March 28, 2004
Well the bandits are active again. And once more they are targeting mostly (although not exclusively) the villages along the lower East Coast. And as if we needed telling, they are based in Buxton. Almost every other day now one or another of the communities of Annandale, Vigilance, Non Pariel, Coldingen, Victoria, Lusignan, BV and Triumph have found themselves the victims of gunmen - not to mention shopowners in Sophia, as well as in Caneville on the East Bank.
All of this, of course, sounds like the beginning of a replay of the events of 2002-2003, an impression reinforced by the lacklustre response of officialdom. A week last Friday bandits told one family in Lusignan that it was "payback" time for some $6M worth in weaponry that they had lost over the past year. In another familiar echo, we reported that a man had managed to get a message to the police about what was happening, but that they allegedly would not come because the house was too far from the road and the place was dark.
Last Sunday we reported that we had been told there was a youth gang of about ten persons operating out of Buxton, which had allies in the other East Coast villages. It had been active since the beginning of the new year, it was said, and had contacts with other criminal networks around the country. One might have thought that this would have sent alarm bells ringing in government circles and at police headquarters, but if it has, the relevant officials have been very discreet about it.
Of course, police patrols have been sent up the coast, but one doesn't have to be a security specialist to understand the limitations of this response - not that it doesn't have a role, simply that on its own it will not achieve the end of apprehending the perpetrators. One wonders, for example, whether the lower East Coast police stations like Vigilance have the trained manpower and the resources to confront an armed gang of ten or fifteen youths such as the one which invaded Lusignan on March 19. And what about Buxton itself? Is that still no-go terrain for the Guyana Police Force (GPF)?
The government has made some dramatic announcements over the past two years about the money it is spending to equip the force. Certainly, to all appearances, there have been more GPF vehicles in evidence in recent times, while those officers who might find themselves in harm's way have clearly been provided with bullet-proof vests. One presumes, too, that the weapons for some of them, at least, have been upgraded. But what about the famous SWAT team that President Jagdeo promised us on June 7, 2002? That was nearly two years ago, and if action had been taken on it then, would the government not have had a specialized force by now at its disposal to deal with the current problem?
It is true that the GPF is still labouring under the disadvantage that it is simply not trusted by citizens, and as a consequence, it will have difficulty in garnering the kind of intelligence it needs to function optimally. Having said that, however, whatever happened to the comprehensive reform of the intelligence sector with a view to strengthening intelligence gathering that the President announced on June 7, 2002? Perhaps this is the appropriate time for him to give the public an update on how far the reforms have gone, and how much better equipped the GPF is now than it was twenty-two months ago to discharge its duties in this regard.
Then there was the other announcement made by Mr Jagdeo on the same date, namely, the establishment of a specialized training centre for police ranks and other law enforcement officers. Citizens were told that the aim was to expose members of the force on a continuous basis to modern anti-crime methods, especially strategies, tactics and leadership. What progress, one wonders, has been made on that front?
So here we are, with another crime problem developing, only this time there can be no extra-constitutional approach; this time the problem has to be confronted through the front door. Yesterday we published the substance of a press release from Freedom House expressing outrage and anger at the violence being perpetrated on targeted communities on the East Coast. The party called on the GPF to rapidly embrace the community policing capacity in the affected communities, and to provide a more effective police presence in the said areas. Perhaps instead of the usual political rhetoric it might like on behalf of the nation to ask the relevant officials in government if the police have in fact been given the resources and training deemed necessary almost two years ago to enable them to function effectively against armed gunmen.
Whatever the state of readiness of the GPF, however, the administration still cannot allow the new Buxton problem to get out of hand in the way that it did the last one. This time around it had better listen to the security professionals, and be prepared to take on board their advice in the drawing up of a meaningful plan of action. The nation waits to see if the government can get up off its proverbially sedentary rear end and act with dispatch on this occasion.