The Wakenaam incident

The weekend before the last, the security forces seized 17 kg of cocaine on a farm at Ridge, the southernmost section of Wakenaam Island. Two villagers alleged that they were tortured and another man has been charged before a magistrate for trafficking in narcotics. These incidents – both the discovery of cocaine and the alleged torture of the suspects – are products of the lawless, underground economy that is enveloping the settlements surrounding the Essequibo.

Wakenaam is part of an estuarine archipelago which, together with the mainland port towns of Charity to the north and Parika to the south, constitute this country’s gaping gateway of contraband. Crime has changed the landscape over the years from sleepy farming communities to a busy hub of trade and trafficking. The area is now the source of some of the cheapest fuel on the continent, smuggled from Venezuela, and a bazaar for a wide range of foodstuff, utensils and household commodities. It is a popular platform for illegal migration, wildlife and timber exports, and narco-trafficking.

The scale of contraband smuggling is no secret. Residents warned the Minister of Home Affairs at the head of National Commission on Law and Order in Leguan that fuel smuggling was increasing. Even the President admitted that fuel smuggling costs the state about $6 billion annually in revenue. On Valentine’s Day in 2007, the Guyana Revenue Authority recorded its biggest contraband bust when it charged Joseph ‘Daddo’ Sahadeo and seven others with the evasion of import duties and dealing with commodities with intent to defraud the state of an estimated $70M. But that seizure was a rare occurrence.

Once the infrastructure for smuggling household goods across international borders was established, and the state’s law enforcement apparatus was disabled, it was a short step for crooks  to start smuggling fuel to drive the mining and logging industries further up the Essequibo River and then to trafficking in narcotics that can earn billions more dollars.

There has never been effective enforcement by any agency whatsoever. The Guyana Revenue Authority’s Customs and Trade Administration; Guyana Defence Force’s Coast Guard; Guyana Police Force’s Marine Unit; Guyana Energy Agency and Customs Anti-Narcotics Unit were all starved of the essential surveillance equipment, staff and maritime vessels which could have enabled them to interdict or pursue smugglers in the waterways. The Essequibo Anti-Smuggling Squad − promised by Dr Cheddi Jagan’s administration fourteen years ago as a counterpart to the Berbice Anti-Smuggling Squad − was never established.

A few well known suspects from the East Bank Essequibo and the contiguous West Coast Demerara have occasionally been passed through the courts for contraband activities but they are usually not convicted and their enterprises remain intact. The administration seems unwilling to enforce effective measures to eliminate smuggling although it is evident that the crime is corrupting formerly orderly farming communities. Pervasive lawlessness eventually took a toll on Wakenaam, the 45 km² island at the mouth of the Essequibo River, together with Leguan and Parika. These small communities earned notoriety as the scenes of the rape-murders of a few very old women and very young girls and other brutal crimes, out of proportion to their population.

The tide has gone out on the Essequibo islands leaving them exposed to the transnational criminal penetration that is part of today’s riverain reality. The archaic, land-based policing methods are no longer adequate. Nor can episodic punitive expeditions replace regular, modern law enforcement and orderly governmental administration.  Sending fierce special squads into places like Wakenaam where the residents are treated like enemy combatants is not going to solve the decades-old contraband problem.

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