Trigger Warning: The episode you’re about to hear contains descriptions of violence. Please take care.
Speech in foreign language.
Ian Urbina: The video came to me from a source at Interpol, and all it had was the subject line: Brace yourself. I opened it and, you know, it was hard to make out what was going on at first. It was obviously shot on someone's phone.
Speech in foreign language.
Ian Urbina: The camera is super wobbly. It's at sea and the water is very blue, and you see several large tuna long liners. These are big steel ships. And very early on into the video, you start hearing gunshots. And that's when I immediately stopped everything else I was doing and focused.
Speech in foreign language and gunshots
The guys in the water are clinging to this wooden wreckage of some sort. It looks like a small boat that's been destroyed with a gun fire is coming at them and missing them. You see it sort of slice into the water.
Speech in foreign language and gunshots
Ian Urbina: And the guy on the wreckage is now holding up…Jesus Christ. He holds up his hands, palms up, and then his head. And there's blood all over the water.
Shouting in foreign language
Speaker 1 The shouting you hear more predominantly is coming from the ship itself, where the shots are being fired, and you can hear the captain of the ship over a loudspeaker yelling in Chinese, which once translated, you know, I found out was shoot, shoot, shoot and over here and over.
Captain (in Chinese): Shoot, shoot, shoot!
Ian Urbina: But you also hear all this yelling among those standing on the deck. And those folks seem like they're just having a great time. You know, you hear them say, “I got one, I got one.”
Speech in foreign language and laughing
They're just taking target practice. It's just. And that's the end of him. That last shot hit him, and now he is a pool of blood.
Shouting in foreign language
Ian Urbina: The whole thing ends with this sort of capstone moment where three of the guys on board now, whether these guys are merely witnesses to the crime or culprits. Who knows? All you know is that they're smiling, they're giving a thumbs up. One guy is still smoking a cigarette while he's filming the others, and the other guys are sort of hugging each other and posing.
Speech in foreign language and whirring
Ian Urbina: That's the end of that. The whole scene is just, I don't know, it's one I've never been able to get out of my head. It's just so slow and methodical. And then the laughing, you know, behind. Um, it's just…yeah, it's just really dark. This is the Outlaw Ocean, Episode one. The Murder Video.
Ian Urbina: Has he called for backup? This is a much bigger ship. Are they on the way? My name is Ian Urbina. I'm an investigative journalist, and I've been working at The New York Times for 17 years. And I've been reporting on lawlessness at sea for about a decade. Just ask, “Can we come on board?” Maybe he’ll say yes. Oh nets, nets. You know, the oceans make up two thirds of the planet's surface and they're extremely vital to the survival of the globe. 50% of the oxygen we breathe comes from the oceans and 90% of the products we consume cross the oceans. And yet we know very, very little about the oceans. The goal of my reporting is to shed light on this space, to sort of help the public reimagine it, not as some liquid desert, but a realm where more than 50 million people work and a bustling zone where a lot of activity happens, much of it bad, about which the public knows very little.
Voice over loudspeaker and gunshots
Ian Urbina: The ocean through history has always been a place that people go to get away from landed life and to get away from other things: laws, governments. It's been this metaphor for freedom. It's also this dark dystopian place, home to pretty shocking inhumanities. And because of the lack of governance, of laws, of law enforcement, that dark side of inhumanities generally occurs with impunity.
Voice shouting: Guns pointed at our faces. Guns pointed directly at our faces.
Ian Urbina: When you're out in that space, what you realize is the oceans are ungoverned and perhaps ungovernable. I do really think the outlaw ocean is the last frontier on the planet. Have you rescued the man in the water? Over.
Indistinct shouting and intense music
Don’t take photos. Don’t take photos. You have sea slavery, gunrunning, murder, rape.
Broadcaster #1: A little boat crowded with children sold into slavery.
Overfishing and illegal fishing, intentional dumping of oil and other waste, not just spills.
Broadcaster #2: Marine scientists say they have identified more than 25,000 barrels of DDT.
Unknown man: You see, it's coming all the way there. There’s the spill.
Ian Urbina: Any variety of piracy from stealing of fuel by siphoning it off to boarding ships and taking hostages.
Unknown man: They're shooting back. Release, port side. (gunshots follow)
Ian Urbina: It's this sort of Wild West, a watery Wild West. You know, through my career, much of my reporting has focused on people and quite especially the darker side of people, specifically labor abuses, how workers of various sorts are typically taken advantage of and abused. I've covered coal workers, truck drivers, sex workers, garment workers. Most of these workforces have pretty brutal conditions, but nothing compared to what I found in the fishing industry. These workers are so far from land and so invisible to the people that benefit from their labor. They're moving from one place to the next. So it's not a stationary factory. And the workers themselves typically are undocumented and usually from developing countries. So, for all these reasons, they're distinctly vulnerable. You find yourself thinking of what Upton Sinclair might have thought, felt, seen as he looked into the meatpacking industry. The working conditions and the wages and the level of violence, you know, were so extreme that it really did feel like something out of the 19th century.
Laughter, speech in foreign language, and gunshots.
Ian Urbina: When this video came to my source at Interpol, he immediately knew it was perfect to send to me because this is exactly the sort of brutality that I wanted to report on. I called my source who had sent it to me and asked him to tell me what that was about, what he knew about that. And what I found out then was this footage had been found on a cell phone that had been left in the back of a taxi in Fiji. My suspicion was that one of the deckhands at the scene of the crime, when the captain collected the cell phones from everyone else, he held onto his. And then when he got back to shore, he went out for a night drinking and forgot his phone, you know, in the back of a taxi. And so my suspicion was that the culprits of this crime probably were in Fiji at some point and the ship might have even docked there. So, I went to the Fijians and talked with the police inspector and what the Fijians told me was that they determined that the guys in the water were not Fijian. The ships are not Fijian. And from what they could tell, none of the deckhands or crew were Fijian, so their interest in the case was over. There was this strange disparity. On the one hand, you had this trove of evidence.
Captain in Chinese: Shoot, shoot, shoot!
Ian Urbina: You had actual video footage, which is rare at sea because cameras are often confiscated. You have definitive proof of murder, you know, in that footage. You had at the end of the footage, the faces of witnesses or culprits. So on the one hand, you've got really strong evidence. On the other hand, you have no clue who the guys in the water are, no clue who the guys firing the gun are, no clue where this happened, when it happened. You have no physical evidence from the scene, like the, the bullets or the weapons. You don't even know what ship registries, ship owners, fishing companies to begin honing in on.
Speech in foreign language
Ian Urbina: In the video you are also hearing at least three, maybe four different languages. And so you can hone in on the language of the captain, and that might give you a sense of where to look, but not necessarily because the transnational, international nature of the industry means that captains from all nationalities are working on ships that belong in countries, not their own. So that was the very first priority, is to try to figure out where the incident happened and also whose ships those are, where their ships were flagged.
Speech in foreign language
Ian Urbina: I figured if I just watched the video enough times, I could start finding clues. And eventually, I noticed that there was a ship in the background. And you can make out some of its identifying numbers. And so, with help from sources, I was able to identify that one vessel. And that was probably the biggest initial break in starting to hone in what country they were from and what fleet they were part of. The vessel that emerged was the Chun I 217. And this was a Taiwanese owned tuna longline vessel. What that enabled me to do was immediately go for the corporate records of that ship and ideally figure out whether it was part of a fleet. I was able to hone in on the company that owned the 217, figure out who ran that company, the CEO. Lo and behold, the CEO of that company was a pretty big player within Taiwan. Harassed him a bit, took a while of calling, and finally was able to get on the phone with him and, through a translator, asked him about this incident. And what I learned was he was aware of the incident. The captain from that vessel had reported the incident to him and the CEO had asked the captain to write up a report about it so that he could alert law enforcement. But the CEO wouldn't give me the name of the captain, wouldn't hand over the report he'd given. He also said that the 217 was just a witness to the crime and that the captain was still out at sea and therefore he couldn't be interviewed. That's as much as I got. So I turn next to the prosecutor's office and Taiwan and the fisheries agency that oversees fishing. And I was stonewalled far more. The fisheries agency said that they couldn't say anything about the case except that they didn't even know whether this was murder. This may have been self-defense. It's too hard and early to tell. And that struck me as strange, you know, for anyone who had watched the video. The CEO had said that these were pirates in the water from what his captain had told him, but that just struck me as a little bit dubious. And the more I talked with experts about whether the men being shot in the water look and seem like Somali pirates, I became more skeptical. Number one, you can make out a flag on the wooden wrecked ship and pirates don't fly flags. There's no reason for them to have identifying marks on their ships. So that made no sense whatsoever. You see no weapons anywhere in the water or in the boat itself. And then just the, the nature of the kind of boat that had been wrecked, which is most likely a wooden dhow. These are kind of traditional Pakistani, Somali, Indian fishing boats. And they're really solid. They don't flip easy, but they're slow. They're really slow, and hijacking a big Taiwanese steel sided tuna long liner from a dhow didn't make any sense either.
Speech in foreign language and gunshots.
Ian Urbina: There's such a clear disparity between the people firing the guns and the people being hit by them. The guys in the water are 10 to 20 feet below the deck of the ship, flailing about, open handed, unarmed. There are fishing nets in their boat. No weapons to be seen in the boat. The boat's sinking anyway. This is pure murder. There's no scenario in which that would be justifiable for us.
Captain in Chinese: Shoot, shoot, shoot!
Broadcaster #3: Fiji police have asked Interpol to help them unravel the mystery surrounding what appears to be the brutal murder of four men at sea.
Broadcaster #4: Men shot at sea in YouTube video most likely Somali pirates.
Broadcaster #5: The New York Times series shows how little we know about the lawless seas. Ian Urbina reported this series and he joins me now. Ian, welcome.
Ian Urbina: Thanks.
Broadcaster #5: In the first part of your series…
Ian Urbina: We run the article. It runs on the front page of The New York Times and gets a lot of attention, a lot of traffic. Immediately, my phone and email are lining up with all sorts of interesting tips from various sources about the case, which is in some ways wonderful and terrible at once, because you're supposed to move on to the next story. You've done that. Now move on. And some of the best information was starting to come in and sources I didn't know to exist. And furthermore, I just felt haunted by the fact that I didn't really move the ball downfield as much as I wanted to in solving the crime, so I couldn't put it down. That law enforcement agencies or governments in general would want to back away from a gruesome murder and not burden themselves with any more responsibilities makes total sense to me. I mean, it's not good, but it's not shocking. But I think what's distinct here is that normally when crimes like this happen on land, it would be much harder for this story to go away. You know, there would be reporters and advocates and lawyers and families that would be all over it. But at sea, because, you know, the evidence disappears, there are no skid marks on the sea. As one cop mentioned to me, you know, like bodies stay disappeared, they don't get unearthed and autopsies conducted on them, they get eaten by what's below. You know, that the reality of what happened out there makes it much easier for countries and law enforcement, governments to simply turn the other way. I've worked on coal mining and oil and gas industry and, you know, industries that don't particularly love investigative reporters. And even in those realms, you can always find people who will engage on some level. And what was so striking in this realm was every person who even answered their phone at the fisheries agency or the flag registry or the law enforcement, the Navy would point me to someone else and just sort of give me this constant runaround. You know, getting the runaround is an occupational hazard of being a journalist, but I'd never experienced it to this degree. And at one point I was kvetching about it to a maritime lawyer, and he said, “Oh, you're getting the maritime merry go round.” There's a term for it. And, you know, if you try to ask hard questions in our industry, they just point you to someone else and so on and so on.
Translated Voice: So we reject groundless or unwarranted accusations.
Unknown Man: Categorically deny all the information contained in the two reports that I had mentioned.
Broadcaster #6: Statistics are rejected by industry officials here who question the sources and reliability of the…
Ian Urbina: There is this truly netherworld sense about international waters. You cross the line at 12 miles from shore and suddenly you're in this outer space of international waters or high seas. And what laws apply there shift. The overall outlook by governments of that space is that because it belongs to all of us, no one takes responsibility for it, no one feels ownership of it. And therefore, it's in some ways the most neglected, least policed realm on the planet. Laws are tough to enforce out there because no one's patrolling the seas, even in national waters. When you look around the globe, most countries don't have the resources to have navies or coast guards, so they have no vessels they can actually put on the water to do police work. And then if you move out to the high seas, forget about it. You know, that that realm is utterly unpatrolled.
Indistinct radio chatter.
Ian Urbina: The old saying is crime is only countered as much as it is counted, and at sea, that's not much. Not only is there no central database for this kind of information. Most flag registries actually don't even want it because if they knew it, they might be required to do something about it. So there's just this general structural discouragement for the collection, centralization, making public of this kind of data. Putting a number to a lack is always tough, especially when you're talking about black market activity. But the estimate I get from Navy folks who do these investigations is less than 1% of all crimes at sea are ever investigated, much less prosecuted.
After the story ran, I went and watched the video again and just found myself no less disturbed by it and I just couldn't put it away even though I was supposed to move on. And my editor had told me, in no uncertain terms, to stop investigating it because I just didn't see what I hoped would happen, which is law enforcement would spring into action and feel embarrassed that this was put on the front page and suddenly they'd be holding a press conference and saying they're going to do something about it, and I'd feel like my job there was done. They're going to take it from here, and that wasn't happening at all. So, I just found myself haunted by it.
Ian Urbina: And then came the major break.
Duncan Copeland: My name is Duncan Copeland. I'm the executive director of Trygg Mat Tracking, commonly known as TMT.
Ian Urbina: Duncan got in touch with me after we published the murder story and said that he, too, had been working on that case on behalf of a client, Canadian guy, ex-military, and he runs a firm called Trygg Mat Tracking, which is this Norwegian based firm that specializes in maritime crime.
Duncan Copeland: TMT is an organization that essentially works as an intelligence support unit to coastal states, to inter-government organizations and other partners. This video was sent to us by one of our partner countries with a request to investigate a little bit more on a few key questions about it.
Ian Urbina: He had a huge database of photographs and videos of ships from around the world that were high risk vessels, and his team had, through some algorithmic help, narrowed down vessels that were in the database with vessels that were in my murder video.
Duncan Copeland: What we did was we pieced together, from the very grainy and very shaky footage, different areas of the vessel. And while many fishing vessels that are targeting the same kind of species and using the same type of gear are broadly similar, most vessels do have small, unique features, and this boat that was in the video had a couple of interesting features that were not that common. So there's something called a chalk. This is where they run the lines through when they're tying up to a dock or to another ship. And the configuration of that was a little bit different. We were able to count the number of ports in part of the boat and so on. We then ran a comparison through our systems and in the end we looked at over 3000 photos of around 300 vessels and luckily we were able to hit on two vessels that match enough of the features and one in particular that had a fairly high confidence level. And that boat was a vessel called the Ping Shin, number 101.
Ian Urbina: The Ping Shin 101 was completely new to me. I did not know that vessel. And furthermore, that same ship had been an equally violent, potentially deadly filmed clash a couple months earlier that TMT had the video for.
Duncan Copeland: We were scouring YouTube for other examples, either involving this vessel or related incidences, and we came across a video involving the same vessel. In this one, it didn't involve a shooting, but what it did show was essentially the vessel very aggressively trying to run down a smaller wooden boat.
Unknown woman: Yeah. Oh. (Continues speaking in foreign language)
Duncan Copeland: In the background, you can hear a lot of noise. And that noise is very much one of excitement of the chase. You know, they're documenting it not because they're documenting a crime. They're documenting it because they're having an exciting time.
Shouting and engines humming
Duncan Copeland: Over the past ten years, more and more videos have been surfacing that have been taken by crew on board fishing vessels. Everybody's got a camera phone now. And more and more, they love mediums like YouTube and Facebook and so on. And so it's become a really interesting intelligence source. So we'd had a lot come across our desk, but this one was this one was different. You know, it's, it's very, very graphic in what it shows. It's as cold blooded as any crime that I've ever come across in the course of our work. And it's hard because for us to be able to make an analysis like we were doing, like, who is this boat? You're not watching it once you're watching it 25 times, 50 times, 100 times.
Shouting in foreign language
Duncan Copeland: I don't feel like I'm in a position to judge all the time, I've never been a crew on board a longliner stuck out at sea for a year plus in the most difficult and the most dangerous profession in the world, particularly one who might have been under indentured labor or with a brutal captain who knows emotionally where you go with that kind of place. But there's a cold bloodedness that sort of comes through this video that it starts to haunt you a little bit.
Captain in Chinese: Shoot, shoot, shoot!
Ian Urbina: So at this stage, we've pieced together a couple of things. One, we now knew the Ping Shin 101 was likely our shooter vessel. The Chun I 217 was a witness vessel. We also now were able to hone in on who the captain on the Ping Shin 101 was, which we did that through other maritime documents. And it was a guy who was a young Chinese national who had for a while been working on Taiwanese vessels, and he was the captain at the time of the Ping Shin 101. And we also knew that the Ping Shin 101 seemed to have been involved in other clashes.
Duncan Copeland: So Taiwan was the flag state, but had also been licensed by Seychelles for some time to operate their waters. So we had a number of different avenues now of authorities who were related to this vessel. In the end, we put out three reports to the countries that we worked with. So not just Norway, but also the Indian Ocean states and states like Taiwan. But it ran up against a roadblock in the sense that there was no one country that was willing to step forward and identify itself as taking a lead role in this. We can't do enforcement where we're a non-governmental organization. It's our role to help those processes, but a country has to do them. And so the inaction on this one was particularly frustrating.
Ian Urbina: A really important point of context for understanding the murder video is to realize how the seas have been weaponized over the last 20 years. Previously, the presence of semi-automatic weapons on a fishing vessel would have been a telltale sign of criminality. The only entities that were allowed to have arms were states. In other words, navies. Ships other than that we're not really supposed to have arms on board, and that was sort of an agreed upon cultural norm. Then Somali piracy happened.
Broadcaster #7 Breaking news this morning. Pirates off the coast of Somalia have struck again.
Broadcaster #8: Of nearly 300 attacks reported last year, more than a third have taken place near the coast of Somalia.
Broadcaster #9: Four more ships, including the Greek managed Irene, have been hijacked by Somali pirates in the last two days.
Broadcaster #10: It's a U.S. flagged cargo ship called the Maersk Alabama. It was taken over apparently by Somali hijackers in the Indian Ocean about 300 miles off the Somali coast.
Ian Urbina: If you look at the story of the Maersk Alabama, which is the ship upon which the movie Captain Phillips is based, and just bear in mind, this is the first time in the 20th century that an American flag ship had been boarded by a foreign hostile party by pirates.
Broadcaster #11: The pirates hijacked the container ship Maersk Alabama on Wednesday. They seized Captain Phillips and escaped to a lifeboat after the ship's crew regained control of the vessel.
Ian Urbina: The Maersk Alabama was an American flag ship, and that's one of the reasons it got such a heavy response. But the month when that happened in 2009, there had been 150 other vessels that had been attacked by pirates. So this was a booming industry by 2009, 2010. And we were talking hundreds of millions of dollars being made on the ransom and theft of cargo and the ransom of crew.
Unknown Hostage #1: This is our 27th day in captivity. Our kidnappers are losing patience.
Unknown Hostage #2: Please help us. Please help us before we die. Please, please. Tell the government, tell the company to pay them so we can get home. Please.
Ian Urbina: Companies and insurers then began requiring that any vessel that go through high risk areas that were mapped on the globe had to have private maritime security on board. And overnight, you had the emergence of private maritime security industry that grew to, you know, a twenty billion dollar industry.
Kevin Thompson: My first job on a ship, I flew out to Djibouti, which is a small country next to Somalia. And then within 6 hours, I was getting taken out into the sea on a speedboat, not really knowing anything apart from “Yeah, if pirates come, you've got to stop them.”
Ian Urbina: I was in the Middle East and hitched a ride with a transport vessel that was picking up private maritime security guards. And there was this one guy, Kevin Thompson.
Kevin Thomson: I'm Kevin Thompson. I've been in maritime security since 2008.
Ian Urbina: Jovial, pretty weather worn with a kind of glint in his eye. And we got to talking and immediately hit it off. And this is a guy who had seen a lot of things. He was a paratrooper. He had done tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then he'd done private protection services, and now he was doing maritime security.
Kevin Thompson: It was pretty a rock star lifestyle at first. We was getting paid mega big bucks for it. We used to call it footballers wages. All we were doing basically is either drinking beer in Djibouti and beating up Legionnaires or going on ships waiting to get attacked by pirates.
Shouting and gunfire.
Kevin Thompson: If they got within 800 meters of you, that is when we would fire warning shots. Most of the time, that's when the pirates do leave because they realize that there's an armed security team aboard the ship. But some of the pirates, you know, they want to have a fight, and they'll come closer and then they'll start shooting at us.
Shouting and gunfire.
Kevin Thompson: One of the ones that sticks in my mind, I had a guy with a Manchester United football shirt on. He had a hat on that looked like it had ears on it as well, like a leopard print ear and a pair of shorts and flip flops. But, you know, but then he's got an AK 47, and he's decided, “Right, we're going to attack this vessel now.” Every single time we've had a firefight with pirates, I've always obviously been the winner. That's why I'm still here. And we just leave them in the water and we continue on our way
Unknown man: They hit it?
Unknown woman: Yeah, they hit it.
Ian Urbina: You have this really intense pressure cooker situation emerging. On the one hand, you have decades of overfishing causing near-shore stocks to disappear, right. So you've got local artisanal fishermen who are doing subsistence fishing for local communities in five man boats that are having to go much further out from shore. And then you have a growth of the industrial, commercial, often foreign vessels also coming near shore in the same general areas. And so that creates a very intense situation in which the big industrial boats are often running over not just the nets and the gear of the small boats, but the boats themselves, you know, and stranding and killing guys without even knowing it. And in the opposite direction, you have these smaller boats seemingly posing a threat to the bigger boats because they're armed and they're hard to discern as to whether they're pirates or competitors or whatnot. And so you have more of a clash between these two players occurring as the marine resources get more strained. And now everyone's armed.
Captain in Chinese: Shoot, shoot, shoot! (Followed by shouting in foreign language)
Ian Urbina: So on the one hand, after 2008, you had the governments of the world realizing they couldn't do anything about this, so the private sector had to deal with it and so everyone arms up. On the other hand, you have in the post-9-11 moment the opposite trend where countries are becoming even more nervous about attack, you know, and so they are passing often with the U.S. prodding a lot stricter rules about port security. And what that means is a bind. Everyone's got guys with guns so as to get through the dangerous neighborhoods, but no one's allowed to have the guys with guns on board when they need to drop off their cargo. So what do you do? Can't just throw them overboard. So that submerges the clever solution, which is these floating armories.
Information Source: Shipping companies looking for protection, bought excess patrol boats, converted those to act as private escorts and started hiring them out to provide anti-piracy security.
Ian Urbina: They tend to be these converted ships that have storage lockers, huge storage facilities where all the guys keep their weapons and check them upon arrival and then bunking quarters, and they might have 20, 30, 40 guys who are dropped off there. They're floating literally just a mile or two across the line from national and international waters.
Unknown Man with British Accent: We are just leaving resolution. No request permission to come along starboard side to conduct a transfer. (Followed by radio chatter)
Ian Urbina Ship unloads its cargo, comes back out and heads to a new neighborhood. Maybe it's a new, dangerous neighborhood so they pick more guys up, or maybe it's not, so they don't pick guys up. So these security guards stay on these armories and wait for their next mission. So it's this weird, weird realm.
Unknown Man: All, then get your passports. We'll put you on there, OK?
Ian Urbina: The minute I heard about it, I thought, I have to get there. It's like to me, I envision the bar scene in Star Wars, you know, like it's just this border town where you get to encounter all these seedy characters. And indeed, it was.
Shouting in foreign language followed by Unknown Man: zero four, five eight.
Ian Urbina: On this ship, there was an open air area with boxing bag and weights and jump ropes and pull up bars. You know, the guys are shirtless and pumping weights and boxing.
Fists hitting boxing bag and chatter
Ian Urbina: You know, you've got the macho testosterone concentration coupled with intense boredom, coupled with an industry that employs these guys that often treats them like shit.
Kevin Thompson: The longest I've ever spent on an armory is ten days. And that was definitely enough. All men and all ex-military. I mean, all it is, is testosterone. Everywhere.
Fists hitting boxing bag
Kevin Thompson: There's a multitude of personnel on these ships. You know, you've got Indians, you've got Nepalese, you've got Bulgarians, you've got Americans, you've got English, South Africans. The overcrowding is absolutely ridiculous. You know, it's just…just imagine going to the hottest, dirtiest pub that you've never been to, and you never want to go in, but you've got to stay in that pub for the next two or three weeks, basically. You know, that's the kind of environment that you’re stuck in.
Metal clanging and chatter
Unknown Man: Your weapons are obviously bought into the armory. They will get barcoded, scanned, put onto the system. Yes. We'll give you a scan document for. (guns being loaded)
Kevin Thompson: It probably would be a conservative estimate to say each armory has got maybe between 500 and a thousand rifles on. And that could be different types of rifles from AK 47s, FN Fals, G3s, Browning BARs. Obviously, then got all the ammunition for them, weapons, you know. So that would be 10,000 rounds of ammunition.
Unknown Man: Magazines.
Kevin Thompson: If one of these armories was to get hijacked themselves, then thank you very much. You've just armed the whole of Yemen or Somalia, basically. I'm actually quite surprised that it hasn't happened already, that one of these arms hasn't been hijacked.
Waves crashing and ominous music
Ian Urbina: My visit to the armory was part of the period when I was investigating violence in general and the murder video in particular. So I wanted to talk with him about that murder video and just see, did anyone know anything about it and what their take on that in general was, and it was really on my last day that I had a rapport with a bunch of them and said, Hey, I want to show you something. And so they crowded around. I showed them it.
Video playing, gunfire.
Ian Urbina: They watched it all in silence and no one said anything, and kind of awkward quiet filled the space. And after it was all over, one finally said, “You know, not how I would have handled it, but sometimes that's how things get handled.” That's all he would say.
Mysterious whirring and intense music
Ian Urbina: I decided at that point to do something that I might have gotten in trouble for, which was publish my own stuff on my own channels, even though I was on staff at the New York Times. I knew that I couldn't get more of this reporting into the paper, but I felt like I needed to put it out there. And so, I just began compiling these intelligence reports and then putting them up on Facebook and pushing them out on Twitter and hoping that someone would take note.
Duncan Copeland: We identified the Ping Shin, number 101. We still didn't know at this time whether the incident might have taken place, say, in the Seychelles waters or Somali waters or it was on the high seas. But we certainly had countries who had relations to this. But in terms of investigating the crime itself, nobody really was willing to pick up and run with the ball. And we sort of sat at a bit of a stalemate in terms of what happens next. [00:42:04] Intense music builds
Ian Urbina: A year later, I heard that Nat Geo and this investigator, Karsten Von Holsten, were intensely looking into the story and picking up where I'd left off and trying to solve who the culprits and victims were.
Duncan Copeland: Clearly, the boat-level investigation was going nowhere. So Carson went after people who were on board the vessel. You know, there are avenues that you can take because there are, for example, crew agencies, there are certain ports and certain countries such as Indonesia, where the majority of crew may originate from. But nonetheless, to track down the crew who were on board a particular vessel during a particular period is an extraordinary bit of detective work.
Ian Urbina: He tracked the captain of the Ping Shin 101, i.e. the person who ordered the killings and, with real scrappiness, was able to locate four witnesses who were on the vessels at the time of shooting and interview those guys in the Philippines and elsewhere. And he put names to the various players to an extent that I was not able to do.
Upbeat music and speech in foreign language
Speaker 1 There's one main guy in the video, in the selfies at the end who's wearing a shirt that says “Hang ten” on it. And Carson was able to find that guy and his name is Maximo, and he sat down and interviewed him extensively.
Whirring and gunshots
Ian Urbina: What Maximo said was that he did not believe these guys in the water were pirates. They had fishing nets. They were not armed. They were yelling for help. Another big revelation from Maximo is that the captain not only ordered the security guards to fire, but at one point actually took the weapon and fired himself. The security guard had hesitated and said, “I can't shoot these guys. They're Muslim.” And the captain grabbed the gun from him and opened fire.
Shouting, wind rustling, and gunshots
Ian Urbina: Maximo said that it was certainly more than the four people killed that you see on camera that died that day. And more likely, the number of men killed in the water was closer to ten or 15.
Speech in foreign language and water sloshing
Ian Urbina: The Captain, before everyone went back to work, told them to hand over their cell phones. He wanted to wipe any footage off, but clearly not everyone followed that order since one cell phone still with the footage on it ended up in the back of a taxi in Fiji.
Car horn, chatter, and water sloshing
Ian Urbina: Carson compiled his evidence. I compiled my subsequent reports and the original reporting. We both separately called meetings with the Taiwanese government, submitted to the prosecutor's office and were met with just dead silence.
Ian Urbnina: And then yet another wrinkle emerged, and that was that the Ping Shin 101, which again is the ship that we now know the shooters were shooting from, mysteriously disappeared, and it disappeared to the bottom of the ocean. What this seems to point to is that some player tied to the Ping Shin 101 wanted that ship gone. And maybe that's because it was a crime scene or a multiple crime scene. Or maybe it's also because sometimes ship operators attempt to file insurance claims to get rid of ships and get paid for it. But for whatever reason, this sinking was not accidental, according to the crew. And what little evidence might have existed on that ship is now at the bottom of the ocean.
Ian Urbina: What makes the lack of investigation and prosecution even more egregious is that this murder was not an isolated case. We have not only the emergence of a different video of a similar violent clash with this vessel, but then in interviews with crew from the vessel, they recount a third incident that did result in murder of other fishermen. And so there's reasonable suspicion that that captain is engaging in a pattern of extreme violence.
Shouting in foreign language
Duncan Copeland: We have to assume that for every camera phone video that makes it onto a social media platform like YouTube, there must be many cases that were never documented at all or were, and the phone was thrown overboard or just sitting on someone's camera phone somewhere. And this, again, goes to the narrative that there is a lot happening at sea that we never, ever hear about, particularly on the high seas. So very much out of sight, out of mind of any country.
Ian Urbina: I think one huge factor in understanding why impunity is so prevalent is the nature of the victims. Typically, the victims of these crimes are migrant, undocumented, and often from developing nations. And as such, their lives are valued less. And that means that when things go wrong, you're less likely to hear about them. And even if you do, there's less leverage, money, political import for anyone to do anything about it. If the victims had been Americans or Germans or, you know, Norwegians, I think there wouldn't have been a story for me to tell. It would have already been known. The footage would have already bubbled up immediately to law enforcement. And then certainly what would have happened after I put it on the front page, my phone would have been ringing off the hook. And I feel pretty confident saying that Captain, once he was named, would have been pulled off the seas within days.
Ian Urbina: You know, the story has been put on the front page of the New York Times and there's been a documentary series about it and huge global attention. And yet, seven years later, this captain had not been arrested, even though they know where he is and he's not been prosecuted for a crime for which the evidence is overwhelming.
Eerie music shifts to uplifting music
Ian Urbina: There was a real reckoning that occurred with the murder video investigation. Number one, it confronted me with just how impenetrable the maritime Merry-Go-Round was. And the other realization was that on the other side of that bureaucratic wall, were the victims, the culprits, the witnesses, the actual players themselves who were on the vessels. And if you could get to them, you could unpack this world.
Uplifting music and shouting
When you're in front of someone, there's all sorts of language that gets conveyed, right? You know, there's how fast they say things where their eyes go. Are they willing to stop working as they're answering that question? Are they making eye contact?
Uplifting music and shouting
Ian Urbina: You have to witness the way that a room falls silent when certain officers walk in, the way that you never sit at certain tables or you never look at certain officers when they're speaking.
Ian Urbina: Understanding what a boiling pot a vessel can become because of the cramped quarters and the smell and the boredom and the crappy food and the rats and roaches. And, you know, unless you've been in the space, you can't put your finger on the depravity and the intensity, but also the humanity and camaraderie and the beauty and the allure of that open realm. You really have to get out there and see it to understand some of these emotional and ambient intangibles.
Uplifting music birds squawking
Ian Urbina: The fishing industry and the ocean realm in general is a very insular, closed culture and so more impenetrable than, you know, other industries I’ve covered before. The topic was getting under my skin. I was developing a certain fluency and expertise and I realized more than ever that I should stick with it. You know, I should use the momentum I had acquired to go after all these other stories I was now able to see that no one was covering. It's important to remember that we only knew about the murder video by pure happenstance. I mean, it ended up in a taxi in Fiji and someone happened to hand it over to someone that knew to get it to me. So if that's the case for something as egregious as this, what other incredible stories, egregious stories were out there still to be discovered?
NEXT EPISODE PREVIEW
VO: On the next episode of The Outlaw Ocean…
Speaker 1: Tell him, surely he understands. I've got to take into account his crew and my crew. He's attacked me. His crew have gone out with ski masks and thrown things at me. Speaker 2: I suspect that the Thunder captain refuses to leave the boat because it's probably sinking his own ship. For all I know. Speaker 3: I saw some of the boats myself and they're very rare, they're very spartan. Some of them also washed ashore with bodies on board. And some of them are so badly decomposed that one Coast Guard investigator told me he couldn't even identify their genders. Pensive music
From CBC Podcasts and the LA Times, this series is created and produced by The Outlaw Ocean Project.
It’s reported and hosted by me, Ian Urbina. Written and produced by Ryan Ffrench. Editing and sound design by Michael Ward. Sound recording by Tony Fowler. Our associate producer is Margaret Parsons. Additional production by Joe Galvin, and Marcella Boehler.
This episode features music by: Antarctic Wastelands, Earthen Sea, Kodomo, Machinefabriek, Appleblim, Sjors Mans, DRWN, Louis Futon, Stoneface & Terminal, Alessandra Celletti, Melorman and Alberto Tre. Their music is available online at The Outlaw Ocean Music Project website and wherever you stream music. Please check out their work.
Additional music by Skot Coatsworth, Britt Brady, Matthew Stephens, Gammatone and Fábio Nascimento.