Intelligence crucial to crushing piracy
-Coast Guard commander
By Nigel Williams
Stabroek News
April 22, 2007

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Commander of the Guyana Defence Force (GDF) Coast Guard, Godfrey George has acknowledged that there must be a two-pronged approach to tackling piracy that includes intelligence gathering.

Armed sea bandits have wreaked havoc across the country over recent months, prompting calls from stakeholders in the industry for the administration to do more to protect fishermen. Minister of Home Affairs Clement Rohee on Wednesday announced that very shortly the administration would be taking a bill to the National Assembly making piracy a non-bailable offence and also for anyone causing the death of another during a piracy attack to be charged with murder.

Speaking to this newspaper during an interview on Tuesday, Commander George said the issue of sea piracy has been engaging the attention of the Coast Guard of late, since there has been a resurgence of the crime. He noted however, that as a response to this crisis the Coast Guard has intensified its patrols and has been working on improving its intelligence and information gathering network. George said there have been several coastal patrols as well as operations in Berbice, Essequibo and in the North West. But George was adamant that patrols alone would not suffice. "The coast guard cannot do it alone we need the assistance of the police, Ministry of Fisheries and other stakeholders in the industry."

For George the re-establishment of a Fisheries Advisory Committee is a step in the right direction, noting that in the past such a body had helped a great deal in reducing the incidence of piracy. "It was useful in the past and no doubt if everything works well it could be very helpful," the Coast Guard Commander said.

He noted that within the Fisheries Advisory Committee there are usually three sub-committees dealing with aquaculture, marine and administrative. George said the administrative sub-committee deals with issues of enforcement and the Coast Guard is part of this committee. He stressed that the unit had to improve its information gathering capacity in order to seek out the culprits. "We recognise that the pirates have to plan on land before moving to sea so we have to be able to intercept them even before their plans are put to work. We have to seek them out," George declared.

He said the recent apprehension of several pirates in Essequibo with guns and stolen outboard engines bears testimony to the need for strong intelligence to tackle the problem.

Last Monday, police charged four of the men for allegedly carting off millions worth in engines among other items belonging to several fishermen.

Though it has superior marine capabilities to the police's, the Coast Guard has failed over the years to check the sea piracy especially along the Corentyne coast and in the Essequibo area. Fishermen have complained to this newspaper that the Coast Guard has been very unhelpful in the past, saying that ranks usually request small favours and tokens before they take action in certain cases. Asked about this George said that the unit has always played a major role in the fight against sea piracy. He said this was one of its objectives, noting that it is true the Coast Guard is better equipped than the other law enforcement agencies with the resources and capabilities to tackle the problem. "We have always been at the forefront, but this does not stop us from working with the police, the Fisheries Department and other bodies," the commander said.

Over the years, pirates have been able to dodge both the police and the Coast Guard while carrying out their nefarious activities. This, according to one fisherman, was so because the sea bandits have seasons when they would attack. One fisherman told Stabroek News that during the holiday season attacks are more frequent as the criminals are usually on the hunt for money.

George said they have been able to find out that the pirates would also attack fishermen when they acquire new equipment. Such a situation, the commander admitted, puts a lot of pressure on some of the fishermen who would have taken bank loans to purchase their equipment, while helping the bandits who can go to the market with relatively new engines and other fishing equipment.

The commander said the Coast Guard unit has its planned activities, but tries as much as possible to patrol with seasonal activities. He pointed out that it is not likely that patrols would happen upon pirates, which is why information was crucial. "That is why I am saying it must be a two -pronged approach you are not likely to get good results by patrolling only," the commander said.

Pirates are fishermen

Members of the industry told Stabroek News that a network of current and former fishermen was behind the incessant piracy attacks.

George said this view is held by many and there is no doubt that this might be the case since someone has to know what is going on in industry and that persons has to be very close to it. George believes that the more vibrant the intelligence and information gathering network becomes the more likely it is that the Coast Guard would be able to identify the sea bandits.

Foreign pirates

Minister Rohee on Wednesday alluded to the fact that some of the pirates operating in Guyana are actually citizens of neighbouring countries and to this end he said help was being sought from the International Criminal Police Organisation (Interpol) to help track down some of the criminals. Rohee mentioned that the foreign sea bandits would come into Guyana's waters, commit their nefarious activities and then head back to Suriname and Venezuela respectively for refuge. The minister said Foreign Affairs Minister Rudy Insanally was asked to make contact with his counterparts in the two jurisdictions in an effort to explore possibilities of co-operation.

Commander George was asked whether foreigners pirating in Guyana's waters was a problem and he said they had no hard information on this. However, he noted that last year some Guyanese fishermen were robbed off the Waini River and they said the pirates spoke Spanish. George said the Coast Guard could not be sure though, whether sea bandits were Guyanese speaking Spanish or indeed foreigners.

The commander said very often they have heard of cases where pirates allegedly came from Venezuela and Suriname, robbed Guyanese fishermen and headed off back home but there was no concrete information on this.

On whether Guyana networked with its counterparts in Venezuela and Suriname, George said from the perspective of the Coast Guard not much has been done. However, he is anticipating that with the establishment of the Fisheries Advisory Committee this area will be taken into consideration.