Six months after a gang of gunmen attacked the mining community of Bartica killing 12, it is now widely accepted that the perpetrators fled up the Essequibo River, eluding security forces which should have been on high alert after the earlier January 26 slaughter.
In the immediate aftermath of the February 17 assault there was no clear idea about how the gang of around 20 men had escaped after killing three policemen and nine others. However, there were tantalizing clues about the route they had taken, including a boat found at St Mary’s on the Essequibo River.
In recent weeks, the police have charged several Region 10 men with harbouring the gunmen – reputedly under the leadership of Guyana’s most wanted Rondell ‘Fineman’ Rawlins – indicating that the police have accepted that after the gunmen had escaped from Bartica they entered trails leading through Linden. Other clues have also turned up including a weapon stolen from Bartica and more recently two vaults that presumably contained gold stolen from a businessman in the mining community.
The escape path, observers say, inevitably poses the question of why in the frenzied period immediately following the Bartica massacre, with the country already tense and on red alert, police commanders were not sensitive to the possibility of the Essequibo River escape and didn’t take steps to cut it off.
It is clear that the gunmen had a successful head start on the Joint Services since the first tactical response only took effect after midnight that night, nearly two-and-a-half hours after the gunmen had embarked on their rampage. The fact that now several pieces of evidence point to a fairly straightforward escape route which includes the mining town of Linden, raises questions about the adequacy of the lawmen’s response and the level of planning involved.
The gunmen turned their attention first to the Bartica police station shooting to death three policemen – Lance Corporal Zaheer Zakir and Constables Shane Fredericks and Ron Osborne. Then they may have split up and a few of them, having taken a vehicle from the police station proceeded to the home of the Officer in Charge, but their calls for him were in vain.
They then joined the rest of gunmen who walked up the public road shooting indiscriminately, sending those standing on the streets scampering for safety.
They then proceeded to CB&R Mining and killed security guard Ervin Ferreira and also shot dead the security guard at a Banks DIH outlet, Edwin Gilkes.
Their attention was next focused on the home of a well-known gold dealer in the community, where they shouted his name, broke into his house, but where he and his family were able to hide themselves successfully. However, the gunmen wasted no time in taking away a briefcase which was said to have contained a large quantity of gold.
Before the gunmen left, Deonarine Singh of Wakenaam; Ronald Gomes of Kuru Kururu; Ashraf Khan of Middlesex, Essequibo; Abdool Yasin; Errol Thomas of Tuschen, East Bank Essequibo and Baldeo Singh of Montrose, East Coast Demerara, were shot execution style on Transport and Harbours Stelling where they were lying in hammocks when the gang arrived. They were put to lie face down and shot in their heads.
Despite the fact that the ordeal lasted until about 10.10 that night, a faster response from the Joint Services may have been impossible if –as many Barticians later concluded – the community had not in the first instance been included in the Joint Services security plan which probably focused on the more central areas of the country.
It was not until two hours later that a Joint Services team landed at the Baganara airstrip since the access road leading to the Bartica airstrip was in a deplorable condition. When they landed at the airstrip the lawmen had to be transported across the Essequibo River.
Exactly how the men were able to escape and carefully conceal themselves from the Joint Services had attracted the attention of many. The night after the attack, ie, February 18, the Joint Services stumbled upon a piece of evidence which suggested that the men had fled south up the river. Some 20 miles up from Bartica, in the vicinity of the hinterland community of St Mary’s, a 75 horsepower engine and a wooden speedboat drifting in rough waters were recovered. A .30 carbine round, two yellow coats, two black long-sleeved shirts, one camouflage hammock and a pair of Guyana Defence Force trousers were found in the vessel. The lawmen said that the boat had been used by the gunmen, but some speculated that it may just have been a decoy, aimed at confusing the Joint Services’ search efforts. Sources had told this newspaper that the men had been spotted leaving Bartica in two boats and may have headed to the trail linking Linden to Bartica, through Sheribana, the best known route between the two communities which can lead to the Wisroc area.
Two days after the attack, the Joint Services had swooped down in Linden and carried out an operation which was focused on the Wisroc Backlands, however that search came up empty. Stabroek News had spoken to a number of knowledgeable sources who, days after the killings had observed that very few persons had expert knowledge of the timber trails’ area and had pointed out that though some were willing to cooperate with the Joint Services, they were fearful for their lives.
The sources had said that there was a belief that the trail was exactly where the men had gone and expected that there would be a confrontation if the Joint Services were led to these trails.
As to why the Joint Services did not dispatch a team to the better known escape route was a question that lingered in the minds of some, causing one Bartician to remark, “I don’t think who co-ordinated the Joint Services’ response really knew what they were doing; they allowed the element of surprise to reign, but they needed to track these men immediately and if you are doing this you can’t leave out the main trail.”
For days the Joint Services were said to be on high alert although there was still no unambiguous evidence that the gunmen may have been anywhere in Linden. On March 6, however, they found the first tangible bit of evidence that the gang had escaped via Region 10. They unearthed an abandoned camp at Bucktown, Wismar Linden.
In that camp they found a 12 gauge shotgun stolen from the CB&R Mining Company when the gunmen rampaged through Bartica; a Guyana passport, and NIS card in the name of the company’s owner, Chunilall Baboolall; eating utensils; searchlight; green tarpaulin; a hacksaw blade; and an empty plastic water container, among other things.
Following the publication of details of the Joint Services find, many Linden residents recalled seeing strange men they said they had mistaken for army ranks because they were dressed in military fatigues.
For months nothing substantial was heard about the gunmen, not even possible sightings.
On June 6, nearly three months after the attack on Bartica, the Joint Services on the basis of intelligence they had received located Rawlins’s camp at Christmas Falls, some 300 miles up the Berbice River. According to the lawmen, the gunmen opened fire on them, and in the exchange one gang member was killed, and six others fled. Subsequently, three other men associated with the gang were killed by the Joint Services in Region 10.
In a press statement on Tuesday night, more than six months after the slaughter at Bartica the lawmen recovered two metal vaults and a briefcase containing documents which were identified as belonging to the CB&R Mining Company of Bartica. The police have still not said precisely where the items were discovered, although this newspaper was informed that the vaults were buried along the Makouria trail.
The announcement of the find came after police officers had gone to Aranka Landing in the Cuyuni River to investigate the shooting of two men, who were transferred to the Georgetown Public Hospital from the Bartica Hospital. Reports reaching this newspaper were that one of the men was wanted by the police regarding his connections to a “Buxton gang.” The man, Shemroy Lyte a resident of Linden was arrested and placed under police guard at the hospital and the next day was charged with receiving, relieving, comforting, harbouring, assisting and maintaining men from the gang, including wanted man Rondell ‘Fineman’ Rawlins between April 27 and June 16 at Christmas Falls and between February18, one day after the Bartica massacre, and April 1 at Wismar Linden.
The police have however not publicly made a link between the find, the Aranka shooting and Lyte’s subsequent arrest and charge. Three other men, one of them also with a Linden address, had earlier been charged with harbouring Rawlins and members of his gang.
The Joint Services press release dealing with the vaults had also revealed that an operation in the Buxton Backlands between Sideline Dam and Middle Walk Dam on Monday August 18 had resulted in the
discovery of a .30 Carbine (rifle), 238 7.62×39 rounds, 76 .30 rounds, 2 spent 7.62×39 shells, 2 magazines for the .30 Carbine, 1 AK 47 magazine, 1 fragmentation grenade, 1 Bible, 4 camouflage hammocks, 1 machete, 1 blue tarpaulin, 2 black backpacks, 2 knapsacks, 2 pairs of boots, 2 pairs of rubber slippers, 1 toque, 1 tin CRC, 2 jars peanut butter, 2 bed sheets, 5 pants, 7 jerseys, 2 black leather belts, 1 duffle bag, 2 pairs of yellow and green slippers, 2 cellular phones (Motorola and Nokia), 1 small bottle iodine, 13 pain killing tablets, 1 large bottle baby oil, 3 toothbrushes, 1 toothbrush case, 3 tubes Colgate toothpaste, 2 bottles deodorant.
The release further stated that investigations had revealed that the weapon found had been stolen from the Bartica Police Station on the night of February 17.
The statement said that a Joint Services patrol had been operating in the backlands when they had been shot at by persons unknown. The ranks took cover and returned fire but it is not clear if any of the gunmen sustained any injuries. A subsequent search of the area resulted in the above mentioned items being found.
Meanwhile, the Joint Services continue to hunt for the gang and have said that they are unrelentless in their search.