Suriname pulled the plug on the semi-legal backtrack route between the Dutch-speaking country and Guyana on Wednesday, leaving hundreds of travellers, some of whom do not have proper travel documents, stranded on both sides of the border.
It is not clear when, if ever, the ban which was imposed to put an end to disorderly behaviour and illegal activities will be lifted, although boat operators are hopeful it will be, given the losses they have incurred already as a result of the missed working days. Small-scale traders in both countries who used the backtrack route to save time are also ‘feeling the squeeze.’
Suriname’s suspension of the crossing, believed to be a route for the movement of arms and ammunition across the border, coincided with a visit to that country by US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on Friday. Gates travelled to Paramaribo on the last leg of a five nation tour of Latin-America and was expected to be a guest at the closing ceremony of the four-month humanitarian mission of the US Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort moored off Suriname. The vessel had also spent a few days in Georgetown.
The illegal crossing has been in existence for years and a number of persons prefer to use the faster backtrack route instead of the official border crossing at the ferry terminal at South-Drain/Moleson Creek, since it is much cheaper. A passenger pays $1500 to travel either way.
The smuggling of goods, including medicines, cigarettes, food items, illegal drugs, small arms and other contraband is rampant on the route, while fugitive criminals use the crossing to seek refuge in either Suriname or Guyana.
The Suriname daily de Ware Tijd reported Nickerie District Commissioner Bhagwatpersad Shankar as saying that the decision to close the backtrack route was made because of “the continuing chaos, confusion and anarchy” associated with it, as well as because bitter competition between boat operators was threatening to escalate. According to the newspaper Shankar has ordered the police and the National Army to close the semi-legal border crossing and keep an eye on any illegal movements. However, Surinamese boat operators who found themselves stranded on the Guyanese side were allowed to return without passengers.
The dWT has reported that boat operators and taxi-drivers are protesting against the closure, claiming significant loss of income. Shankar told reporters in Nickerie that as soon as the operators settled their disagreements and mutual issues they could report to the authorities which would then decide whether and when they could offer the service again. In addition, the daily quoted an unnamed military commander in Nickerie as saying that the decision to close the route had followed reports about criminal activities.
In order to regulate the backtrack route the authorities in Suriname recently began registering boat operators and laid down minimum safety standards for the vessels. This followed a river mishap in the Corentyne River last year, when two Guyanese women drowned after the propeller of the boat they were travelling in got stuck in a fishing seine and sank.
Members of the Suriname Parliament had called for a total shutdown of the crossing, on the grounds that it was very dangerous because of unpredictable conditions at the mouth of the river and a lack of surveillance by the authorities. However, the authorities at Nickerie where the boats were moored did not heed this call.
Meanwhile, speaking to Stabroek News on Friday Roy Ramdass, one of the Guyanese boat operators, said that since Suriname had banned the backtrack service, scores of Surinamese had been left stranded in Corentyne, and with no travel documents they were unable to board the ferry at Moleson Creek to return home. “Every day a number of people coming here – some waiting all day hoping to get over – but nothing changing,” Ramdass who said that he has been losing up to $30,000 per day as a result of the closure declared.
He told Stabroek News that from what he understood the closure had been prompted by a fall-out among the operators on the Suriname side. Recently two operators joined four others who operated from one landing at Nickerie, he said, and that from all indications the four operators who were there before had become annoyed about this and tensions ensued. Ramdass said that on Wednesday morning there was an argument among the men and one of the newcomers allegedly spat upon on another, resulting in a fight. It was this in addition to previous transgressions which had caused the Nickerie District Commissioner to shut down the illegal backtrack service. He reportedly told the Surinamese operators that until they could become united and work as a team, the landing would remain closed.
Stabroek News was told that since Wednesday the boat owners had been holding meetings with officials at Nickerie, hoping to reverse the decision.
“It is unfair for us [Guyanese] because we did not do anything, but we have to suffer like everyone else,” Ramdass told this newspaper on Friday. He said he operated two boats in the river and his craft were registered by the Surinamese authorities at Nickerie. “I have been doing this business a long time ago, but this never happened before,” the boat owner said. He added that just as Surinamese were stranded in Guyana, so several Guyanese along with Surinamese who do business in Guyana were stranded in Nickerie, and he would not be surprised if he heard that some Guyanese operators were transporting passengers across the border at night. However, this was a huge risk since Surinamese soldiers patrol the river every day.
Across at Eno Bharrat Boat Service in Corriverton, an official said the closure had affected them a great deal. According to the official who asked not to be named, whenever Suriname had a problem with the backtrack service it would take unilateral decisions without consulting the Guyanese operators. At present the Guyanese operators are only allowed to transport passengers to Nickerie, but they cannot solicit passengers coming to Guyana. The same system applies for the Surinamese operators who will only transport passengers to Guyana and then leave.
It is not the first time Suriname has shut down the crossing. When Stabroek News visited the boat landings at Corriverton last year we were told that criminals used the backtrack route and arms smuggling was rampant. According to one report, drug accused Guyanese businessman, Roger Khan and his bodyguards had used the route to travel to Suriname where they were later arrested and charged. While members of the Berbice Anti-Smuggling Squad have a presence at the Guyana end of the border, as well as a customs officer who collects duties, the smuggling of arms and goods has continued over the years.
The authorities in Guyana while maintaining that the only legitimate entry and exit point for Corentyne is at Moleson Creek have never taken any measures to regularize backtrack operations, which are carried on in the open. The operators have well erected landings, waiting rooms and have been advertising their service for years in the telephone directory.