Abdi Guled
and Jason Straziuso

HOBYO, Somalia: The empty whiskey bottles and overturned, sand-filled skiffs littering this once-bustling shoreline are signs the heyday of Somali piracy might be over. Most of the prostitutes are gone and the luxury cars repossessed. Pirates while away their hours playing cards or catching lobsters.

“There’s nothing to do here these days,” said Hassan Abdi, a high school graduate who taught English in a private school before turning to piracy in 2009. “The hopes for a revitalized market are not high.”

Armed guards aboard cargo ships and an international naval armada that carries out onshore raids have put a huge dent in piracy and might even be ending the scourge.

While experts say it’s too early to declare victory, the numbers are startling: In 2010, pirates seized 47 vessels. This year they’ve taken five.

For a look at the reality behind those numbers, an Associated Press team from the capital, Mogadishu, traveled to the pirate havens of Galkayo and Hobyo, a coastal town considered too dangerous for Western reporters since the kidnappers have turned to land-based abductions over the last year.

There they found pirates who once owned vast villas living in darkened, unfurnished rooms, hiding from their creditors.

Prostitute Faduma Ali longs for the days when her pirate customers had money. As she smoked a hookah in a hot, airless room in Galkayo last week, she sneered as she answered a phone call from a former customer seeking some action on credit.

“Those days are over. Can you pay me $1,000?” she asked. That’s what she once got for a night’s work. “If not, goodbye and leave me alone.”

“Money,” she groaned as she hung up.

The caller, Abdirizaq Saleh, once had bodyguards and maids and the attention of beautiful women. When ransoms came in, a party was thrown, with blaring music, bottles of wine, the stimulant khat and a woman for every man.

Now Saleh is hiding from creditors in a dirty room filled with dust-covered TVs and high-end clothes he acquired when flush.

“Ships are being held longer, ransoms are getting smaller and attacks are less likely to succeed,” said Saleh, sitting on a threadbare mattress covered by a mosquito net. A plastic rain jacket he used at sea dangled from the door.

Somali pirates hijacked 46 ships in 2009 and 47 in 2010, the European Union Naval Force says. In 2011, pirates launched a record number of attacks — 176 — but commandeered only 25 ships, an indication that new on-board defenses were working.

The last of the five hijacked this year was the Liberian-flagged MV Smyrni, taken with its crew of 26 on May 10. They are still being held.

“We have witnessed a significant drop in attacks in recent months. The stats speak for themselves,” said Lt. Cmdr. Jacqueline Sherriff, a spokeswoman for the European Union Naval Force.

Sherriff attributes the plunge in hijackings mostly to international military efforts — European, American, Chinese, Indian, Russian — that have improved over time.