Extra-Judicial Killings: Symptom or consequence of a violent society? By Mike McCormack
Stabroek News
March 30, 2003

Related Links: Articles on Extra Judicial killings
Letters Menu Archival Menu

Extra Judicial Executions (EJEs) have been a feature of life in Guyana since the 80s, though they have received particular attention in recent times. These EJEs were monitored over the years by the Guyana Human Rights Association which last year issued a comprehensive report on the topic.

In a effort to shed some light on the matter we asked Mr Mike McCormack who has been involved in human rights campaigning in Guyana and further afield for many years and who is currently Co-President of the Guyana Human Rights Association to write an article sketching the position over the years and giving some analysis of this phenomenon, which has also become a major problem in another Caribbean territory, Jamaica.

In November 1985 Levi Hetymeier and Warren Barrow were shot dead by three policemen at the sea-wall. In their defence the policemen claimed to have been attacked by two men "armed with pistols, screw-driver and knife". It turned out that Barrow was 14-years old and Hetymeier 16-years old. The Police Commissioner deemed calls for an inquest into the circumstances "irresponsible", and went on to remark that any 'responsible enquiry' would vindicate his belief that his men acted properly. No such inquiry was ever held. Virtually no voices were raised in protest. The two boys were buried in unmarked graves in La Repentir cemetery. And that was the end of the story.

Eighteen years later the death of Yohance Douglas, a 17-year old shot by a unit of four policemen in broad daylight in the company of three friends created a furore, mobilized thousands in protests against extra-judicial killings, forced unprecedented action from the police and led to calls for independent international intervention.

What happened in the intervening years to propel extra-judicial killings by the police to such prominence? In this article I shall attempt to identify key factors that help explain this transition from routine acceptance to widespread indignation.

Three categories of factors need to be taken into account, firstly, conditions within the society as a whole; secondly, factors internal to the Guyana Police Force (GPF) and, thirdly, the international climate with respect to extra-judicial executions.

From State Control to Market Forces
The most influential factor in changed responses to extra-judicial killings is the more liberal atmosphere in the society. In 1985 when Hetymeier and Barrow were shot, media outlets were either State controlled or starved of access to paper. Television had not yet arrived in Guyana. Information did not circulate freely in the society. Unfavourable reporting on the Government carried a predictable price. At the low end, the bad news would attract abuse for the State press, at the high end, the price could involve libel suits, loss of jobs or other effective deterrents.

Shootings by the police fell into the category of very bad news. The Guyana Human Rights Association was accused in 1986 of 'furthering its own ends', 'venting its spleen', and being 'trouble-makers' by publishing 'A Briefing on Police Violence' which was deemed a 'completely irresponsible accusation'. The then President gave the Guyana Police Force a 'vote of confidence' for 'blunting the efforts of the trouble-makers.' The Mirror, Stabroek News and the GHRA were all served with libel suits from the Director of Public Prosecutions and members of the Quick Reaction Squad.

The distinguished Indian economist Amartya Sen has commented that 'famine does not happen in democracies'. In other words when people are free to criticize, abuses are not allowed to fester until they reach crisis stage. Obviously this aphorism does not apply only to famine. Any abuse protected from criticism has the potential for crisis. In the decade of the 1980s, killings by the police fell into this category.

Shielded from public indignation, policemen who indulged in the use of excessive force could operate with impunity. The use of excessive force extended to violent treatment of detainees in police lock-ups with batons marked 'Speak The Truth'; sexual assaults by other detainees and members of the GPF; ducked in filthy toilets to the point of drowning, all of which occurred in over-crowded cells slimy from urine, awash with cockroaches, ants, rats and creeping insects. While Brickdam lock-up was consistently top of the notoriety league many others weren't far behind.

Understanding 'culture' as 'the way things are done', this combination of secrecy and produced a culture of violent policing. The ramifications of brutal policing were manifest during the 1980s by the number of cases thrown out of court because the only evidence the police could lead was a forced confession. Justice Barnwell commented after one such case "A voluntary confession is the best evidence...but in every confession something happens. I will not have it until rules are complied with. The police must understand the meaning of investigation, no police station is going to be a court."

It might be thought that the logical response to this judicial reaction would be to resort to better evidence-gathering procedures. The culture of violent policing, however, operated on a different logic. If the courts could not be relied on to convict known offenders, the police would take the law into their own hands. In the words of one member of the Target Special Squad, "If we send them to the courts they get off, better we send them to the cemetery." Later EJEs became a convenient way of closing unsolved files. The practice developed of announcing a man shot dead, such as Sean Williams in 1997, was wanted in relation to 25 reports of robbery under arms.

There have been few cases of police shooting armed criminals in the course of committing a crime. Since usually the police arrive on the scene only after the criminals have left, the majority of violent encounters with criminals occur on raids or ambushes. It is the behaviour of the elements in the GPF in set pieces of this nature, in which the police have the initiative and are in control, that shooting to kill is least defensible. While the likelihood of encountering armed criminals has risen steeply in the last year, this is not a new phenomenon.

The current crisis situation in which police officers are being attacked with deadly force without provocation, in part, is rooted in the expectation that given an opportunity, the police would kill rather than arrest. The other dimension of unprovoked killings of police officers seemingly is the status among criminals of those who have and haven't killed a policeman.

It is clear from numerous eye-witness statements that the primary intention of the police was to eliminate wanted persons. Time-worn excuses of being attacked by a cutlass-wielding assailant are no longer credible. Arresting persons wanted for serious crimes is becoming relatively remote.

A powerful factor, external to the GPF, encouraging the culture of violence is the practice of businessmen providing inducements, gifts and 'retainers to particular officers to get quick results after a robbery on their premises or their home. This pressure to cut corners led police on the payroll to terrorize employees first, then known criminals, beating as they go, until someone confesses. A Stabroek News article of November 13th 1990 exposed the fact that "very senior officials" are aware of the large sums businessmen pay to junior officers and are usually given part of the payment.

In this political environment which discouraged transparency, condoned corruption and overlooked violence, the creation of a squad within the GPF, enjoying immunity from normal oversight, was a logical step. The Impact Undercover Unit, created in July 1992, was just such a unit.

Probably more than any other single factor, the behaviour of the Impact Squad contributed to EJEs becoming a major issue. Under a headline "Impact Undercover Unit is Laurie's Secret Weapon" in Stabroek News of September 2 1992 Commissioner Laurie Lewis was quoted on the modus operandi of Impact, 'Sources ('underground informers') are not revealed to anyone not even the commanding officer who must trust his operatives' integrity...'. On the controversial subject of EJEs Commissioner Lewis denied the squad had a shoot-to-kill policy, but noted that policemen and women 'were only human' and entitled to defend themselves against potential killers. The article also noted that 'a great deal of its work is secret'.

The combination of a weak chain-of-command, consorting with criminals and a presumption that shootings to defend themselves will occur, was a recipe for lawlessness. A squad of the Impact type required high levels of self-discipline within a Police Force possessing rigorous standards and procedures. Unfortunately neither requirement was present.

The Impact Squad gave rise to the Target Special Squad or 'black clothes' which developed a reputation for eliminating rather than arresting wanted men, extorting money from criminals, acting as enforcers for crime rings, such as the United States visa racket, and, finally, involving itself in organized drug crime. The names of its leaders, Fraser and Merai, became synonymous with the practice of arbitrary or summary execution. The extent to which the Squad went out of control surfaced in recent months with the trial of Thomas Carroll, a former embassy staff member in the United States embassy who ran an extensive visa racket.

From 1995 as 'Impact' got into its stride, the numbers of people shot dead by the police started to rise sharply.

Scale Of The Problem
A documented 239 deaths by the Guyana Human Rights Association occurred in the twenty year period between 1980 and 2001, with the GHRA pointing out these are only the cases which have come to its attention. The possibility of lower than actual figures is more likely to apply to the period prior to the late 1980s when, as we have noted, information did not circulate as freely as after that period.

The distribution of deaths over the twenty year period saw 53% (126) of all fatal shootings occur between 1980-1992 and 47% (113) between 1993-2001, suggesting little difference in policies on EJEs between the two political administrations, the PNC in the former period and the PPP in the latter. In light of these figures, it is difficult to make a convincing case that EJEs have been used explicitly as a political tool by any political administration.

However, within the two periods, it is interesting to note that the first half of the PNC administration 1980-1985 had an average of 13 per year, while in the second half, under the Hoyte administration ('86-92), the average fell to slightly over 5 per year. A similar disparity occurred during the PPP administration. Between 1992-97(March), the Cheddi Jagan Presidency, numbers continued relatively low (9 per year), but under his successors rose sharply to close to 15 deaths per year. 1997 saw an all-time high of 28 deaths at the hands of the police.

Racial Profiling
The factor which finally made the difference between EJEs being lamented by fringe elements and becoming a central element in a political crisis, was race.

The case for racial profiling of Afro-Guyanese is that since 1980 78% of the persons shot were of Afro-Guyanese origin. Within that period from 1980-92, under an Afro-Guyanese administration 70% of victims were of Afro-Guyanese origin. During the later half of the period,(93-01), under an Indo-Guyanese administration, 88% of the victims were drawn from this group. While the latter figure is significantly higher than the former, both are so substantial as to undermine the argument that the problem is partisan. Neither the PNC nor the PPP administrations took effective measures to address EJEs. Rather than argue that EJEs are a politically-inspired mechanism of an Indo-Guyanese Government against Afro-Guyanese criminals, the figures would better support an argument that all Governments have been prepared to defend violent policing particularly in poor urban areas. A more persuasive argument to explain the statistics is based on class (economic and social factors), rather than on racial politics.

Apart from the fact that Afro- Guyanese deaths are high under all Administrations, three other factors complicate the charges of profiling. Firstly, the GPF is itself overwhelmingly Afro-Guyanese in make-up. Secondly, what little criminological research is available on Guyana points to 78% of criminal offenders being drawn from the Afro-Guyanese community. Since the prison population is also overwhelmingly Afro-Guyanese, to be consistent, profiling charges would also have to be levelled against the Judiciary. Finally, crime is largely an urban phenomenon in all parts of the world and the Afro- Guyanese population lives in the urban areas.

The same statistics used to argue for racial profiling, equally support charges of profiling 'urban' rather than 'rural' dwellers for EJEs.

Another statistic, this time from inside the world of violent policing, also throws doubt on racial profiling as an adequate explanation of EJEs. While actual numbers are much lower, of the 18 deaths which occurred in police custody since 1980, 66% were of Indo-Guyanese origin. This is an important statistic, since Indo-Guyanese comprise a far smaller percentage of the detained population, than Afro-Guyanese.

Deaths in police custody point to the violent nature of policing in Guyana. Most of the deaths in custody are the result of injuries sustained from extreme brutality and torture, suggesting cultural explanations - the way we do things - rather than political motivation as the main cause of killings by the police. Moreover, the violent culture within the GPF, which the society largely condoned, reflected a society in which violence in many forms is condoned.

International Standards
Following the upsurge of police death squads in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay in the mid-80s, and later the scandalous practice of eliminating street children in Brazil, extra-judicial killings became a major issue of international human rights concern. International principles elaborated by the United Nations in 1989 reflected the extent of international concern and the rigorous standards to be observed by police forces across the globe.

These included the fact that exceptional circumstances such as internal political instability or public emergencies could not be invoked as justification of extra-legal, arbitrary or summary executions. All officers have the right to defy orders from superior officers or public authorities to carry out such acts. Independent commissions of inquiry shall be established where complaints are made about the adequacy, impartiality, lack of expertise, or the apparent existence of a pattern of abuse. Finally, in no circumstances, including a state of war, siege or other emergency shall blanket immunity from prosecution be granted to persons allegedly involved in extra-judicial executions.

Concerns of other Governments, particularly North American and European, over EJEs in Guyana, have been raised with the Government of Guyana as a matter of priority in recent years, reflecting an international consensus that EJEs are unacceptable. Non-governmental bodies such as Amnesty International have also criticised the Government of Guyana on a number of occasions for its inadequate response to this problem.

Measured by these standards, the casual treatment of extra-judicial killings by successive Guyanese governments and those responsible for the administration of justice, has been lamentable. Governments, especially the current one, merit severe criticism, even condemnation for defending elements in the GPF responsible for EJEs. This policy became particularly indefensible with respect to the Target Special Squad. Political protection for the minority of rogues in the GPF has exposed the majority of law-abiding officers to execution by the political/criminal elements. The count is 20 in the past twelve months.

Guyana Is A Violent Society
Concern for EJEs cannot be separated from the more general problem of a culture of violent policing. This in turn is a symptom of violence in the society in general, which has replaced respectful relations between citizens. While this is particularly true with respect to the political life of the society, violence has been a formative feature of the society going back to its roots in slavery and indentureship.

Our political culture - the way we do things politically - directly contributes to violence. A generation of Guyanese young people were trained in the use of arms in a plethora of militarized units - the Peoples' Militia, the National Service and youth organizations. None of this could be justified in terms of external threat. Political life is conducted with regular bouts of disrespect for law and order and violent confrontations with the Police Force and a high degree of slander, vulgarity and disrespect for personalities

We demonstrate a high level of tolerance for violence in domestic relations between parents and children; corporal punishment is still entrenched in our education system; violence towards criminals is acceptable to most Guyanese whose businesses are vulnerable to theft and looting; violence against women is extensively practiced; television violence and its impact on children raises few voices of concern, the appalling state of our prisons is considered just desserts and we cling to the death penalty for 'eye for an eye' reasons, more than for its proven success as a deterrent.

All of this has fostered a culture prone more to violence than to respect. That the Guyana Police Force should have been infected with the violence virus is not surprising to say the least. The general public have been encouraged not to respect members of the Force, who in turn have learnt to impose themselves on a situation in order to gain respect. Thus policing by force, rather than by service, accurately reflects the message the society - or more accurately, its leaders, - have been promoting for a long time.

Ambivalent About Violence
Guyanese society remains ambivalent about violence. Virtually every sector of Guyanese society, including religious sectors, find some form of violence acceptable. As long as all forms of violence are tolerated by some elements or other in civil society, it is illusory to expect the culture of violence within the police force to be fully eradicated. Moreover, for extra-judicial and arbitrary killings to disappear, the culture of violent policing which nurtures them must also disappear. This in turn requires a culture in the society which does not tolerate violence of any sort.

Reactions to violence by civil society have not been sustained, probably because they have not succeeded in moving beyond elites to generate broad-based momentum. No nexus has been successfully created between community-based committees protesting individual EJEs and broad-based initiatives of concern. Too frequently community-based efforts have been effectively smothered by party political alliances.

None of the above is intended to imply that the problem of EJEs should not be addressed decisively and urgently. What it does imply is that we cannot hope to lay all responsibility for violent policing at the feet of the GPF. A society largely gets the kind of policing it deserves, whether this be measured by standards, by resources or by oversight mechanisms. Measured by these criteria, it appears Guyanese are not serious about high standards of policing. There is no manifest urgency to resolve the anomaly by which we currently have no constitutionally guaranteed rights, which the police are required to respect. Nor, from a resources point of view, can we demand the Police Force operate more effectively, until policing is made an attractive and competitive career option.

Finally, as a society, we cannot exercise effective oversight, because we have no institution that brings together civilian, legal and police concerns about security and policing.

Successfully addressing EJEs, therefore, requires attention be paid to the broader picture and that civil society's advocacy goes beyond individual cases.

If as a society we are to atone for the deaths of Yohance Douglas and the hundreds before him who have died violent deaths the process involves a number of steps. Some of them have been suggested earlier. However, the first step must surely be as a society and as separate ethnic groups, as religious and trade union bodies, as political parties and as individuals to consign our ambiguity about violence to an unmarked grave, never to be re-visited.

Site Meter