Delivering Cash to Pirates as Difficult as Negotiating Ransom

As complicated as the ransom drop can be, getting to that point is a tedious and delicate process. Though the pirates are based in one of the poorest and most chaotic countries on Earth, they have access to sophisticated satellite phones, faxes, even text messaging.

And negotiating with them can be nerve wracking.

"It's unlike negotiating a kidnapping in Mexico or Afghanistan or Baghdad. It's taking place in a hostile maritime environment," said Cloonan. "You have to have the resources to deliver the ransom if required to. You have to be very strong-willed and understand what the risks are."

The most important part of the negotiations is establishing who will speak for the company and who will speak for the often squabbling pirates.

"First, one has to have a communicator on behalf of the shipowner who has to be identified. And then what you hope is that the bad guys will come to their senses and put a good communicator on their end," said Cloonan. "He has to have the authority to speak to reach a consensus. Until you get a good communicator on behalf of the hijackers you can waste a good amount of time."

Speaking in English Helps Control the Deal

The K&R specialist does not negotiate for the shipping company. Instead someone within the shipping company is chosen to do the talking.

"We train them and help them through the process," Cloonan said. "You would be surprised how well people can be coached, how well they adapt to a script that's laid out and how well they use their own talents."

The shipowners don't pick the pirates' negotiator, but they can insist that whoever speaks for them do the negotiating in English. Cloonan says it's one way of "controlling the script."

The talks usually begin with the pirates demanding a sky-high fee for the safe return of the ship and crew. The shipowner then replies by warning the pirates they "have a responsibility to take care of the crew, and that includes adequate medical care and enough food and water to survive for weeks," Cloonan said.

"What we are doing in effect is always stressing the human aspect to all of this," said Cloonan.

Eventually the ransom price starts coming down. Unlike Nigeria, Afghanistan or Baghdad, says Cloonan, pirates almost never have a political agenda.

"In all the cases I know of, they've never said they want the money to spread the wealth to the starving population or that they have taken a ship or a crew for some religious or political reason," he said.

He says their motive is money, pure and simple.

And it's a lot of money. The U.N. report on piracy estimates that pirates have been paid between $25 million to $30 million in ransoms this year.

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