The Minister of Home Affairs appears long ago to have surrendered the lead on fighting piracy to the Minister of Agriculture. We had reported three weeks ago that Minister Persaud had convened one of the government’s periodic meetings with the fishermen to discuss the raids on their vessels, and that they had reiterated all their traditional concerns, along with a new one about the escape of Kevin ‘Long Hair’ Narine from the New Amsterdam jail. It will be remembered that Narine had been convicted of piracy only recently under legislation passed in 2008, namely, the Hijacking and Piracy Act, which had been touted at the time as a major weapon in the fight against piracy.

Subsequent to Minister Persaud’s meeting with the fishermen, of course, around fifteen Corentyne boats came under attack from pirates, and the finger of suspicion pointed unwaveringly in the direction of the now notorious escapee. Last week in a statement the Ministry of Home Affairs warned ‘Long Hair’ that it would soon catch up with him, and urged the police to be more aggressive so that piracy could be extinguished. “There must be no room for indecisiveness [or] equivocation,” the ministry said; “the laws are there to be enforced and the administration has, time and again, signalled its unqualified support to have the said laws enforced.” Given this last sentence, one is forced to wonder whether the Ministry of Home Affairs is not aware that its responsibilities encompass the police force.

Be that as it may, one doesn’t imagine that the Houdini-like Mr Narine is likely to be particularly unnerved by the ministry’s statement. Given the government’s record on piracy one imagines that he would be a great deal more wary of the Suriname authorities than he would of the Guyana Police Force; after all, it was the former which caught him the first time around in January 2008, and it was Guyana’s prison service which contrived to make it possible for him to take up his  vocation again.

In fact, the Surinamese police and other armed units have proved themselves altogether more efficient at apprehending Guyanese pirates than we have. In addition to holding ‘Long Hair’ in 2008, Suriname detained a dozen  other Guyanese men for armed robbery at sea around the same time. What was interesting about that case was that Guyanese fishermen hadn’t relied on the GPF or Coast Guard, but had tried to help themselves. They had gone to Suriname to provide intelligence to the authorities there, as a consequence of which the pirates had been held. Their intelligence network, it was reported, had been set up in 2007, and at that time they had even tracked down where Kevin Narine was living in Suriname. He was not there when the Suriname police arrived, but they did arrest another Guyanese man in the house, which contained stolen items from Guyanese fishing vessels. They also subsequently recovered seven engines, a number of seines and some drums of fuel belonging to fishermen from the No 66 Fishing Complex, and following this took several more  men into custody.

Again, it was a Suriname court which in August 2009 sentenced six Guyanese pirates to a combined total of 78 years in jail. According to DWT one of them broke down in tears after hearing he was to serve 14 years; the sentiments of the members of the Corentyne Fishing Co-ops, one suspects, were rather different. In that instance the convicted men had been attacking Surinamese fishermen in the Coppename River, and then hiding in Guyana following the raids. It was when the last of those attacks had been reported to the Paramaribo authorities in March 2008, that the Suriname police together with armed anti-terror units mounted an operation which ended in the capture of the men.

On the Guyanese side of the Corentyne, apart from the Anti-Piracy Revolving Fund announced by the Minister of Agriculture in March 2008, the emphasis has been on improving communications. On April 1, 2008, we reported that the government had provided the GDF with $15M to set up a state of the art communications system to allow for a more effective response in the event of an attack. The system would not work unless the fisherman bought radios, however, which Minister Persaud said would cost US$300, although the government would help with their acquisition. The radios were designed to float, and it was also recommended that the fisherfolk acquire wristwatches fitted with GPS.

In June last year, we reported on the intention to install tracking devices on boats; “For every two the co-ops install we will install one,” Minister Persaud was quoted as saying. He went on to declare that the government wanted to have a system in place within two months, but that this would depend on the response from the fisherfolk. The exact status of these communications plans is a little uncertain, because the Minister told Stabroek News in a telephone interview as recently as last month that the lack of a proper communication system was delaying the response to reports of attacks.

It might be observed, however, that good communications will be of only limited assistance if there is no capacity to go after the pirates – and there isn’t. Three years ago we reported Lieutenant Andre Cush of the Coast Guard as saying that they could not patrol 200 miles of sea with the resources available, and that by the time a report had been made perhaps as much as 24 hours might have elapsed, making pursuit impossible. As for the police, on June 16 this year Crime Chief Seelall Persaud told this newspaper that investigations into cases of piracy have “basically been land operations because the police have no presence at sea.”

Apprehending pirates comes within the larger responsibilities of Minister Rohee’s portfolio, not Minister Persaud’s, and it has been reported that his most recent contribution to the debate is that international co-operation is central to a resolution of the problem. In our circumstances, where we lack the resources to catch sea-bandits, that can only mean that we are depending on our neighbours – primarily Suriname – to do what we cannot. After all, barring an extraordinary streak of luck we cannot reciprocate. Our eastern neighbour has a better success rate in capturing pirates because in the 1990s she bought four fast patrol boats from Spain, as well as surveillance aircraft to protect her waters. It was one of these boats which evicted the CGX rig in 2000, as Minister Rohee will well remember.

Protecting one’s territorial waters and marine resources, and interdicting pirates and other criminals in one’s maritime space – and on our rivers – require a major financial investment that the government has never been prepared to countenance. It is not that what has been discussed and proposed over the years does not have a role to play; it is simply that on its own it is not enough. Radar, high-speed boats, surveillance aircraft, Coast Guard bases, and, it might be added, a properly equipped police marine wing do not come cheap, so perhaps the government should level with the fishing community and tell them that at this stage they simply cannot afford the outlay, or do not wish to commit the resources  which would be necessary to stamp out piracy completely.

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