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  • JTMS Intern Thyene Moreira

Comparing the Economic and Social Problems leading to Maritime Piracy in Somalia and Venezuela

Updated: Dec 20, 2023

Fishing Boats and Old Ruin in Mogadishu, Somalia. Photo provided by


Maritime piracy is a phenomenon that afflicts many parts of the world, with severe consequences for global security, international trade, and the economic stability of the affected regions. Although many may think that piracy is a practice that belongs to the past, it persists in several maritime regions, such as the Gulf of Aden, the Gulf of Guinea, the Straits of Malacca, the Philippine Sea, and, on an increasing scale, South America, and the Caribbean. It refers to criminal groups committing theft, kidnapping, and violence on commercial ships and vessels.

The Maritime piracy is a complex problem that affects global security and the economy and varies in different parts of the world. Two critical cases will highlight Somalia and Venezuela. Both countries experienced a significant increase in maritime piracy incidence due to a combination of social and economic problems. This article compares these situations, pointing out maritime piracy's leading causes and consequences in Somalia and Venezuela.

Contemporary Maritime Piracy

Maritime piracy consists of criminal actions, such as kidnapping, robbery, and attacking ships, carried out by armed groups in coastal areas and on the high seas. These transgressive activities directly threaten global security, as they can impact several sectors, such as international trade, navigation, and the political stability of the affected countries. Piracy, as set out in Article 101 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), [i]defines international piracy as follows: "Anyone of the following acts constitutes piracy: a) Any unlawful act of violence or detention or any act of depredation committed for the personal purpose by the crew or passengers of a private ship or aircraft and directed:

(i) against a ship or aircraft on the high seas or against persons or property on board.

(ii) Against a ship or aircraft, persons or property that are in a place not subject to

the jurisdiction of any State.

(iii) Any act of voluntary participation in the use of a ship or aircraft when the person

who practices knows facts that give that ship or aircraft the character of a pirate ship

or aircraft; (reference).

The relationship between maritime piracy and security is complex and multifaceted from marine resources to economic and social crises[ii]. This criminal activity directly threatens global security, with significant economic, political, humanitarian, and social impacts. To guarantee maritime security, it is essential to have greater international cooperation, strengthen mechanisms to combat piracy and adopt effective measures by governments and international organizations. In this way it will be possible to reduce risks and prevent maritime piracy occurrences, protect trade routes, promote political stability, and ensure the security of affected communities.

It is necessary to understand the causes contributing to the emergence and maintenance of contemporary maritime piracy. The fragile states suffering from poverty and lack of economic opportunities in coastal regions where piracy is most prevalent are vital factors[iii]. In addition, to economic crises the political instability in certain regions also contributes to the proliferation of piracy. Armed conflicts and the need for a solid and efficient government make law enforcement and combating pirate groups more difficult. The lack of an adequate military or police presence allows these criminals to operate freely, thus increasing the number of attacks. Thus, many people in these areas see piracy as a way to escape poverty.

Another critical factor is the existence of busy trade routes, which attract pirates in search of easy victims. Ships carrying valuable cargo, such as oil, ores, and electronics, are attractive targets for criminals, who see these goods as an opportunity to profit.

Considering the consequences of contemporary maritime piracy, the need to address this problem is evident. Pirate attacks cause severe economic damage, affecting global trade and increasing shipping costs. Companies and insurance companies end up bearing the costs of thefts and kidnappings, which increases the prices of products and services for the final consumer.

Two countries that have been the scene of significant episodes of maritime piracy are Somalia, located in the Horn of Africa, and Venezuela, in South America. Although these countries are on different continents, they share similar economic and social problems that have increased piracy in their maritime regions. In this essay, we will compare the factors that contributed to the outbreak of maritime piracy in Somalia and Venezuela, analyzing the economic and social conditions that made the proliferation of this phenomenon possible in each case.

Flag of Somalia. Photo provided by

The Case of Somalia

Somalia is one of the main epicenters of maritime piracy. Since the early 2000s, the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean region has been the scene of frequent attacks by Somali pirates. This increased pirate activity is closely linked to political instability, widespread poverty, and lack of effective governance in Somalia.

One of the leading causes of Somali piracy is the need for a solid and functioning central government. After the fall of the dictator Siad Barre regime in 1991, the country plunged into a power surge, which resulted in a civil war and the fragmentation of the state[iv]. This situation of anarchy opened space for organized criminal groups[v] to take advantage of the lack of law and order to carry out attacks and hijack ships in the region.

The main factors for piracy in Somalia are the absence of a government system that can ensure effective governance. With few opportunities for employment and livelihoods, many young Somalis have turned to the criminal activity of piracy as a means of survival[vi]. Illegal fishing by foreign vessels has also damaged the local fishing industry[vii], deprived Somali fishermen of their livelihoods and encouraged some to become pirates.

Most people live in precarious conditions, lacking access to essential services like education and health. Lack of opportunities and scarce resources fuel the embrace of piracy among Somalis desperate for survival[viii]. Many fishermen who lost their livelihood due to overfishing and maritime behavior joined the pirates' visits.

The consequences of Somali piracy are diverse. Initially, the losses to the international shipping industry are significant. The costs associated with increasing security on maritime routes, such as escorting ships and paying ransoms, have a negative impact on the global economy. Furthermore, piracy also affects international trade, as many ships avoid passing through the Gulf of Aden due to the risks involved. Somali pirate groups, which operate mainly off the coast of Somalia, have set up extortion schemes and hijack foreign ships with the aim of obtaining ransoms. These criminal activities threatened global maritime security and led to the intervention of international naval forces to combat piracy in the region.

Several initiatives have been taken to combat the problem in response to maritime piracy. For example, the European Union's Joint Task Force to Combat piracy has carried out patrols and crackdowns along the coast of Somalia. In addition, the Somali government and the international community worked to strengthen maritime security and improve governance and the country's economic situation to tackle the underlying causes of piracy.

Venezuela, Cross port. Photo provided by

The Case of Venezuela

On the other hand, Venezuela faces a worrying increase in maritime piracy, although the causes differ from those of Somalia. The Latin American country's turbulent economic and political situation has contributed to the proliferation of maritime crimes and has become the epicenter of piracy in Latin America.

From the fourth most important tuna fishing country of the world, today it is bankrupt due to the economic and political crisis[ix]. Prompted many unemployed people from coastal towns to dabble in piracy. “An investigation by the Alianza Rebelde Investiga (ARI) team in Venezuela, made up of the media outlets El Pitazo, TalCual and Runrunes, together with CONNECTAS[x], reveals that 59 incidents of piracy in aquatic spaces were reported during 2021.”[xi]

The numbers exposed by Organizacion Nacional de Salvamento y Seguridad Maritima de los Espacios Acuaticos de Venezuela (ONSA)[xii], coincide with a report published by the NGO One Earth Future as part of its Oceans Beyond Piracy[xiii] program. This organization indicated that 90 percent of the attacks registered throughout Latin America in 2018 occurred in Venezuelan waters. The cases multiplied from one year to the next, driven by piracy in Venezuela: 27 illegal ones were registered in 2017 throughout the continent, while the following year, that number rose to 71, according to the NGO[xiv].

Venezuela's economic collapse, marked by hyperinflation, food and medicine shortages, led to a parallel economy based on smuggling and the black market. The Venezuelan coast, rich in oil and natural resources, has become an attractive target for criminal groups, many linked to gangs and armed organizations[xv]. Cargo theft, ship hijacking, fuel theft, and drug trafficking are common practices on the Venezuelan coast, often perpetrated by organized criminal groups that exploit the country's vulnerability.

The Venezuelan economy has been severely affected by mismanagement, corruption, and falling oil prices, one of the country's primary sources of revenue. This has led to a general breakdown of public infrastructure and services. The lack of investment in maritime security and corruption in some institutions also facilitated the activities of criminal groups in Venezuelan waters[xvi].

The widespread corruption also plays a role in the rise of maritime piracy in Venezuela. Weak institutions and the involvement of corrupt officials allow criminal groups to operate freely in some regions of the country[xvii]. The Venezuelan government's lack of effective response has generated a sense of impunity among criminals, further encouraging maritime attacks.

In addition to economic factors, social factors contribute to the increase in maritime piracy in both countries. The lack of adequate educational opportunities, widespread unemployment, social inequality, the marginalization of certain communities, and the lack of access to essential services has generated a feeling of hopelessness and discontent among the affected populations. These social factors provide fertile ground for pirate groups' recruitment of vulnerable individuals.

Despite the similarities in the economic and social challenges that have led to the rise of maritime piracy in Somalia and Venezuela, there are also significant differences. In Somalia, political instability and the lack of a central authority capable of guaranteeing security have contributed to the proliferation of piracy. In Venezuela, although the political situation and economic decline are key factors, institutionalized corruption and lack of investment in maritime security are additional elements that allow criminal groups to operate in Venezuelan waters.


In conclusion, although maritime piracy in Somalia and Venezuela has its peculiarities, it is possible to identify some similarities in its causes and consequences. Extreme poverty, lack of governance, and political instability are key factors contributing to the rise of piracy in these two countries. In addition to the economic impact on international maritime trade, piracy also has social and political consequences, putting regional security at risk. Effective socio-economic and political measures must be taken to combat this problem and create a safe and stable environment in Somalia and Venezuela. Understanding these factors is essential to finding solutions to mitigate maritime piracy and promote stability in these regions. Investing in effective governance, economic development, education, and maritime security is necessary to address the root problems that allow piracy to proliferate.

Measures have been taken to combat piracy and address the underlying causes to restore regional maritime security and stability. Through international cooperation, socio-economic investments, and enhanced security capabilities, we can work to eradicate this problem and ensure a safe and stable maritime environment for global trade.

By JTMS Intern Thyene Moreira

*** The views expressed herein belong solely to the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of JTMS or Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies. ***

[ii] Daxecker U, Prins B.”Insurgents of the sea: Institutionaland economic opportunities for maritime piracy.” Journal of Conflict Resolution. 2013; 57(6):940–965.

[iii] Desai, R. M., & Shambaugh, G. E. (2022). “Measuring the global impact of destructive and illegal fishing on maritime piracy: A spatial analysis.” Washington: The Brookings Institution. Retrieved from ProQuest Central Korea Retrieved from

[iv] Souto da Costa, Eduardo Augusto. (2015).” Pirataria marítima: A experiência somali.” Revista De Direito Internacional, Suppl.Direito do Mar e Direito Marítimo: Aspectos Nacionais, 12(1).ítima-experiência-somali/docview/1709351360/se-2 Accessed 24 Jul. 2023.

[v] In the case of Somalia (Islamic militias of Al-Shabaab in Somalia and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen).

[vi] Souto da Costa, Eduardo Augusto. (2015).”Pirataria marítima: A experiência somali.” Revista De Direito Internacional, Suppl.Direito do Mar e Direito Marítimo: Aspectos Nacionais, 12(1).ítima-experiência-somali/docview/1709351360/se-2 Accessed 24 Jul. 2023.

[vii] Alsawalqa, Rulah Odeh, Venter, Denis. (2022) “Piracy and Maritime Security in the North-Western Indian Ocean: From the Gulf of Oman to the Waters off the Somali Cost”. Insight on Africa 14(I) 88-104.

[viii] Bekhabib, Dyhia, Sumalia, u Rashid, Le Billon, Philippe. (2019)”The fisheries of Africa: Exploitation, policy, and maritime security trends”. Marine Policy 10180-92. Accessed 24 Jul. 2023.

[ix] “El flagelo de la piratería marítima llega a las costas de Venezuela”. (2016) Infobae. Accessed 24 Jul. 2023.

[xv] In the case of Venezuela armed drugs cartels.

[xvi]“ Los Nuevos piratas del Caribe.” (2022) El Tiempo. Accessed 24 Jul. 2023.

[xvii] “They be pirates: An Old scourge is reappearing in the Caribbean Sea”. (2018). The Washington Post. Accessed 24 Jul. 2023.

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