Fire, Bandits Plague Amazon River Cruises in Peru

Originally published at Cruise Law News

Two articles published yesterday bring attention to the dangers of cruising in Peru.    

Bandits Attack Amazon Tourist Boat of Foreigners in Peru, published by The Hour, contains a report by theAssociated Press stating that "... bandits have attacked an Amazon tourist boat and robbed more than two dozen tourists from the U.S., Australia and New Zealand . . . the attackers used a small craft to reach theAmazon Discovery tour cruise, boarded it and then robbed passengers and crew of goods worth about $20,000 early Thursday. The tourists included 21 Americans, six Australians and two from New Zealand. There were also 25 Peruvians working aboard."

The Amazon Discovery is a new luxury vessel, built in 2015, with a length of 169 feet and a capacity of 44 guests (22 suites) and 29 crew members. The river cruise ship is advertised on a number of travel websites and by marketing companies promoting Amazon River cruises from Iquitos, Peru. 

According to a Travel Weekly article last April, Peruvian company Delfin Amazon Cruises has owned and operated the vessel since it launched in October 2015, although river cruise operator Haimark Travel had previously been handling all marketing and sales efforts.

Armed bandits boarding Amazon cruises are not unheard of.  According to a 2014 New York Times article, "In 2009, the luxury Aqua Expeditions cruise ship had been boarded by armed pirates, who robbed the passengers of cameras, cash and jewelry. Ever since then, the Aqua and its sister ship, theAria, have been accompanied by three armed guards, part of a Peruvian river protection strategy that includes a green speedboat marked Policia de Tourismo that follows the ship. So far, there have been no other incidents."

A British newspaper reported shortly after the 2009 attacks that "two police were stationed on the ship after the first raid but they were overpowered during the second attack by nine armed bandits. The raiders then reportedly bound the hands and feet of 20 tourists . . . before fleeing amid a shoot-out with police reinforcements." 

Travel Weekly reported on these two attacks - Peru Steps Up Security After Two Amazon River Ship Attacks.

Judge Thomas Dickerson mentions these dangerous incidents on the Peruvian Amazon River in his treatise Travel Law: Avoid Dangerous Vacations 2014.

Marketers of Amazon River cruises seemed to downplay the crimes at the time.  The Travel Weekly article quotes Maggie Smith, the president of International Expeditions at the time, saying "in over 30 years of operating in the Peruvian Amazon, taking about 30,000 guests there, we have never had such an incident."

One site reporting on the recent armed robbery said that "8 assailants were armed with large-caliberweapons took control of the ship, which belongs to Delfin Amazon Cruises, for about 30 minutes and took personal possessions and money worth around 20,000 U.S. dollar." The site reports that the captain of the ship suffered a head injury by being pistol-whipped. The report continued: "the Peruvian Amazon has seen such assaults periodically as pirates profit from the distance from population centers to attack cruise ships on the Amazon's riverways."

Another site, Peru This Week, says that the attack occurred at 3 a.m. near the Huaysi village (about an hour from the village of Tamshiyacu, in the Fernando Lores District of the Maynas province). According to the head of the Iquitos Port Authority, commander Oscar Garrido Lecca, river assaults are supposedly "rare;" he states that "they haven’t experienced one in four to five months." (this hardly hardly seems rare).  The site says that the "last cruise ship assault was reported back in May of 2014," but the article provides no details.

One of the travel sites, Rainforest Cruises, which markets the Amazon Discovery and other river cruises ships (there's no indication that this site sold any cruises to the victimized passengers in question) contains an  Amazon Cruise Safety Guide which states in part:

Photo Credit:  Peru 21

Photo Credit: Peru 21

"You may also notice on your cruise through the Amazon River that some boats are occupied by armed guards. Some of these vessels may also have guards dressed in civilian clothes, such as the AquaAriaand Delfins and you may see  others with police protection on board, the Aqua and Aria. This is in reaction to two incidents that took place on Aqua Expeditions ships, when armed bandits stormed the ship and robbed passengers on board. As a result Aqua and many other cruise companies on the Amazon River have increased their security measures to prevent such attacks."

None of the articles which I read about the armed attack mention whether the ship had guards at the time of the attack.  It will be interesting to find out whether the operator was trying to save money by cruising without security.

A second article published today involves a different type of danger which passengers might face while cruising on the Amazon River in Peru. A Personal Warning To American Travelers, published by the Daily Caller, was written by Jill Hammer Malott and Kelly Hammer Lankford, the daughters of  Larry and Christy Hammer who died in a fire during an Amazon River cruise aboard La Estrella Amazonica, marketed and reportedly “design[ed] and “buil[t]” by the U.S.-based International Expeditions (IE).

The daughters write that in April, their parents went on "a week-long Amazon River cruise aboard International Expeditions (IE) boat, La Estrella Amazonica." Their parents chose this voyage because, as the daughters say, IE boasted that "with International Expeditions at the helm, you’ll adventure in safety and comfort aboard La Estrella Amazonica."

But "around 2 am on the first night of the cruise, they found themselves trapped inside their burning cabin while their lungs filled with poisonous smoke. Our father died before the crew even tried to get him out. Our mother held onto a heartbeat when the crew finally pulled her from the cabin, but died sometime later — we still cannot get information on when or where she passed away."

The Hammer sisters indicate that a "power strip supplied by the boat caught fire. Analysis of the same model power strip revealed that it lacks surge protection and safety ratings. The mattress and bedding provided abundant fuel for the fire. No alarm sounded in the cabin because the smoke detectors lack in-cabin alarms which could have alerted our parents before the smoke overwhelmed them."

The sisters are critical of the crew's apparent lack of training and preparedness, indicating that "the crew wasted more than 20 precious minutes between the time when smoke seeped into the hallway to when they finally extracted our parents."

The ship was flagged in Peru, which may explain why it was sailing without functioning fire alarms, or an operable fire suppression system. 

The daughters feel that IE’s president, Van Perry, stonewalled the family and reportedly refused to provide them with information. According to a travel publication, Mr. Perry quickly announced that local fire authorities and tourism authorities in Peru "cleared the vessel safe to carry guests."  Within three days of the Hammers' death, and without even determining the official cause of the deadly fire, La Estrella Amazonica continued on its cruise.  

Update: According to Travel Pulse, Delfin Amazon Cruises denied knowledge of previous robberies of river ships on the Amazon in Peru in its official statement about this incident.

“The safety of guests aboard the ship is of utmost importance to Delfin Amazon Cruises, which owns and operates Amazon Discovery. This isolated incident — the first in the company’s ten years of cruising the Amazon — is not reflective of the Amazon region today, which continues to be an increasingly desirable destination for visitors.

Staff onboard the Amazon Discovery and at its Lima headquarters have further advanced measures to ensure the safety of its current and future passengers. The company is implementing a Peruvian river cruising protection strategy that includes the presence of permanent surveillance staff onboard. The vessel will also be accompanied by further security in a green speedboat marked Policia de Turismo.”

Of course, Delfin Amazon Cruises was aware of the prior attacks in 2009. Travel Weekly says in the 2009 article Peru Steps Up Security After Two Amazon River Ship Attacks: "And Delfin Amazon Cruises operates two luxury ships, the 12-passenger Delfin I and the 28-passenger Delfin II. These operators, too, are keeping a close watch on the security situation in the region."  

Update: Peru Reports published an interesting article this evening referring to 4 prior attacks in the last year alone on river cruise ships in the Amazon in Peru, and stating in part:

"This high-profile attack has raised questions about crime and passenger security on the rivers of the Amazon jungle. Oscar Garrido, captain of the Iquitos port police, told El Comercio that he had recentlymet with representatives from the tourist agencies which offer cruises of the Amazon, Ucayali and Marañon rivers.

“We asked them to hire armed security guards and that they activate their GPS systems,” Garrido said. “We cannot accompany all [passenger boats] along the route because we have more than 6,000 miles of jungle to take care of.”

Garrido added that the Iquitos coast guard has 27 boats to patrol more than 6,000 miles of rivers, where more than 9,000 boats circulate in the jungles of Loreto. He said that all boats should be equipped with cameras and satellite phones for the vast areas which receive no regular phone signal. The Amazon Discovery was equipped with cameras, and the video of Thursday’s assault is being analyzed by police.

Thursday’s riverboat assault is at least the fourth incident in the last year.

An armed gang dressed in military uniform and ski masks assaulted a tourist boat near the Pacaya Samiria reserve in December, stealing over $6,000 in merchandise. In October, an armed holdup of a tourist boat on the Ucayali River left four crew members injured with gunshot wounds. In April 2015, five armed men robbed 15 foreign tourists on the Nanay River."

Update: The Chairman of the International Cruise Victims Association, Ken Carver, comments on the deadly La Estrella Amazonica debacle.

Update: Crime Insight published an article - Peru River Pirates Raid Tourist Cruise on the Amazon - "highlights the potential dangers associated with adventure tours in insecure countries."

"The last major assault of this kind occurred in October 2014 on the boat Golfinoh as it traveled the same route to Iquitos. A police officer who happened to be on the boat tried to ward off the attack. The officer and one assailant were killed and seven passengers were wounded, La Prensa.Pe reported. Only minor assaults had been reported since then.

Nevertheless, incidents involving river pirates have been reported in other parts of South America. In May 2016, a ferry traveling on the Solimoes River in the State of Amazonas, Brazil, was attacked by three armed men. The assailants used a speed boat to intercept the ferry and stormed the vessel at about midnight. Again, the attackers wore masks and carried assault rifles and pistols. They stole $2,600, several mobile phones and they stripped equipment from a vehicle being transported by the ferry.

Another incident of river piracy was reported in May 2016 in the city of Barcarena, near Brazil's northern Atlantic coast. Tourists were robbed by 10 heavily armed men who stormed their vessel, but no one was injured or killed.

Although they have all been relatively small-scale events, the assaults highlight insecurity in these remote areas, which are often centers of illegal activity like informal mining and drug trafficking or production."