violence in guyana
How Crime Has Become A Pre-Occupation

Early the morning of Guyana’s Independence Day, I read Prem Misir’s feature on the “politics of ethnic marginalization” of Afro-Guyanese in Guyana. (Chronicle 05/26/02) Then I read Ravi Dev’s letter “the PPP has become ineffective…” (Stabroek News 05/25/02). After this I read Janet Jagan’s piece affecting concern about “What’s happening to Mr Hoyte” (Mirror 05/26/02). I re-read Lorri Alexander’s “I will continue searching for the way forward”. (Stabroek News 05/25/02)

Lorri Alexander, an unapologetic admirer and supporter of Forbes Burnham was obviously enjoying his verbose diatribe. One can visualize his smirk. But hero worshipping Burnham is not going to move anyone or anything forward.

Ravi Dev wants to make political mileage. His ethnic (Indian) concern may be real, but his contribution lacks any kind of truthful historical analysis; thus his premise and conclusions are faulty. Janet Jagan, witty and discerning, points to (to me) a serious flaw in our Guyanese culture where we tend to be getting gross, impolite, disrespectful, lacking decorum and finesse in the art of refined diplomacy – indeed uncultured – for Desmond Hoyte to call President Jagdeo a “liar” on national TV without offering any evidence or proof is indelicate. For the Leader of the Opposition to utter statements such as “to make the country ungovernable”, “slow fire” and “more fire” is ungentlemanly, unpatriotic, and borders on sedition. Reading Janet Jagan’s article however evoked some pity for Desmond Hoyte. But I retract. He is a dangerous man – he does not trifle with his words. He, like Hamilton Green of the past, is a product of the Burnham era, and a Burnham’s protégée. Their language have always been crude and uncouth (when they want to), and meant to instill fear and display arrogance and raw power – to anyone, regardless of ethnicity or status in the society. Obviously, they feel that they nothing wrong during their days in government.

I began to reflect on the spate of violence in Guyana and could not help but recognize that the methodology employed by the PNC and their allies is consistent with that found in societies that engage in ethnic conflicts. (See “The Irrationality of Ethnicity”, page 11.) I revisited the report of the PNC X-13 Plan to gain some fresh perspective and, as ever before, I was appalled. A colleague had mentioned a couple of weeks ago in reference to the crime situation in Guyana: “Like the X-13 in operation now!” And I soliloquized: “Is history repeating?” I wondered…. And wonder.

Ravi Dev had documented names of those who suffered casualties of political and racial violence, and Rakesh Rampertab (SN 05/26/02) has named names of others who experienced similar fates. On the GNI Discussion Board, BK has also drawn attention to the current violence, and was hoping to get some action initiated. Since then many individuals have voiced their views on the crime situation in Guyana. Some have offered concrete proposals, as Dev subsequently did in asking the government to have a firm hand against “terrorism”.

Indeed, it is alarming!

I do not live in Guyana, and admit that I do not know or get the direct feel of what’s happening on the ground. But when one reads the Guyana newspapers, the predominant bulletin (usually front page) that hits home is crime – gruesome and deadly.

For a country with the population of Guyana the crime rate is relatively high. But, as observed by Prem Misir in a subsequent feature, the crime rate is now lower than in the past. One may surmise and conclude that though crime is occurring often, the overall criminality of the nation is small since the crimes are executed repeatedly only by a small group of individuals, and in the most gruesome manner. This however is not consoling and does not give peace of mind to the citizens. Nor does it cover up the perception and reality at home and abroad – that here is a reckless, renegade country!

The repeatability and the callousness of such crimes are not singular to Guyana. Look around the world! In Ireland. In Gujarat. In Kashmir. In Jamaica. In Columbia. In Nepal. In many African nations. In Palestine. In Sri Lanka. In Madagascar. And elsewhere, including Chicago, Detroit, New York and other large metropolitan cities!

For some people, such violent behavior and carnage justify their cause. Newsweek magazine recently tells the story of young boys being abducted in armies as child soldiers. Their social life, indeed their total life, is constructed in an environment of violence. So too are those who are born in the perpetual violence of Ireland and Palestine. And in the name of God, sometimes. What else can one expect from the children of war today! Are the men setting the right example when they create wars – dressed in fancy suits, with sculpted smiles, all decked out for the TV cameras?

In Guyana, criminal activities have becoming excessive, generating constant fear – fear to move about freely, fear to do business (since most of the targeted people are in business), fear of overseas tourists, holidays makers and investors to visit. These can impact seriously the growth of the nation – in all spheres of activities – as indeed is happening. Chronicle (06/05/02) reports that “The private sector, touted as the engine of growth in the national economy, has said it is hurting badly from the impact of the current crime wave.”

Crime in Guyana is like a stinking cancerous canker, a festering sore, and a blemish to the good name of Guyana and all respectable and caring Guyanese. It can spread and consume the entire body.

Most Guyanese do care. Yet, some people carry on as though everything is OK. Some even snigger openly! What is very frightening and worrying is the impression that the Police are ineffective and unable to cope with the situation. Citizens feel a sense of loss, uncertainty and despair, as a Guyanese visitor to New York told me. Such a scenario can develop into vigilante action which is being advocated in some quarters!

Some people argue that the current crime wave is being bred, and is ethnically motivated; some claim that it is politically motivated; while others say that it is criminal activity, pure and simple. All may have some validity. In addition, there appears to be some copy-cat crimes.

During and after the last general elections there was a spate of violence directed primarily towards East Indians, which lend some credence to the first argument. Political motivation for favoring crime is well documented in the opposition PNC X-13 Plan since the 1960s, the “kick-down-the-door” banditry in the 1980s (which may also be considered ethnic, as it was directed against Indians in particular), and more recently with the PNC’s glorification of the dangerous criminal Linden ‘Blackie’ London. The “Gang of Five” is similarly being admired as heroes and referred to as “freedom fighters” when in fact they are veteran robbers and killers. The implied notion circulated by some opposition elements that some criminal activities are in retaliation to the “extra-judicial” killings by the Police is specious and highly inflammatory. These criminals are “professionals” who conduct criminal activities as a business – a very lucrative business – and nothing gets in their way! Some opine that it is political and “centrally directed”.

One should note also that the many deportees (criminals), who flooded Guyana from the U.S. and UK, took with them their criminal savvy, and have been implementing their know-how since then in Guyana. (An embarrassing situation where the Guyana government was told to accept the deportees, or else. The government buckled under the pressure and threat from the U.S. and was coerced to accept the deportees. What else could the government do? Fight the “Imperium”?)

There is no doubt that some crimes are personal, and some occur among warring groups involved in illicit activities such as drug deals that go sour. However, based on the methods of operation and the sophistication of weaponry and communication, other questions are prompted: Is there any link between some criminals and institutions that possess the weaponry? Are weapons smuggled in from the borders of Suriname, Venezuela and Brazil? Where do they obtain military fatigues, helmets, and bulletproof vests? To be sure, there is no randomness in what is going on now.

Many are criticizing the government for their rather slapdash manner in dealing with the crime situation – the Ministry of Home Affairs, the DPP and the Police having all performed poorly. The government’s complacency has resulted in too much laxity and ambivalence – they hope that the criminals would just “go away”. On one hand, the government and the police are being criticized by opposition elements and Amnesty International for the “extra-judicial” killings, and on the other, they are accused of not being more proactive and firm. How much can the government really do in a society that alleges ethnic divide, marginalization, ethnic insecurity and powerlessness? When it is being regularly threatened by “mo fiah, slow fiah”! When Afro-Guyanese intellectuals especially, sympathetic to the PNC, regularly propagandize the outbidders’ mantras!

Some few, who are adherents of ethnic advocacy, decry the government’s handling of the situation. They offer no solution! Some appear quite happy, knowing that the so-called “freedom fighters” are doing their bidding. Others don’t take these positions, and are aghast and horrified, and seriously concerned with what is taking place…. In spite of the shortcomings, government has, in the circumstances, been walking a tight rope in a society where political entrepreneurs are regularly agitating and appealing to the vain instincts of ethnic distrust. This ethnic appeal is extremely powerful and emotive. Observe how it’s causing bloodletting among blood brothers in Ireland, India, Palestine and Rwanda, to name a few places. And even among some of my acquaintances! “The irrationality of ethnicity” (see Stabroek News editorial 05/23/02) surfaces often enough to cause social, economic and political dis-equilibrium. The government has been sensibly re-directing the dialogue from a potential all-out ethnic conflict. Think about it.

Unfortunately, some assess this as a form of weakness and lack of resolve, especially when one reads the anemic statement from the Minister of Home Affairs: "we are very much cognisant of the situation and we are doing what is necessary to contain the situation and reduce the crime (and) eventually to deal with the criminal situation in a comprehensive manner."

Many recognize the similarity in the methods adopted by the PNC and other peoples, for example, in Rwanda – by their newspaper releases, their radio and TV propaganda, their bulletins and fliers that carry the emotive call for “blood”. Guyana is a classic case where an ethnic conflict cauldron is boiling – just waiting for that critical degree of “heat”…. The government’s cautious handling of the ethnic issues must therefore be admired, even if one may not fully agree. This is the reality! This is real politick! There is a threatening fear of an internal implosion because all the ingredients are present.

But who is winning this war? Why is there so much lawlessness in Guyana (and in the rest of the world)? As far my memory goes there have always been wars of invasion and of conflicts – ethnic and religious. It seems that this is the preferred way for the powerful and the bully – for imperialistic dominance, for hegemony in all forms, for oil, for control and power, so as to amass immense wealth and subjugate the others. This is the brutal but true quintessence of our so-called civilized social relations.

So that when we observe violence that are obviously directed against one’s ethnicity or religion, usually there is a more profound underlying motivation for such action. And when we see the deteriorating anti-social behavior and criminality in society, the excessive use of force and violence, should we not ask: “Where are the criminals getting their ideas from? Who are their role models? Are they not reveling in their criminal acts in the same way we are glorifying wars? Wars on land, seas and in the air? And in the movies?”

(For those interested in conflict studies, the following are two good references: “Ethnic Violence, Conflict Resolution and Cultural Pluralism”. Report of UNRISD/UNDP, New York, August 1994. “The Search for Identity: Ethnicity, Religion and Political Violence” by Yusuf Bangara. UNRISD, Occasional Paper, No. 6, 1996.) Both can be found on the internet.)

In Guyana there are only a few main highways and very few arteries. Why is it then that the criminals are able to escape after robberies and murders? Under normal conditions, Police operate within proscribed rules and due diligence. But under extra-ordinary conditions the Police must adopt other strategies and actions as dictated by the prevailing conditions. And not merely meeting with church leaders.
Upon deliberating, the following strategies and actions are suggested:

  • 1. The Police must first be mandated by the central government and given the full authority by the Ministry of Home Affairs.
    2. The Police must maintain professionalism, meaning also, that they must be impartial and unfettered from political and ethnic alliances. They must perform their duties diligently and according to their oath of office – at all times.
    (The military must forget the past regime when they were required to swear allegiance to the PNC which regarded government as an extension of that party.)
    3. There must be strong public relations in government and the police to increase public support. Such personnel must have professional expertise and not be contentious as is often the case. Church and civic leader may also be co-opted.
    4. The government must ensure that the Police are adequately paid, and that they have the necessary equipment to enhance their effectiveness.
    5. There is an apparent open secret of corruption where people (including the police) are ‘paid off’. Corruption must be wiped out at all levels, even if sting operations are set up to catch the offenders. This is necessary to build confidence in the Police and public offices.
    6. At certain times (for example, when criminal activity is high – like now) government must call out the Military to support the Police on specific assignments.
    7. There should be coordinated communication systems to mobilize the forces, to set up roadblocks, to have aerial surveillance, using cameras and helicopters. Since it is reported that the criminals use machine guns, the police and military must likewise ‘fight fire with fire’.
    8. Community policing should be initiated where citizens form working parties to protect their own communities. The National Emergency Commission can also be involved.
    9. A reward system and anonymous tips may also be helpful.
    10. When the perpetrators of crime are caught, the law must take its course without delay.
    11. The government and the Police should solicit the assistance of outside agencies (such as the FBI, Scotland Yard, and others) to aid in the fight of crime.
    12. In addition, as a long term re-structuring, government must decentralize the police and the military. Probably, there should be three Commissioners, one for each of the counties, and with full autonomy. Similarly, there should be command centers for the military in the three counties. Recruitment and training, and deployment will be within the respective areas. Thus the police and military response to crime and unrest would be quicker.

It is the duty of any democratically elected government to protect its citizens. Having read the angry outburst in letters and features, one can be fairly sure that the government would be pressured into some positive action. Even with the limited resources, much more could have been done to avert the calamity. The wait-and-see mind-set must give way to more pro-active methods. Now! Criminals should not escape in a country where the transportation network is simple and minimal. There is no meaning to arrogance, showmanship posturing and conceit when it is clear that crime is winning.

– By Gary Girdhari