treatment. We’re spoilt, for sure, but what can we do, she insists. Besides, the garage is where she keeps her workstation and all of her bits and bobs, and it’s air conditioned. 

This past week Cabo has experienced apocalyptic levels of humidity. A new air conditioner was installed in the master bedroom. No wonder I’m spending more time upstairs, sitting at the wooden writing desk, which looks like the poop deck on a Spanish galleon and has multiple hidden drawers and secret compartments. 

In 2012, I wrote the first few chapters of my second novel Pirates at this desk

Then, as now, staying focused was difficult. Sliding glass doors open onto a terra-cotta balcony with a vista that stretches across the bay, from Palmilla to Punta Gorda. Occasionally I go out for a smoke. One hit of that Acapulco Gold and I am spellbound, my face a wide open, pie-eyed target for well placed cannon shot. Mercifully, pirate ships no longer bedevil the Sea of Cortez.

I once saw a killer whale hunting in the littoral waters, a joy to watch through binoculars. But my greatest WTF moment came the morning I stepped out on the balcony to blaze and found a futuristic naval warship cruising up and down the bay, like a dark and menacing cyber-kraken from the future, the most badass ocean craft I’d ever seen. 

Turned out to be USS Independence, a high-speed “littoral combat ship” from the naval base in San Diego. With her trimaran hull she specialized in operations close to shore, and had sailed into Mexican waters to provide extra security for Secretary Clinton’s visit to Cabo; she was attending the first ever meeting of the G-20’s foreign ministers, at Barceló Grand Faro, 250 yards up the beach from where my parents live. 

For the native Pericú indians watching from shore that November day in 1587, the kerfuffle off Cabo must have been quite the WTF moment. Three galleons flying two different colors were sizing each other up. Two ships had cannons, the other blunderbusses and stones. They hurled insults, too, at each other, in Spanish (“Pinche cabrón, pendejo! No sea gorgojos idos!”) and in English (“God’s teeth, I bite my thumb at you, you half-faced, onion-eyed, huggermugger!”). 

These were not the first galleons the Pericú had seen sailing their waters. Elaborate boats helmed by elaborate boatmen had been dropping anchor off Cabo for fifty years. They came for what the Pericú called Añuiti (place full of reeds) and the Spanish Aguada Segura (safe spring), the only reliable source of fresh water within hundreds of miles. 

Being one of a few tribes on the California coasts to have mastered watercraft, the Pericú were open-minded to the arrival of big boats from across the sea. But seeing them engage in hostilities was a first, indeed terrifying for those out fishing at the time.

The Spanish galleon was nearly four times the size of the two English galleons put together, yet she had no cannons to fire back at them. After one of the English ships came alongside, sailors began boarding but were quickly driven back, some into the sea. The English then pulled back, to pursue their prize with the full force of their guns, firing everything they had at her. 

After the Spanish galleon began to sink the raiders again boarded, were again met with dogged resistance by her crew, but finally took control of the ship. They sailed her to a bay enclosing the mouth of the freshwater river so prized by the Spanish, where they anchored, removed the surviving crew and passengers to shore, then started pumping out seawater. They needed to keep her afloat long enough to unload her cargo.

The Pericú indians, who by then had gathered in large numbers on the beach to watch the spectacle offshore, could not have known that this single act of piracy would spell their doom.

Writing pirate yarns distracts me from the phantasmagoric image of my old man laying on his everlasting death bed. I feel guilty for not spending more time at his bedside, for not being able to do much for him, and for ignoring him. 

“What’s that brownie got in it?” he asks, as chocolate crumbs tumble down his chest. He’s noticed something different in the mix. “Marijuana?”

“That’s right, dad. Remember, we talked about this. Gerry got the weed, mom paid for it, and Bobby cooked it up in a batch of chocolate brownies.” 

“Oh,” he says. Later he complains of a belly ache. 

“So you don’t like the brownies?” I ask.

“No,” he says, “I like the brownies. The brownies don’t like me.”

"Did it have any effect on you?"



"Yeah, I was dancing with the fairies." 

Trudging back upstairs to my cave I take refuge behind a thicket of words. It’s my very own stairway to heaven. Dad, I think, needs a stairlift. 

We departed out of Plymouth on Thursday, the 21 of July, 1586, with 3 sails, to wit, the Desire, a ship of 120 tons, the Content, of 60 tons, and the Hugh Gallant, a bark of 40 tons: in which small fleet were 123 persons of all sorts, with all kind of furniture and victuals sufficient for the space of two years.”- Francis Pretty, man-at-arms on the Desire

The circumstances surrounding the sacking of the Santa Ana were serendipitous. The Manila galleon just happened to be carrying more than the usual rewards on that particular sea voyage. England was at war with Spain. And Thomas “The Navigator” Cavendish, an English privateer who had been given license by Elizabeth I to lay to waste every beslubbering Spanish outpost and galleon he found on his sea voyages, just happened to be in the neighborhood.

For six months he had been sailing up the South Sea, raiding ports, sinking ships, and burning churches in the Americas. He then heard from a Spaniard he had captured that the Santa Ana, a 700 ton galleon stripped of her cannons was sailing solo from Manila to Acupulco with a large cargo worth hundreds of thousands of pesos, and was due to arrive soon at Aguada Segura.

Cavendish knew that after a such a long sea voyage crew and passengers would be gagging for fresh water, and in no condition to resist an attack, especially without proper weapons. He must have been smiling to himself as they set sail for Cabo, swaggering on the sun bleached poop deck of his beloved Desire, gob smackingly amazed by the cunningness of own brilliant plan. 

Francis Pretty, his man-at-arms, describes the bay they sailed into:

The 14 of October we fell with the Cape of St Lucar, which cape is very like the Needles at the Isle of Wight ; and within the said cape is a great bay called by the Spaniards Aguada Segura: into which bay falleth a fair fresh river, about which many Indians use to keep. We watered in the river, and lay off and on from the said Cape of St Lucar until the fourth of November, and had the winds hanging still westerly.

From my writing desk I can see the same “great bay” where the privateers dropped anchor four centuries ago. Now there’s a highway through it and piles of waterfront condos, but essentially it’s still the same desert oasis on the bay: Añuiti, Aguada Segura, San Jose del Cabo.

For three weeks they waited, foraying onto shore from time to time to barter with the Pericú for fresh water. Anything metal was of great value to them. A soup ladle fetched six barrels of water. 

The natives, who had never known galleons to stay for so long, had no idea what they were up to nor did they make any trouble for them. Too busy gathering roots and shoots for the next shamanistic ritual, which they hoped would keep the danger they could smell at bay, they paid them no mind.


Without so much as a breath, Pretty recounts the events as they unfolded from the moment the Santa Ana rounded the cape:

The 4 of November the Desire and the Content, wherein were the number of Englishmen only living, beating up and down upon the headland of California, which standeth in 23 degrees and face to the northward, between seven and 8 of the clock in the morning one of the company of our Admiral, which was the trumpeter of the ship, going up into the top, espied a sail bearing in from the sea with the cape. Whereupon he cried out, with no small joy to himself and the whole company, "A sail ! a sail !" With which cheerful word the master of the ship and divers others of the company went also up into the maintop. Who, perceiving the speech to be very true, gave information unto our General of these happy news, who was no less glad than the cause required : whereupon he gave in charge presently unto the whole company to put all things in readiness. Which being performed we gave them chase some 3 or 4 hours, standing with our best advantage and working for the wind. In the afternoon we gat up unto them, giving them the broadside with our great ordnance and a volley of small shot, and presently laid the ship aboard, whereof the king of Spain was owner, which was Admiral of the South Sea, called the St Anna, and thought to be 700 tons in burthen. Now, as we were ready on their ship's side to enter her, being not past 50 or 60 men at the uttermost in our ship, we perceived that the captain of the said ship had made fights fore and after, and laid their sails close on their poop, their midship, with their forecastle, and having not one man to be seen, stood close under their fights, with lances, javelins, rapiers, and targets, and an innumerable sort of great stones, which they threw overboard upon our heads and into our ship so fast, and being so many of them, that they put us off the ship again, with the loss of 2 of our men which were slain, and with the hurting of 4 or 5. But for all this we new trimmed our sails, and fitted his furniture, and gave them a fresh encounter with our great ordnance and also with our small shot, raking them through and through, to the killing and maiming of many of their men. Their captain still, like a valiant man, with his company, stood very stoutly unto his close fights, not yielding as yet. Our General, encouraging his men afresh with the whole noise of trumpets, gave them the third encounter with our great ordnance and all our small shot, to the great discomforting of our enemies, raking them through in divers places, killing and spoiling many of their men. They being thus discomforted and spoiled, and their ship being in hazard of sinking by reason of the great shot which were made, whereof some were under water, within 5 or 6 hours' fight set out a flag of truce and parleyed for mercy, desiring our General to save their lives and to take their goods, and that they would presently yield. Our General of his goodness promised them mercy, and willed them to strike their sails, and to hoise out their boat and to come aboard. Which news they were full glad to hear of, and presently struck their sails, hoised their boat out, and one of their chief merchants came aboard unto our General, and falling down upon his knees, offered to have kissed our General's feet, and craved mercy. Our General most graciously pardoned both him and the rest upon promise of their true dealing with him and his company concerning such riches as were in the ship : and sent for the captain and their pilot, who at their coming used the hke duty and reverence as the former did. The General, of his great mercy and humanity, promised their lives and good usage. The said captain and pilot presently certified the General what goods they had within board, to wit, an hundred and 22 thousand pesos of gold : and the rest of the riches that the ship was laden with, was in silks, satins, damasks, with musk and divers other merchandise, and great store of all manner of victuals, with the choice of many conserves of all sorts for to eat, and of sundry sorts of very good wines. These things being made known to the General by the aforesaid captain and pilot, they were commanded to stay aboard the Desire, and on the 6 day of November following we went into a harbour which is called by the Spaniards Aguada Segura, or Puerto Seguro. 


A fortnight passed. As a full moon rose up from the sea, every person of importance in the Pericú community was seated around the sacred fire. From atop their desert hill they had a favorable view of the valley where Añuiti flowed into the bay, and where the three ships that had been there since the half moon were now floating in moonbeams.

The light hanging over the hills behind them, against which the souls of their ancestors were silhouetted, was the color of a prickly pear. Scattered around them were the tools of the tribe: stone grinding basins, spears, lark's-head netting, and coiled basketry.

A shaman singing incantations, his face painted red with ochre, passed around a palm-bark vessel containing a liquid that had been simmering on the fire. Each person respectfully drank from it. An hour passed, taken up only by incantations. The sky was full of stars. Then the red-faced shaman climbed to the top of a sacred rock above them to call down supernatural forces.

For a moment the sky was empty. Suddenly, from the heavens above the bay came a flaming dragon that lit up the ships below with the glow of its tongue. The Pericú gasped, threw up their hands. Then came another fire demon over the bay, this one shaped like a palm tree, then more palm trees, a hefty flaming forest of palm trees. Never before had the shaman conjured up such mind-blowing sorcery. It helped that the psychoactive drugs were just kicking in. Still, WTF…

Three hundred and forty five years and a day later my father was born.

“Oh, Edmund, it's wonderful! But what about Melchy and Raleigh? You must have brought something for them as well. [Edmund clears his throat trying to think of something] - Nursie's got her beard, I've got my stick; what about the two boys?” - Queen, Blackadder II ‘The Potato’

“God bless the Queen,” roared Thomas “The Navigator” Cavendish, raising a glass to England’s sovereign of 30 years, “and long may she reign.” The Spanish captain also raised a glass, though not in triumph. 

It was the night of 17 November, Coronation Day and Tomás de Alzola and a handful more people from the Santa Ana had been invited on board the Desire to celebrate with the English. It was as bizarre a situation as he had ever been in, toasting his enemy's monarch while his own king's property lay run-aground in the bay, looted of all her riches. 

The English captain’s toast was the cue for the master gunner to start the fireworks display. The Desire and the Content also made their salutes by firing fireworks from their cannons. They lit up the bay with a pyrotechnic spectacle the likes of which Alzola and his men had never seen before. 

“Impressive, hey?” said Cavendish putting an arm around the Spaniard who stood awestruck, his eyes fixed to the sky. “I was given a dozen barrels of water just for telling the native warlock we’d be having a firework display this evensong. Ha ha…” He then reached into his coat and produced a brass instrument, the very same one the Spanish captain had been holding when he was captured. 

“An ancient astrolabe?” said Cavendish, brandishing the object so the others could see it. “Were you planning on traveling back in time?” His officers roared with laughter.

“May I have it back,” asked Alzola, reaching out. “It was a gift from…” He stopped short, knowing how Cavendish felt about Catholics. The week before The Navigator had had a friar hung by the neck from the Santa Ana’s yardarm just for making the sign of the cross.

“No, you may not,” snapped Cavendish, who then threw the object into the sea. “By the way, could I get you to sign this bill of sale for the cargo we’re purloining?”

It took the privateers two weeks to offload the Manila galleon of her most precious cargoes. For want of stowage on their own two small vessels, they were forced to leave a few things behind, much of which had already been tossed overboard into the sea. 

Before departing, in an uncharacteristic show of empathy, Cavendish gave weapons, provisions, and the Santa Ana’s sails for shelter to the seafarers marooned in the bay. He then set fire to their ship. She was still ablaze when Desire and Content set a course for the Philippines, with the booty split between the two sails. 

The 19 day of November aforesaid, about 3 of the clock in the afternoon, our General caused the king's ship to be set on fire, which, having to the quantity of 500 tons of goods in her, we saw burnt unto the water, and then gave them a piece of ordnance and set sail joyfully homewards towards England with a fair wind, which by this time was come about to east-north-east. And night growing near, we left the Content astern of us, which was not as yet come out of the road. And here, thinking she would have overtaken us, we lost her company and never saw her after. 

Two years and fifty days after his departure from Plymouth, Thomas Cavendish sailed back into the same harbour. The Desire was only the third ship to circumnavigate the globe, after the Victoria of Ferdinand Magellan (journey completed by Juan Sebastián Elcano) and the Golden Hind of Francis Drake. 

Cavendish invited Queen Elizabeth to a dinner aboard the Desire. She was suitably impressed by his haul of gold, silver, silks, ivory, spices, and porcelain. Thereafter he was knighted and joyfully celebrated across the realm. He was 28.

Although a scoundrel and a scalawag, he does deserve kudos for his audacity. In the 250 years that Manila galleons sailed the trade route between the Philippines and Mexico, no greater prize was ever looted from a “nao de China” than Cavendish's haul from the Santa Ana. Three years later he had already squandered his fortune. He died at sea at the age of 31.

By the time I was 21 I had circumnavigated the globe five times. I have my parents to thank for that fanfaronade. They took me everywhere, from continent to continent, ocean to ocean. In time, like a satellite that’s reached critical orbit, I could not be stopped. The world is a blur to me now. 

At 54 I move continents on average every six and a half years. That’s a pirate’s life for me. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Can’t say the same for my parents. Retiring to Cabo twenty five years ago was meant to ensure the good times never ended, that they could both continue to enjoy their singular lifestyles up until the day they each shook off that mortal coil.

But my father is trapped in a body that will neither let him rise from his deathbed nor let him die in it. And my mother is trapped in a situation that requires more strength and presence of mind than an octogenarian can always muster. Sadly, there’s no way around it.

The saddest thing is how little my dad remembers of his own accomplishments: building 'comfort stations' in the slums of Ibadan, revitalizing the safari circuit in northern Tanzania, overhauling Air Lanka in Sri Lanka, finding a million jobs for Indonesians, and advising the Singapore government on how not to be dicks. Even the highlights are gone, no longer there to comfort him in his moment of reflection: scuba diving in the Maldives, skiing in Syria, building a waterfront dream home in San Jose del Cabo.

These days, the English and Spanish no longer visit Cabo, nor does Hillary Clinton. The Pericú indians are no longer here either. Two hundred years ago, war and disease carried over by conquistadors and missionaries, who had been sent by Spain to secure the California coast against future pirate raids, killed off the Pericú indians. Nothing of their culture and language remains. 

Occasionally there’ll be a firework display in San Jose del Cabo Bay, over near Palmilla, or out in front of Barceló Grand Faro, but no one’s quite sure why. You can take a cruise aboard an authentic galleon, sail around Cabo San Lucas on a “family-friendly pirate-themed adventure” while drinking tequila and keeping a bleary eye out for whales. Yup, the pirate theme prevails, in a plethora of colourful tourist attractions. True pirates, though, are lost at sea.

Tomás de Alzola is the hero of this pirate yarn. His heroism emerges in the final chapter. For as soon as those privateers had sailed over the horizon, leaving the Spanish galleon ablaze, Alzola and his seafarers swam out to the ship and put out the fire. They then set about rebuilding her, fixing her hull, raising her sails, and setting her adrift again on the Sea of Cortez. 

On 6 January 1588, seven months after leaving the Philippines, the Santa Ana limped into Acapulco, minus her cargo. On board, as well as Captain Alzola and the survivors, were two Pericú indians, husband and wife.

I have a recurring dream about my father struggling out of his bed and into his wheelchair, wheeling himself out onto the beach, and then down to the edge of the surf where a boat is waiting. He drags himself onto the boat, then pushes off and drifts out into the bay. 

The sea, mirroring a billion brilliant stars under a moonless sky, is as calm as a millpond, not a ripple. Leaning over the bow he sees his reflection in the water. “There,” he whispers, “what’s that?” A league beneath the surface, glimmering in the starlight is an object resting in the sand, a brass instrument. “It’s an astrolabe,” dad says, then closes his eyes and passes away.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Maritime Drug Trafficking

How Changes in Technology Are Making It Harder to Nab the Bad Guys 

by Ashley Milburn

In 2010, the U.S.  Coast Guard seized just over 90 tons of cocaine destined for U.S.  shores, a haul valued at more than USD $3.5 billion.

However, in the multibillion-a-year U.S.  cocaine industry, the Coast Guard's interdiction rate accounts for only 26 per cent of the estimated 350 tons of cocaine arriving in the U.S.  each year; the sale of which supports both criminal and terrorist groups in Latin America and abroad.

The remaining supply, shipped from the Andean nations of Colombia, Peru and Bolivia through an intricate trafficking network that spans South, Central, and North America, is able to be delivered unhindered as a result of the traffickers' efforts to continually seek out more efficient and anonymous ways of transporting their product.

With large operating budgets, traffickers have proven their ability to develop and adopt new techniques that allow them to elude international maritime forces.  However, while the evolution of their technology is a hallmark of the cat-and-mouse game of maritime drug trafficking, the discovery of a fully submersible submarine in a clandestine jungle shipyard in Ecuador last July was deemed a game changer.

In the past 

Over the last 30 years, seafaring cocaine traffickers, who transport over 80 per cent of the cocaine arriving in the U.S., have made a living of finding ways to elude authorities.  In the late 1990s "go-fast" boats began to replace airplanes as the main means for moving cocaine through the Caribbean, the primary trans-shipment zone of the day.

At the time, the favoured mode of transportation, the twin-engine light plane, could only carry up to 700 kilograms of cocaine, while go-fast boats provided an opportunity to move at least three times that amount.  In addition, the fiberglass watercraft was capable of travelling up to 130 kilometres per hour and offered smugglers a speed advantage over the authorities.

Furthermore, with a price tag of $25,000, the boats were cheaper to acquire and operate than airplanes, and were considered to be a more disposable platform, an important characteristic given the fact that operators often scuttle their vessel after the shipment has been delivered.

However, the boats' large wakes made them easy to spot, and anti-drug agents, using helicopters and their own high-speed vessels - such as the Midnight Express speedboats that the U.S.  supplied to the Colombian Navy in 2005 - became far more adept at spotting and intercepting the traffickers' vessels.

By the year 2000 

By the turn of the century, Plan Colombia, the U.S.  effort to fight the illegal drug trade in the number one cocaine producing country, was introduced, leading to a shift in trafficking routes from the Caribbean to the lightly patrolled Pacific.

In addition to the geographic shift, less conspicuous vessels, such as cargo ships and fishing vessels, became increasingly common means of transporting cocaine.  Fishing vessels, usually equipped with sophisticated navigation and communication instruments, were popular as they did not require the type of refit work that would give away the vessel's role in smuggling operations, and allowed traffickers to transit long distances without attracting suspicion from authorities.

At the time, traffickers also became increasingly skilled at concealing their illicit cargo, hiding cocaine in compartments within fuel or ballast tanks, making it nearly impossible to locate the cache of drugs without emptying the fuel tanks - a move that violates U.S.  environmental laws - or dismantling the vessel in question.

Also, traffickers using non-commercial vessels, such as pleasure yachts, opted to make their voyages during peak times, such as civic holidays, allowing them to better blend in with legal maritime traffic.

In addition, the use of multiple at-sea transfers, decoy vessels and logistics supply ships increased during the early 2000s, adding more complexity to maritime trafficking routes and challenging interdiction forces.

In the last five years 

However, new rules implemented in 2007 that required fishing boats operating off of Colombia and Ecuador to carry GPS devices allowed police to better track vessel movements, and helped curb the number of commercial vessels being used by traffickers.  Additionally, the Container Control Program ( CCP ), a joint initiative by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the World Customs Organization, that minimize the risk of maritime containers being commandeered by traffickers began to achieve measurable results: in the first three years since CCP operations began at the port of Guayaquil, Ecuador, almost 25 tons of cocaine were seized.

The increased surveillance of commercial vessels is what authorities believe led traffickers to change course yet again, this time heading below the surface.

The arrival of semi-submersibles 

In 2006, a U.S.  Coast Guard cutter spotted the first semi-submersible boat, nicknamed "Bigfoot", off the coast of Costa Rica.  Powered by a 300-horsepower diesel motor and travelling 18 inches below the surface at about 12 kilometres an hour, Bigfoot was a sign that traffickers were opting for stealth over speed to evade authorities.

The 60-foot fiberglass vessels, painted in various shades of blue to blend into the ocean, can travel undetected by the human eye or surveillance systems for up to 2,000 nautical miles.  The boat's tiny wake creates a negligible radar footprint, and because the exhaust is released through tubing below the surface and the boat has an upper lead shielding to minimize its heat signature, patrol aircraft are unable to rely on their heat-sensing equipment to locate the vessels.

Additionally, the boats, which are primarily built in jungle shipyards along the estuaries of Colombia's Pacific coast for approximately half a million dollars each, are capable of carrying up to 10 tons of cocaine.  This is a haul that garners a street value of up to $550 million, more than 1,000 times the cost of the vessel, making it a highly lucrative conveyance method.

As a result of their stealth and return on investment, authorities believed that up to 70 percent of the 480 tons of cocaine leaving Colombia's Pacific coast in 2008 was packed aboard semi-submersibles.

With the UN estimating an interdiction success rate of only 14 percent, Joint Interagency Task Force ( JIATF ) South, the Pentagon's anti-narcotics command centre, compared the task of patrolling for semi-submersibles to policing the entire United States with only three squad cars.

Policy changes 

In addition, authorities also faced legal challenges in stopping the vessels as crews were able to avoid prosecution by simply scuttling the craft and sinking the drugs if spotted.  However, in October 2008, a law passed by the U.S.  Congress outlawing the use of semi-submersibles in international waters unless registered with a state, made it possible for authorities to convict a boat's crew on the basis of visual evidence that they were manning the subs.

The following year, SOUTHCOM, the command responsible for all U.S.  military activity in South and Central America, reported a 46 percent decrease in the detection rate of semi-submersibles transiting the area, and the Colombian Navy only detected one semi-submersible in 2010, down drastically from 22 seizures in 2009.

The lower detection rate was seen by SOUTHCOM and other agencies as an indication that traffickers were adapting yet again.  However, it wasn't until July 2010, when the first fully functional, completely submersible "narco-sub" was discovered in an Ecuadorian jungle shipyard, that authorities' suspicions were confirmed.

Fully submerged 

A proper diesel-electric submarine like the one discovered in Ecuador has the option of shutting down its engines and submerging fully to run on batteries, at which time it becomes completely invisible on radar and infrared.  Such a capability means that interdiction forces can then only locate the sub by using sonar, which has a shorter range, is far less reliable, and requires the use of a greater number of assets.

In many ways, the move towards fully submersible submarines was an inevitable transition in the evolution of maritime drug trafficking technology.  The technology is not overly advanced but its advanced covert qualities follow the trend of traffickers opting for stealth over speed.

Given that most Western navies still maintain significant anti-submarine forces, drug traffickers may find themselves forced to adapt their maritime strategy once again.  While the Director of the U.S.  Drug Enforcement Agency for the Andean Region, Jay Bergman, described the narco-sub as the "final frontier" for the maritime drug smugglers, historical trends indicate nothing is impossible in the multi-billion dollar cocaine trafficking industry. 


Newshawk: Herb
Votes: 0
Pubdate: Mon, 31 Jan 2011
Source: Lookout (CN BC)
Copyright: 2011 The Lookout
Author: Ashley Milburn
Bookmark: (Cocaine)

Thursday, September 18, 2014

PIRATES Book Signing

Greg Cummings will be appearing at Mysterious Galaxy bookstore in San Diego, CA, Monday, October 6, at 7:30 PM, signing and reading from his new novel Pirates

Mysterious Galaxy is an independent genre bookstore that is passionate about creating and maintaining a community of readers, authors, and booksellers. Cummings is honored to be offered this opportunity to interact with his readers at such a respected and appreciated independent bookstore.  

Join Greg Cummings for an in-store author event that promises to deliver the magic and torment of the African savannah to SoCal.

Bring your family and friends. 

7051 Clairemont Mesa Blvd
San Diego CA 92111
(858) 268 4747

Pirates is available in store and at the Mysterious Galaxy website

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Looking For Johnny

Who is Johnny Oceans?

Mickey Munday, last of the Cocaine Cowboys reveals the terrifying truth about this enigmatic smuggler turned agent, in grammy award-winner Robin Klein's investigative documentary, Looking For Johnny, shot on location in Miami, FL.

Johnny Oceans, the hero of Pirates by Greg Cummings, is partly based on a real-life Floridian smuggler. In 2010, while big game fishing on the Kenyan coast with the author, the real Johnny Oceans revealed confidential matter about his past, some of which was incorporated into the novel. Only he and the author know what is fact and what is fiction. 

Seeking to capitalise on the abstruseness of the character, and inspired by a piece in The Flamingo Sun, filmmaker Robin Klein (who won a Grammy Award for Rock and Roll Circus) flew to Miami in June 2014 to make a short documentary, interviewing some of the people who knew Oceans. 

In the 1980s Mickey Munday helped smuggle $2 billion worth of cocaine into South Florida for the Medellin Cartel. He became famous after the release of Cocaine Cowboys (2006) directed by Billy Corben. 

In Klein's documentary Munday speaks openly about his association with the former smuggler, claiming only to have known of Johnny Oceans. "He's a ghost, and I like that. Sometimes a ghost bumps into a ghost."

But nothing is quite what it seems... 

Friday, November 29, 2013

Five Hours GMT: World Events That Helped Shape Pirates

It was shortly after 11 pm on 11 July 2010, and thousands of Ugandan football fans had crowded into Kampala’s bars to watch the last ten minutes of the World Cup finals on TV.  Not being a footy fan, I had purposely stayed away from the melee, and was at home watching Discovery

I did not hear the first attack. The Ethiopian restaurant in Kabalagala was out of audible range, but the large outdoor screen at Kyadondo Rugby Club, where the second attack took place was less than three kilometres from my apartment. I heard a dull thud immediately followed by a terrible scraping noise, the sound of countless steel ball-bearings ripping through plastic chairs, flesh and bone. Moments later, another explosion. 

The death toll from the suicide attacks totalled 74 people, and 70 more were injured. I later learned that a friend had been badly injured in the rugby club attack. She has since made a remarkable recovery.  

Notwithstanding the real human tragedies involved, the news, while getting closer to home, was proving a source of inspiration as I attempted to write compelling adventure stories set within real life events. And a miasmal alphabet soup of headlines about human wickedness had been floating around my subconscious since childhood.

Listening to BBC World Service each week day morning over breakfast - two fried eggs, two beef sausages, and a mug of strong, black Nile coffee - is a tradition I’d be loathed to give up. The Beeb, like the African dawn chorus, is deeply embedded in my memory. 

When I lived in Dar-es-salaam in the early 1970s, every school morning began with the chimes of Big Ben phasing in and out as my father tuned his Grundig Yacht Boy to the World Service. The scholarly voice of an Oxbridge announcer, bouncing off the ionosphere to reach me snug in my bed blended nicely with the pulse of the Indian Ocean outside my window.  

But the awakening was frequently rude, alarming headlines that wormed their way into my young mind. Living two time zones ahead of London, we were often the first in the Anglophone world to hear the news. “Palestinian terrorists, the so-called Black September group, have killed all the Israeli athletes they were holding hostage at the Munich Olympic games…” 

Thomas Harris (Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal) began writing his debut novel Black Sunday after watching television coverage of the hostage crisis in Munich.  A disgruntled Vietnam veteran, who pilots blimps over NFL games, conspires with a Black September terrorist to launch a suicide attack in the United States. With a bomb made of plastique and a quarter of a million steel darts, he aims to detonate the explosive during the half time celebrations at the Super Bowl in New Orleans. It was the first modern adventure story I read as teenager.

BBC news headline: The Somali Islamist group al-Shabab has said it was behind twin blasts which hit the Ugandan capital Kampala on Sunday, killing 74 people.” 

I was half-way through writing the manuscript for my first novel, a thriller set in the Congo, and not yet thinking about a second. But the attack in Kampala brought the conflict in Somalia to my doorstep. 

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni called the terrorists “backward and cowardly” and vowed to deal with the authors of this crime. “It will have to be peace enforcement to bring peace to Somalia.”

My girlfriend Sandra and I ventured into Kabalagala to witness the aftermath of the horror inflicted by jihadist. And as we sat down for lunch across the street from the Ethiopian restaurant where the first attack occurred, our waiter told of coming to work and finding a human limb in the gutter.  

Another deadly menace dominating the headlines at the time, also emanating from the Horn of Africa, was Somali pirates. They had attacked hundreds of ships passing through the Gulf of Aden, hijacked dozens, collected hundreds of millions in ransom money, and it seemed nothing was being done to stop “the pirate kings of Puntland,” as one alJazeera headline described them. 

When pirates hijacked the Maersk Alabama taking Captain Phillips hostage, a former CIA agent asked, “Where is the CIA? Where is the humint effort in Somalia? Where is the covert action capability of the CIA that should be on the ground in Somalia, collecting, pressuring, attacking, and destroying pirate infrastructure?”

But there are two sides to the story. While fishing in Kenya in October 2010 I learned tuna stocks had recently bounced back, because the threat of piracy had effectively deterred all foreign trawlers from coming anywhere near the western shores of the Indian Ocean. 

It occurred to me that although unscrupulous and lawless, compared to the jihadists the pirates were in many ways the good guys. Yet the international community was using the same blunt instrument to deal with them both: Reaper drones. I wanted to write a story that showed how these two groups were diametrically opposed, and decided on a plot that pitted pirate against jihadist.

Research confirmed that since the 1980s European and Asian trawlers had been illegally fishing in Somali waters, drastically depleting tuna stocks, and off the shore of Puntland at the tip of the Horn of Africa the Italian mafia had dumped tonnes of toxic waste

Grave injustices had been committed against Somalia, in particular against the good people of Puntland. Yet, despite decades of illegal plundering of Somali coastal waters, the international maritime community only started paying attention after fishermen took up piracy. 

There was one notable exception. In 2000, with the help of British company Hart Security Maritime Services, the Puntland coast guard was established. Some twelve-hundred fisherman were trained in maritime security tactics: how to track illegal fishing trawlers, approach vessels undetected, board without ladders. But shortly after they began patrolling their waters, the Puntland government tore up Hart’s contract in favour of a Dubai-based operation, which eventually ran the service into the ground. 

Soon there were hundreds of highly-trained coast guardsmen out of work, loitering in coves along the coast of the Horn of Africa, watching their fish stocks continue to plummet, and waters get polluted, for which no one was being held accountable. No wonder they turned to piracy. (And no wonder Hart Security today provides much of the maritime security for ships passing through the Gulf of Aden.) 

Meanwhile, a much darker story was unfolding on the Horn of Africa. Without significant rainfall in four years, Somalia was quickly becoming gripped by famine. Al-shabaab-held territories were worst hit, as the Islamists refused to accept foreign aid and the United States refused to provide it. 

In August 2010, the United Nations estimated twenty-nine thousand children under the age of five had died in southern Somalia and 3.7 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance across the country. 

 “The scale of the crisis is unprecedented in many ways,” said Rashid Abdi, an analyst for the International Crisis Group. “The closest example you have is the 1984 famine in Ethiopia.”

I had spent five months in Ethiopia during the latter half 1985, and witnessed first-hand the effects of famine. While working as a press officer for Catholic Relief Services, I visited one refugee camp in the Afar region where I met a woman whose task it was to weigh babies to determine if they were too far gone for supplemental feeding. I remember thinking at the time that there could be no more distressing a job in the entire world. 

In 2011, as hundreds of thousands of Somalis fled the famine in Lower Shabelle, Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya swelled beyond capacity. I decided Kakuma, which meant “nowhere” in Swahili, would be the setting for my early chapters. Unable to visit in person, I researched everything I could about the camp online, accounts by refugees who’d been trapped there for over a decade, day-in-the-life videos made with funding from well-meaning aid agencies, and countless articles in the Kakuma News Reflector, “a refugee free press.” 

I made two road trips that greatly influenced my story line. The first was to the Kenyan capital for the Easter long-weekend. Sandra and I checked into the Fairview on Nairobi Hill, owned by my friend Charles Szlapak, and spent hours lounging under giant jacaranda trees on the hotel’s luxuriantly shady grounds, sipping Tusker beer while carefully observing how Mossad agents from the Israeli embassy across the road maintained security. I subsequently used it as the backdrop for a pivotal scene in Pirates in which I try to demonstrate the ruthlessness of al-Shabaab.

Next stop Kidepo Valley in northern Uganda, an otherworldly place that has to be seen to be believed. We arrived just in time to witness July’s lunar eclipse at N’ga Moru lodge on the edge of the national park, a superb spot run by Lyn Jordaan and Patrick Devy.  By 10 pm the event had begun. Sitting by the fire, Lyn, Patrick, our driver Sam, Sandra, and I watched the heavens transform as the Moon, like a Hobnob dipped in coffee, turned umber then faded to black. It was the darkest night in a hundred years, but I’d never seen so many stars.

While stargazing, it occurred to me - as it does in Pirates to Derek Strangely - that Kakuma refugee camp is located just across the border barely a hundred kilometres away. I asked Patrick if it was possible to walk the distance. “Not without getting shot by a Turkana,” he laughed. 

“Nothing Strangely couldn’t handle,” I thought. But I was wrong. My safari guide would be incapable of making such a journey without a good deal of cajoling and a cash incentive. Enter Johnny Oceans, a name I’d first heard mentioned while tuna fishing off the coast of Kenya the year before.

Derek and Johnny were seated beside an excellent fire at the base of a small granite kopje overlooking Kidepo Valley National Park, in northeastern Uganda. They’d flown up on a private single-engine that Johnny Oceans had chartered, which landed them in Kidepo Airfield, where they were met by park staff who chauffeured them to a camping site at the foot of a kopje. 

“I’ve been to some spectacular places in my lifetime,” sighed Johnny, “but this is the shit!” Derek just nodded. Words could not express the way he felt about this particular East African wilderness. The sun was setting and the fiery light of dusk had transformed the valley into a son et lumière, recalling the time millions of years ago when it was a cataclysmic inferno, venting the planet’s burning mantle through a cluster of volcanoes.

“Except in the far reaches of the imagination,” said Derek, “no one would ever believe this place existed. It’s as if those volcanoes got up and danced around until they all keeled over with exhaustion. And this is how they were found: burnt out and contorted on the Mesozoic dance floor.” He poured himself a double shot of Wild Turkey into a cut-glass tumbler filled with ice, and then said, “Right, Johnny Oceans. You owe me an epic, and it better be a good one.” - Pirates by Greg Cummings

With Johnny Oceans I had a strong, enigmatic hero, seemingly capable of standing up to the threat of radical Islamism in Puntland and cattle raiders in northern Kenya. But Pirates needed a heroine to speak out against the nihilism in Somalia. 

Khadija Abdul Rahman was a challenging character to write. Named after an impressive matriarch I’d met, the mother of Sandra’s best friend Fatuma, I knew she had to be inspirational. Social networks provided ample evidence of single-minded Somali women who were fed up with the state of affairs in their country. And I found inspiration in the outspoken Dutch-Somali activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. More importantly I was surrounded by strong women, and across the Arab world they were also making themselves known

In Pirates Khadija walks a fine line between her religion and culture as she tries to quash the brutal, clannish behaviour of her country men. She is forced to act after jihadists attempt to recruit her teenage son Nadif in his madrasa. 

To understand how her boy could be attracted to radical Islam, I researched the Salafs perspective on everything, including fishing. This led to a chapter in which Nadif and his pirate uncle Maxamid fish together off the tip of the Horn of Africa. 

It was hard to get my hands on suitable books. But I managed to reread Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, studying his legendary pelagic battle in fine detail. 

The Somali Pirate, a autobiographical tale by Noor Fayrus of the Darod clan, was a surprise discovery. It is a delicate, heartbreaking story, told from the heart by a thoughtful writer, a fisherman who had personally experienced the grief and revenge. 

When it came to shaping Omar and al-Rubaysh, Pirates’s conspiring antagonists, by far my most useful reference was The African Jihad: Bin Laden’s Quest for the Horn of Africa by Gregory Alonso Pirio, which I found in a Nairobi bookstore. Much of the background information I needed for these unseemly characters was in that book: Bin Laden's power brokering in Khartoum, the events leading up to Black Hawk Down, and how the Islamic Courts, the only authority that had managed to restore any semblance of law and order in Somalia, was forced to relinquish power under pressure from the US and Ethiopia. Its demise resulted in the formation of al-Shabaab.

By the end of September 2011, as Kenya prepared to invade Somalia, I had written the first two chapters, and a seven thousand word synopsis that I scarcely altered while writing the manuscript. On the strength of this, Cutting Edge Press offered me a publishing contract for Pirates

But there were still two further news stories to come that would prove most pivotal to the plot: in February “Al-Shabab 'join ranks' with al-Qaeda” and in April “Somalia's al-Shabab Islamists move north into Puntland”. Still, these stories did not necessitate any changes to my novel, as I had already seen them coming.

We will part the sea as Musa did with his mighty staff, for the glory of Allah, reestablish the bond between our great continents in the name of global jihad.” - Pirates by Greg Cummings.

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