While significant progress has been made recently by the police and the army in putting down the crime threat to the nation it will be reckless to assume that the worst is over. The brutish nature of the attacks over the past 15 months, the vast area over which the criminals have operated, the frightening armoury they brought to bear and the extensive support they received on the ground are all signs that the masterminds - some of whom are likely still around - will not be easily dissuaded. President Jagdeo’s warning on Saturday that no one can afford to be complacent is therefore timely.
The recent successes of the police and the army should be viewed more as viable beachheads on hostile territory from which sweeping advances could be made to root out the criminals from their bases and to create more friendly conditions for the security forces.
At his press conference on Friday, Home Affairs Minister Ronald Gajraj advised that repairing relations between the police and the estranged villagers of Buxton would be one of the areas to be worked on. It is an initiative that had been suggested numerous times before to the administration and perhaps the time had not been ripe for this. Since the grip of the criminals over Buxton has been substantially weakened, this is the appropriate moment for a full-fledged programme to restore ties between the police and the villagers so that they can help each other fight crime and prevent criminals from establishing armed camps.
It is not something that will happen automatically. It requires hard work for law-abiding Buxtonians to see the police as keepers of law and order and less in the image of executioners, callous beaters of suspects and crude searchers of houses. Even though the killing of Shaka Blair last year by the police was more a convenient trigger for the schism between the villagers and the police than an epochal event, it remains the defining event in the recent history of relations between the two sides. A repeat of such an act would be disastrous and would lead to conditions conducive to the designs of the criminal masterminds and put the political consensus between the government and the PNCR under severe stress.
The police force needs to sit down with villagers of Buxton and allow a full airing of the grievances that they have with current policing methods. Buxtonians must understand, however, that the country cannot put up with criminal enclaves within its village boundaries and these will not be tolerated by the armed forces. At the same time, the police force can show that it is sensitive to the real and well-founded concerns of law-abiding citizens who have long complained about brutal police tactics. The police force should seek to enlist the help of respected village leaders. Those who have stood in the way of improved relations between the two sides and continue to do so must be bypassed and ostracised. Given their strong connections with the village, the police force should seek the assistance of the PNCR and the WPA in identifying community leaders and other influential persons who would be amenable to help bring the two sides together. Without a forum for the frank exchange of views, suspicion and distrust will linger.
It is not only in Buxton that such an initiative is needed. Friendship on the East Coast, Agricola on the East Bank and several wards of the capital city have also had uneasy relations with the police. If the police force is to implement and benefit from the intelligence-led approach to policing as championed in the Symonds report it has to boast improved ties with the communities from which it most badly needs help. Police outreaches in these communities could be of very great benefit.
It would also be helpful if the police were to rein in some of its members who over the years have acquired a sordid reputation for involvement in extra-judicial killings and the brutalising of suspects.
Troubled by the same issue of police excesses and ongoing restructuring of the force to deal with this problem, Jamaica’s Police Commissioner Francis Forbes said on Thursday “I am willing to support those people who make an honest mistake in the defence of the life of somebody. I am not willing to defend police who murder people”. The leadership of Guyana’s police force needs to drum this message vibrantly into its members.
There are many other angles to the crime fight that the police and the government have to take on board. Another pivotal one is the proliferation of high-powered weaponry that the bandits have tapped for use against the police - automatic weapons and grenades among them - and thousands of rounds of ammunition. Where is it all coming from? The government must find the answer to this question if it is to prevent the criminals from getting their hands on potent weapons. Just this week Trinidadian Prime Minister Manning pointed to the problem and suggested that the veritable arsenal that is being uncovered day after day in the Twin Island Republic has its origins in the coup attempt against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
The arms supply is a trans-national enterprise that rides roughshod over weakly secured countries like Guyana. The arms are probably flowing from all direction, east from Suriname, south from Brazil, west from Venezuela and along the Atlantic coast. The government has to invest more money and resources on interdicting this flow before it can consider initiatives to mop up the flood of illegal and dangerous arms. Is it crafting a strategy to deal with this very severe problem? Assistance should certainly be sought under the UN mechanism dealing with the illicit trafficking of small arms.
No one can afford to be laid back in this fight against crime, not the government, not the police, not the army and certainly not the ordinary citizen. Complacency is dangerous.