Bloomberg Businessweek

THE HIJACKING OF THE BRILLANTE VIRTUOSO

A MYSTERIOUS ASSAULT. AN UNSOLVED MURDER. AND A SHIP THAT HASN’T GIVEN UP ALL ITS SECRETS
The tanker in May 2010, in an image taken by a crew member

I. “WHO ARE YOU?”

Nestor Tabares must have known the hijackers were out there, waiting. It was his 13th day at sea aboard the oil tanker Brillante Virtuoso, and as the ship turned east, into the pirate-strewn waters off Somalia, the 54-year-old chief engineer would have understood that it made for an obvious target. With a top speed of less than 13 knots and stretching 300 yards from bow to rusting stern, the black-hulled Brillante was plodding into the world’s most dangerous shipping lane with a cargo worth $100 million.

It was July 2011, and the threat of Somali piracy in the Gulf of Aden had never been more severe. The Brillante’s crew of 26 Filipinos, including Tabares and the ship’s captain, Noe Gonzaga, 57, set up the standard deterrents. Around the deck’s perimeter they fitted coils of razor wire, aimed eight high-pressure hoses for blasting attackers off the hull, and propped up a scarecrow in overalls, to suggest the presence of a watchman. Deep inside the tanker, they stocked a mechanical space with food, water, radios, and medical supplies—a panic room in the event pirates did come aboard. Most of the crew had faith that would never happen. They knew the ship’s owner, a company called Suez Fortune Investments Ltd., had arranged for a small security team to rendezvous off the Yemeni port of Aden, as an escort through the most dangerous part of their journey.

On the evening of July 5, Gonzaga ordered the crew to cut the engine and drift while they awaited the guards’ arrival the next morning. They were 12 nautical miles off the Yemeni coast. It was calm, partly cloudy, and silent, apart from the hum of generators and the sloshing of breakers.

A 40-year-old able seaman named Allan Marquez stayed up to keep watch on the bridge. Just before midnight, he saw a blip on the port-side radar, approaching fast. He reached for a pair of binoculars. A motorboat was moving in the moonlight. As it came closer, Marquez could make out seven people—six of them in desert-style camouflage, holding what looked like rifles. His superior on the watch, Second Officer Roberto Artezuela, rang Gonzaga in his cabin, and Marquez made his way to the deck.

“Who are you?” Marquez yelled down to the boat, trying to sound friendly. One of the men produced a megaphone. He said they were the security team, members of the crew would later recount, and asked to board. Marquez didn’t know what to do. Something seemed off. This was too many men, at the wrong time, and one wasn’t even wearing shoes. Letting armed strangers onto the ship went against every antipiracy protocol. Marquez radioed up for instructions. After a few minutes an order came back: Lower a ladder.

Six men climbed up. They had light brown skin and wore red-and-white keffiyehs and blue hospital masks. Their rifles looked like Kalashnikovs, and they carried black pistols in holsters on their thighs. When Marquez asked for ID, they refused, seized his radio, and demanded to be taken to the captain.

Gonzaga was still in his stateroom when Marquez appeared at his door, trailed by one of the armed visitors. “Gather all of the crew in the television room,” the gunman said. Marquez went cabin to cabin, rousing sleepy crewmates. After all 26 were assembled in the small TV room, now fully aware that they’d lost control of their ship, the six gunmen split up. Two took Gonzaga to the bridge, two marched Tabares to the engine room, and two stood sentry outside.

For a long time, the 24 sailors remaining in the TV room sat there, wondering what was happening to their captain and chief engineer, until a clatter of gunshots

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