HOBYO, Somalia — The empty whiskey bottles and overturned, sand-filled skiffs that litter this once-bustling shoreline are signs that the heyday of Somali piracy may be over. Most of the prostitutes are gone, the luxury cars repossessed. Pirates talk more about catching lobsters than seizing cargo ships.
Armed guards aboard cargo ships and an international naval armada complete with aircraft that carry out onshore raids have put a huge dent in Somali piracy and might even spell the end of the scourge. One piracy expert said it's too early to declare victory. But the numbers are startling: In 2010, pirates seized 47 vessels. This year they've taken only five.
"There's nothing to do here these days. The hopes for a revitalized market are not high," said a pirate in the former pirate haven of Hobyo who gave his name as Hassan Abdi, a high school graduate who taught English in private school before turning to piracy in 2009.
Faduma Ali, a prostitute in the inland town of Galkayo that became a pirate haven, longs for the days when her pirate customers had money. As she smoked a hookah in a hot, airless room last week, she sneered as she answered a phone call from a former customer seeking her services on credit.
"Those days are over. Can you pay me $1,000?" she asked, the price she once commanded for a night's work. "If not, goodbye and leave me alone." She hung up and groaned out loud: "Money."
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 called khat and women for every man. Now Saleh is hiding from creditors in a dirty room filled with the 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," Salah said while sitting on a threadbare mattress covered by a mosquito net. A plastic rain jacket he used while out 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. This year, pirates have hijacked just five ships, the last on May 10 when the MV Smyrna and its crew of 26 were taken. 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 warships nearby. 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 — the country has not had a powerful central government for the last two decades — small ransoms grew over time and criminal networks planned more organized and sophisticated attacks on the high seas, ultimately reaching out and taking freighters and yachts from mother ships 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) from the shores of Africa.
Two pirates with AK-47 assault rifles slung over their shoulders wandered along Hobyo's beach last weekend near a Taiwanese fishing vessel that washed up on shore after the pirates were paid a ransom and released the crew. The town is mostly quiet, 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 around 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."
Monsoons have roiled the Indian Ocean the last two months. When the storms subside in about two weeks and pirates consider returning to sea, the number of successful hijackings — or lack thereof — will go a long way toward telling if the heyday of Somali piracy is truly over.
Pirate creditors fronted the money to buy skiffs, weapons, fuel and food for piracy operations. Loans for pirates were easy to come by when new ransoms were paid frequently. Now some financiers are more reluctant to front money for pirate operations.
Walking along a street in Galkayo, Saleh pointed to a house with pink flowers he once owned. He was forced to give it to a creditor. Another pirate, Mohamed Jama, relinquished his car to a financier. European naval forces disrupted five hijacking attempts by Jama, he said. The May attack on land destroyed skiffs and fuel he owned.
"He could not pay my $2,000, so I had to take his $7,000 car," said Fardowsa Mohamed Ali, a financier. "I am no longer in contact with pirates now because they are bankrupt and live like refugees."
Many former pirates are unemployed but Mohamed Abdalla Aden has returned to his old job as a soccer coach for village boys. Aden said he now earns as much in a month that he used to spend in a single day as a pirate.
"The coasts became too dangerous," he said while holding an old, beat-up mobile phone. "Dozens of my friend 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., Europe, Yemen, India, Kenya, Seychelles and Somalia.
"The risks involved in the hijacking attempts were very high. EU navies were our main enemy," said Saleh.
Several pirate attacks made worldwide headlines, including a high-drama 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.
Despite the risks of being shot, arrested or becoming lost at sea, the potential rewards can be surreal in impoverished Somalia. Ransoms for large ships in recent years have averaged close to $5 million. The largest reported ransom ever paid was $11 million for the Greek oil tanker the MV Irene SL last year.
Widespread poverty and the lure of potential riches are why Moody says it's too early to say for sure that the piracy problem has been solved.
"We hope so. But at the same time we are definitely advising all vessels not to become complacent just because the numbers are down," he said. "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. Locals say pirates brought vices that were foreign to Muslim villages. Farah said he is not sorry to see the piracy trade subside.
Straziuso reported from Nairobi, Kenya.