NEW YORK , Jan. 29, 2001 -- In late November 1998, fishermen in Shantou, China dredged up a find that would go down in the annals of modern maritime history.
But their find was nothing anybody in a boat would hope to repeat, ever again.
In their net, they found a corpse, its mouth taped shut and bound to a metal weight. Over the course of several days, fishermen in the area would bring up several more — all crew members of the Hong Kong-owned, Panama-flagged cargo ship, the Cheung Son, that had been reported missing weeks before.
Police later determined the 17,000-ton freighter had been hijacked by pirates en route from Shanghai to Malaysia. It had been carrying low-value furnace slag from Shanghai to Port Klang.
The pirates are believed to have killed all of the ship's 23 crew members, and sold the cargo. They might have gotten away with the crime, had Chinese authorities not discovered some photographs while investigating a suspect.
The pictures showed pirates partying among the dead on the Cheung Son.
Last winter, Chinese authorities executed 13 of the Cheung Son's pirates. The boat and its cargo have never been found.
A Modern Twist
The tale of the Cheung Son is just an extreme example of a crime that is happening with increasing frequency.
The International Maritime Bureau or IMB, an organization dedicated to preventing crime on the high seas, says in 1999 it received reports of nearly 300 pirate attacks. For the year 2000, they were estimating more than 450 attacks.
"It has definitely been a great increase," said Captain Pottengal Mukundan, the bureau's director.
But these are not the eye-patched swashbucklers seeking gold doubloons you read about in storybooks. They have evolved with the times.
Just as the Barbary Pirates once haunted North Africa, and Captain Kidd stalked the Caribbean of colonial America, today's pirates have made the world's more remote and lawless regions their home.
Pirate attacks have taken place in South America — Peru, Ecuador and Venezuela — and Africa — Angola, Nigeria and Somalia.
The most common locale for this crime though, is Southeast Asia — like Thailand, India and Bangladesh.
The leader by far has been Indonesia, the world's largest archipelago made up of 13,000 islands. It suffered over 100 attacks by pirates in 2000, up from 66 in 1999 and 31 in 1998.
An archipelago is one of the best environments for pirates. The hundreds of small ships on the water mean it's harder to distinguish pirate ships from other ships, and the narrow sea channels make it easy for pirates to elude authorities by slipping into various island hideouts.
The world's most piracy infested channel is in fact, the Strait of Malacca between Malaysia and Indonesia — which is also one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.
They'll Take Anything — Even Your Teeth
Like many other criminals, pirates are also benefiting from today's global market. Instead of looking for gold booty, they will take anything of value — from mobile phones to palm oil.
The most frightening aspect though, is that today's pirates are as vicious as their predecessors.
Legends say Blackbeard, one of history's most fearsome pirates, was so savage he cut off a victim's finger for a ring.
When today's pirates began emerging in Southeast Asia in the wake of the Vietnam war, newspaper accounts were filled with horrific tales of their deeds — how they boarded refugee ships, raping the women and pulling gold from the teeth of men, before tossing everyone into the shark-infested seas.
Most attacks though, are rarely as spectacular as the one on the Cheung Son.
The majority are basically muggings at sea. A bunch of hooligans pull up alongside a ship, point a rocket-propelled grenade at the hull, and demand a payoff.
A little more elaborate attack has two fishing boats waiting on each side of a shipping lane at night. They stretch a line across the lane in the dark, and when a boat passes through, the line catches on the bow, and the boats get pulled along.
The pirates scramble up the sides with grappling hooks, steal anything of value that isn't bolted down, and drop back down into their ships when they're done, releasing the line and escaping before the crew has time to react.
Opportunists, like low-level criminals and unemployed fishermen, are the most common perpetrators of these crimes. They are quick, completed in a half-hour or so — and have only a little material gain in mind.
Attacks like the one on the Cheung Son — where the pirates plan to steal all the cargo, as well as the ship itself — demand more careful plans, and more formidable perpetrators.
Because pirates in these cases intend to steal the ship, the crew's lives are immediately at stake. In past attacks of this nature, pirates have set the crewmen adrift in small boats, if they didn't kill them outright. The sailors' ordeal can last days, if not weeks.
And their attackers usually command many more resources. They need to be able to dispose of a freighter's cargo as well as the vessel itself. Often the perpetrators of such crimes have been ex-military or affiliated with organized crime.
Not Widely Reported
News of piracy is still rare, despite the gory accounts, and the immense amounts of money it costs every year.
Some $1 billion (U.S.) is lost to piracy every year, but the prevailing attitude toward it is "out-of-sight, out-of-mind," Peter Chalk, a professor at Queensland University in Australia said in Jane's Intelligence Review.
When the IMB established a piracy reporting center to distribute news of pirate attacks and notify skippers of hotspots of pirate activity, it was hailed as a much-needed, revolutionary move.
Furthermore, attacks that take place on the high seas, often come under a nebulous jurisdiction. International waters belong to no one, while a ship may belong to a company in one country, be registered in another, have a crew from a third, and be attacked by pirates from a fourth.
The attack on the Cheung Son, in fact, was notable not only for its brutality, but for embarrassing the Chinese navy into action.
Up until the attack on the Cheung Son, the seas of Southeast Asia were thought to be growing more dangerous, because of the departure of Britain's China flotilla after the Hong Kong handover in 1997, and the poverty and desperation brought on by the Asian economic crisis.
Observers say while piracy in Southeast Asia continues, a renewed Chinese vigilance has discouraged the attacks from being as violent.
The Anonymous Victims
Victims of modern piracy can be yachtsmen whose vacations turn into nightmares, or shipping tycoons who have to write off multimillion- dollar tankers — but typically, they are anonymous.
They are local crew members from the developing world, or poor fishermen who lose their livelihoods.
"Victims of piracy are sailors usually coming from faraway countries," Mukundan said.