January 22, 2004
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In the terrifying outbreak of criminality and lawlessness that followed the jailbreak in 2002 there were many calls for the police to be properly armed and trained to enable them to bring the new breed of dangerous criminals to justice. The assumption was that if the police did receive the necessary training and weaponry they would be able to capture, arrest and bring to trial these armed and desperate criminals. However, experience in other jurisdictions where there are well trained police forces is that even if they do succeed in capturing dangerous criminals it is difficult to find credible and reliable witnesses to give the evidence necessary to convict them as potential witnesses are afraid that associates of the criminals will harm them and are unwilling to come to court to testify.
As is well known, Al Capone, perhaps America's most infamous gangster, was eventually successfully prosecuted and jailed for income tax offences. In more recent times, getting witnesses to testify against organised crime has entailed putting them and their families in witness protection programmes that involve giving them new identities and transferring them to new areas to live, perhaps even new countries. In the Caribbean, with its relatively small communities it is difficult to hide witnesses and an effective witness protection programme is yet to be put in place. There has been at least one case in Trinidad of a vital witness in a narcotics case being killed before trial.
Apart, therefore, from the inherent difficulty involved in arresting armed and sometimes desperate criminals without violence, or at least fatal violence, the problem remains that after arrest it is often difficult to successfully prosecute them unless there is ballistic or other circumstantial evidence that can prove the case without having to rely on civilian eye witnesses.
Our beleaguered police force, which had for at least thirty years suffered a deterioration in discipline and morale, and which had indeed developed since the late seventies deadly and unorthodox methods of its own, some of which were used against political opponents of the then government, was quite unprepared for the unparalleled criminal violence they had to face after the jailbreak. It is fair to say that for quite a long time the criminals had the upper hand and citizens began to feel that they had no protection. The criminals with their AK-47s and other weaponry were not only striking at will against householders and businessmen but were murdering policemen. The whole society felt threatened.
It is for this reason that many letter writers, perhaps a majority of those writings on this topic, and other citizens support the activities of the Phantom squad. But they are wrong. Nothing can justify the formation of a private death squad or putting our protection in the hands of drug barons and money launderers. The worst fate that can befall Guyana, worse even than the ideological and ethnic divisions we have had to endure for so long, is that these gangsters should become increasingly powerful with all that would entail in terms of the corruption of politicians and the bureaucracy, and violence, lawlessness and sleaze in public life. The price to be paid would be absolutely unacceptable, already there is the disturbing reality that drugs are being shipped in timber and through the airport with increasing frequency.
The solution is, as it always has been, to thoroughly rehabilitate the police force and to train and equip it to deal with the new challenges it faces. The government will hopefully deal seriously and with expedition with the recommendations of the Disciplined Forces Commission when the final report is submitted. It must also address the issue of a witness protection programme, if the Commission does not deal with that. That will be essential to tackle organised crime. Throughout the region governments are having to respond purposefully to the threats posed by organised crime. A regional witness protection programme would be the ideal solution.