January 12, 2004
The signs and sounds that a death squad or squads existed were too many to ignore. In the wake of the discoveries of dozens of bullet-riddled bodies of suspected criminals and others there were numerous eye-witness accounts of the killings being carried out by heavily armed men in bulletproof gear who claimed to be policemen, had access to transport and carried out executions with brutality and impunity. The police denied any involvement and not uncharacteristically failed to hold anyone or come up with a reasonable explanation for the killings.
Now comes the most solid indicator so far of the existence of such a gang. George Bacchus, a man who says he provided intelligence to this execution squad, has gone public with his story, fearing for his life, and has also had several meetings with US embassy officials on what he knew. Mr Bacchus believes that he was the target of the executioners' bullets last Monday evening. Instead, his brother Shafeek, to whom he bears a close resemblance, was cut down in a hail of gunfire. Apparently realising their folly one assassin said out loud "wrong man, wrong man!" Mr Bacchus says he recognised the killers as being members of this squad and has passed on a statement to the police on what he witnessed.
As Mr Bacchus tells it, and as the majority of the populace surmised, this squad was born in the aftermath of the murder and mayhem pioneered by the February 23, 2002 band of escapees. With the police unable to restore order, 2002 became a blood-drenched never-ending nightmare of murder, rape, robbery, kidnappings and the Indian communities on the East Coast of Demerara were particularly hard-hit. It was in this milieu of horrendous violence that the death squad was apparently moulded and began acting. And when the tide finally turned against the February 23 escapees after the army had taken its role seriously and cleaned out Buxton and Shawn Brown was killed in the Prashad Nagar shoot-out, the death squad gained the ascendancy.
Death squads usually have a mercenary approach to everything around them and as Mr Bacchus relates this squad became a unit for hire for anyone with a grouse and money to pay. Anguished at this development, Mr Bacchus says he complained about the group's activities which had metamorphosed from fighting criminals to settling scores. He believes he was marked for death last Monday because of his complaint.
Mr Bacchus' narration has also alluded to conversations he has had with Home Affairs Minister Ronald Gajraj and this has put the minister under intense scrutiny given the gravity of the allegations. At a drama-filled swearing in of the Police Service Commission on Friday when Opposition Leader Robert Corbin walked out in protest at Gajraj's presence, the minister commented on the furore and addressed the most serious allegation this way: "Bacchus' claims of making me an offer to establish a killing squad is a mere allegation and these things are of national security import. There is suspicion and on the basis of suspicion, there is speculation. The matter must be investigated. I will not disclose if you or someone else called me, especially if it is related to matters of national security, what the call was about or why it was made". For the most part, the rest of the minister's response to other questions including why he had been in contact with one of the alleged hit-men, Axel Williams, at various hours of the day, related to the need to preserve confidences and the integrity of the intelligence gathering network of the security sector.
Given the gravity of the allegations made and the seriousness of the situation - lives are at stake as evidenced by Monday's hit - the government has to move with determinedness and firm conviction. No democratic and open government can ignore serious allegations that one of its high officials has had some connection with a death squad. Unfortunately, the government over the last year or so has reacted defensively and dumbfounded at any suggestion that an execution squad exists; preferring to explain the killings by saying that rival gangs were going after each other, the drug lords were in a turf war or people were just settling scores. Undoubtedly these factors were responsible for some of these killings but there was also a plausible prospect that given the abject failure of the police force in reining in the criminals, that a death squad had been organised to help even the odds. This possibility, the government steadfastly refused to countenance and its only contribution to consideration of this serious matter was Dr Luncheon's now famous coinage of the "phantom" squad. Even in the wake of the discovery of sophisticated weapons and equipment, the government was not inclined to countenance the possibility.
Having evaded the issue of the existence of such a group, the government now has to confront it head on and more particularly address the allegations made by Bacchus which pertain to a Cabinet Minister. And this time everything is at stake here and all of the influential watchers from the multilateral financial instirurions to the key donor countries and human rights groups will be watching closely.
If the minister does not do so himself, then the government should immediately ask Minister Gajraj to stand down from his post at the Ministry of Home Affairs for the necessary investigations to be conducted. Then, the government must set about investigating Mr Bacchus' incredible story. For this to be done Mr Bacchus has to first be assured of his safety and given the necessary security - it again raises the question of what Caricom is doing about a witness protection programme. Then a suitable investigating team has to be appointed to debrief Mr Bacchus and pursue the leads he provides. It would be unwise to entrust this investigation to the police force given the suggestion that some members of the force may have been involved in this killing enterprise. In these circumstances, it may be appropriate to ask the Disciplined Forces Commission (DFC) which has already conducted hearings on the police force to listen in camera to what Mr Bacchus has to say and for it to advise on the way forward. Given the bipartisan support the DFC enjoys its involvement would inspire greater public confidence.
Mr Bacchus has provided names of businessmen who supported and financed the activities he speaks of and the participants in the death squad. They all have to be questioned intensely.
Left to simmer and bubble, the allegations about a death squad have reached boiling point and the government now has to act on this crisis. It must also address one of the prime reasons for the unrestrained criminality and extra-judicial activity particularly since February 23, 2002 i.e. the continuing poor performance by the police force. Unless there is a vast improvement by the police force in the discharge of its duties it will only be a matter of time before this vicious cycle of killing resumes all over again. Hopefully the new Commissioner of Police can be appointed soon so that the task of transforming the force into a unit capable of taking on the criminals can move along speedily.