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Cruise Ship Crime

Crime on the High Seas
Cruises Not a Vacation from Vigilance


cruise_ship_security.jpgTalk of piracy and crime on the high seas might conjure images of parchment maps, buried treasure, and scurrilous one-eyed swashbucklers. But for victimized cruise ship vacationers or ship captains relieved of their cargo by thieves, the issues are frighteningly real.

There were 39 cases of crimes on the high seas last year involving U.S. citizens, including sexual and physical assaults, death, drug smuggling, theft, and “vessel conversion”—a legal reference to the November grenade attack and hijack attempt on a cruise liner off the coast of Somalia. From Fiscal Year 2000 to mid-2005, the FBI opened 305 criminal cases, more than half of them assaults.

While the numbers might seem small—a fraction of the 10 million Americans traveling this year on vessels in international waters—they are significant reminders of the risks on the open water. Cruise ship crimes accounted for 32 of the reported incidents in 2005.

“If you are going to go on a cruise, you want to treat it like you are going to a small city,” says David Hearn, a supervisory special agent in the FBI’s Indian Country/Special Jurisdiction Unit, which coordinates with field offices and the FBI’s legal attachés overseas to investigate crimes on the high seas. “You don’t know the people on a cruise ship. You don’t know who’s in the cabin next to you. Crime doesn’t stop just because you are on a boat.”

When a crime does occur at sea, several factors determine whether the U.S. has legal jurisdiction. A complicated weave of international law applies, but as a rule, the FBI leads investigations of the following scenarios:

  • If the ship is U.S.-owned, regardless of the nationality of the victim or perpetrator;
  • If the crime occurs in U.S. territorial waters (within 12 miles of the coast);
  • If the victim or perpetrator is a U.S. national on a ship that departed or is arriving at a U.S. port;
  • If it’s an act of terrorism against the U.S.

When a crime occurs outside U.S. jurisdiction, FBI legal attachés work with local officials and the authorities conducting the investigations. Most countries welcome FBI assistance in collecting evidence, and in some cases they invite our agents and analysts to play a larger role.

Piracy—boarding ships and robbing them—occurs less frequently than traditional crimes. Just four of the FBI cases in 2005 pertained to commercial vessels.

On cruises, meanwhile, their transient nature can make investigations difficult. When possible, agents meet vessels before docking to conduct interviews. In some cases—if witnesses have dispersed, too much time has elapsed, or alcohol is involved—cases are difficult to prosecute.

Agent Hearn’s advice to passengers: “Watch what you are doing and keep your wits about you. It seems like an enclosed environment. That gives people a false sense of security. You should have fun, but act responsibly and know what your kids are doing at all times. And if you see suspicious activity or a crime has occurred, contact the ship’s personnel immediately.”

Link: Testimony on Criminal Threats to Americans on High Seas