Broomfield nonprofit saves 26 hostages from pirates

BROOMFIELD, Colo. -- After 4 1/2 years of captivity, 26 hostages of Somali pirates were released in late October in large part thanks to a Broomfield nonprofit, Oceans Beyond Piracy.

In 2012, the Naham 3, a fishing ship operating near the island of Seychelles 1,000 miles from the African coast, was captured by Somali pirates. The pirates killed the captain and took the 28 adult male fishermen hostage.

According to Ben Lewallin, a project officer for OBP, the captured vessel sat just offshore of Somalia for a year and a half until the ship sunk. The crew was brought into the Somali bush.

At some point, two of the hostages died from illness, but the rest survived in horrible conditions.

"The seafarers came from China, Taiwan, Cambodia, Indonesia, the Phillipines and Vietnam," Lewallin said. "Just exposed to a number of threats and dangers. Risks including medical, rival gangs seeking to capture the crew."

OBP became involved 18 months ago. The organization works through the local community to secure humanitarian release through talks with the pirates.

"We worked through the members of the local community, including religious leaders, clan elders and other influential people in the community," Lewallin said.

Using a negotiator, the pirates were convinced by OBP there was no ransom money for the hostages.

On Oct. 22, the men were released and started a journey to Galkayo, where a United Nations plane took the men to the nearby safety of Nairobi, Kenya.

On Oct. 23, the men left the country and returned home to their countries and families. None of the above would've been possible without a man from Superior.

Marcel Arsenault is a successful real estate investor, his company's portfolio is worth $1.5 billion, and an aspiring philanthropist.

He created One Earth Future, the parent company for OBP, seven years ago with the goal of making the planet more peaceful.

"The idea is to have one Earth that we all belong to, that we all live in," Arsenault said. "We believe that will happen in the future. Our job is to assist in any way we can to make the world a better place. with the great people we have working here."

The organization also offers small business loans with no interest to budding Somalian businesses to help create jobs in the country.

"I've been to Somalia," said Arsenault. "I think the people are warm and wonderful. There's a lot of problems with the government. We avoid all of that. We go right to the business people."

According to Lewallin, piracy in Somalia has essentially been eliminated.

There hasn't been a successful attack on a large merchant vessel since 2013.

Lewallin said this is because of three factors: Armed guards on vessels, large international naval deployments and increased defensive measures aboard ships.

Despite these measures, Arsenault says his organization worked with the U.N. to push for a fix to Somali piracy without an invasion of the country.

"We wanted to support the criminalization of piracy rather than the militarization," Arsenault said. "We became sort of the think tank to the anti-piracy mission the U.N. security council was putting together."

OBP has multiple agents on the ground working within Somalia who talked directly with the pirates.

"We managed to convince the pirates that it would be a good idea for people to look into the health of the hostages," Arsenault said. "We were able to make contact with the hostages, be able to bring in doctors."

The hard work paid off when the 26 hostages were released.

Lewallin said the men felt deep relief when they gathered with U.N. workers at the Galkayo Air strip.

"That was probably my proudest moment ever," said Lewallin. "Working on that and seeing these guys regain their freedom, there's nothing like returning the freedom to those who have lost it."

According to Arsenault, no ransom was exchanged for the hostages. However, the associated press reported a pirate spokesperson claimed a ransom of $1.5 million was paid for the release of the 26 men.

However, there are no independent sources to verify the statement's truth.

OBP's policy, as well as those of each hostages' country, is to never pay ransoms to pirates.

"I believe that, intellectually, we were to help humanity, a little bit, move the set point in cooperation, learning how to work together and solve positive problems," Arsenault said.

As far as the employees at OBP know, there are only 10 hostages left being held in Somalia.