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The afternoon is slipping away when the captain runs me through the ticktock of the mission for the Hong Kong crime boss. He also explains that he turned to piracy in the late 1970s and reckons he has stolen and sold 20 ships since. He and his crew are from the coastal villages of the Sangihe Islands, thousands of miles east of Babi near the southern tip of the Philippines and renowned for producing Southeast Asia’s best sailors. The squat 54-year-old captain has been arrested twice, once in Malaysia when he was busted for smuggling bales of Cambodian marijuana, and once in China. Both times he was released after his bosses intervened and bribed the authorities. Both times he suspects his employers of arranging his arrest so they could cut his fee. Choosing who to work for is a delicate business, he says. The piracy world is not noted for its trustworthiness. "Sometimes we just take the front money and disappear," he laughs.

The pirate king tells me there used to be times when, on a moonless night, he and his crew would routinely loot 15 cargo ships before dawn. But he says he has now largely given up on hit-and-runs. There is still traffic enough—300 ships a day pass through the 2.5-mile-wide east-west bottleneck of international waters between Singapore and Babi. But because of the pirates’ notoriety, fewer and fewer ships carry cash. More lucrative and safer, says the pirate king, is the type of mercenary work as a bajing loncat that the captain is describing. Among bajing loncat, the Babi pirates represent the elite, specialist raiders hired to steal mammoth 330-foot, 10,000-ton ships and their entire cargo for as little as $5,000. Most are from Palembang in South Sumatra, which over the centuries has developed an unrivaled reputation for hijacking and robbery on land or sea. The men still carry machetes, cutlasses, and homemade samurai-style swords like their forefathers before them. "You don’t need guns," smiles the pirate king. "Indonesians are very skillful with knives."

The World’s Problem

If cargo and locations have changed, the pirates’ motive has not. It is still, as the Somali pirates showed, about one thing: treasure. The Somalis initially demanded $35 million for the tanks, then $20 million, then more than halved that again. A report by the British strategic think tank Chatham House estimates that the Somali pirates may have earned more than $50 million in 2008, an income that on land has allowed them to turn a few dust-bowl fishing villages into boom towns like Babi, full of flashy cars, flashy boats, and alcohol.

But there are other, deeper reasons to become a pirate. "We were forced into this work," said Ali Sugule, the commander of the group that hijacked the Faina, speaking by satellite phone from the ship’s bridge. "We were fishermen. But ships from other countries fish our coasts illegally, destroy our nets, and fire on whoever approaches them. They even dump toxic waste. We couldn’t work. So we decided to defend ourselves." Some of the pirate gangs refer to themselves as "coast guards."

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