The raid on the Ramada Princess in the early hours of Friday marked a new stage in our never-ending crime saga. It had been preceded only a few hours earlier by an attack on the Alesie Group’s office on the West Coast, where almost $4 million was taken, but that robbery – a major one – was overshadowed by the events at the East Bank hotel. The implications of the latter are clear to all and should have the government extremely concerned, given that the invasion – for such it was ‒ strikes directly at the heart of the tourism industry.
Recent robberies in particular have been carried out with incredible brazenness, and the case of the Ramada Princess is a classic example. The police were nearby and responded quickly, as a consequence of which one of the bandits was caught and the others identified. But foreknowledge of the proximity of the police – and one has to presume that the armed robbers did know their location – does not appear to have given the perpetrators any pause for thought. It is as if once they had guns in hand, they felt themselves all powerful. Crime Chief Wendell Blanhum’s commendable record of catching bandits and murderers also does not appear to have operated as any kind of deterrent.
Prior to this latest development the Central Corentyne and Berbice Chambers of Commerce had issued a statement criticizing the government on its strategy for addressing crime. “Government seems powerless, ineffectual, and out of their league in fighting crime,” they wrote, “and now we have a situation in Berbice that is far worse than we have ever experienced.
“Everyone is a sitting duck … and coupled with the depressed business environment … [it is] exceedingly burdensome for businesses and ordinary citizens to cope.” They went on to say that President Granger and his government had failed “miserably” in the provision of security for citizens. The main purpose of the release, however, was to express the view that the administration’s policy on crime needed an “overhaul”; that the government appeared “weak, soft and sympathetic to criminals; that Minister of Public Security Khemraj Ramjattan had demoralized the police, so that they were now uncertain and scared to shoot; and that this in the context of President David Granger’s pardoning of criminals had allowed gun crimes to spiral out of control. In short, “[b]andits have become more emboldened by the Government’s approach.”
This is a perception which is fairly widespread, especially in areas outside Georgetown, and its criticism of Mr Ramjattan partly reflects an approach which harks back to the previous government, whose main crime strategy for a long time (by implication) was for the police to kill the bandits and thereby eliminate the source of the problem. What happened was that out-of-control units such as the ‘Black Clothes’, or other police, perpetrated extra-judicial killings, whose investigation the administration generally declined to pursue. It hardly needs observing that this is not a crime-fighting strategy at all, and in any case, did nothing to solve the problem; in fact, it simply exacerbated it.
The Public Security Minister is justified, therefore, in indicating to the police that their use of force must be legal – although perhaps there was an issue with the way in which he said it that conceivably may have caused apprehension among some officers. If it is indeed the case, however, as the Chambers asserted, that the police are uncertain and scared to shoot (presumably in circumstances where it would be legitimate for them to do so), then the issue quite clearly is one of poor training. What can be said is that the decline and demoralization did not get to this point since the present government came into office; it has been decades in the making. The last government in particular carries a huge amount of responsibility for undermining the Guyana Police Force as well as ignoring its corruption, and any revamping is inevitably going to take time.
The Chambers advised the Minister to look at former President Desmond Hoyte’s “no-nonsense” approach to kick-down-the-door banditry, which he effectively stamped out. Unfortunately, the mid-eighties were a simpler time, where drug use was still not widespread and guns did not proliferate. The previous administration never got a grip on either the drug or the gun problem (the two things are not unconnected), and while there is little evidence that this one has made any sustained attempt to address them either, they are complex issues to deal with and are not going to be banished overnight. The increasing brazenness of bandits referred to above, is probably connected to narcotics; the robbers need quick money for drugs and/or some may already be on a high when they attack, which is also why they are so callous.
While it is expected that the DEA will make a major contribution to the interdiction of narcotics intended for export, it is the local authorities which have to develop a strategy for countering the drug problem at the local level. Do we know, for example, how many addicts we have, or how many traders at the street level? And why is it, that in a country where anecdotally it is thought the number of addicts is not small, so few resources are going into drug rehabilitation? Among the issues the Chambers quite rightly told Minister Ramjattan he needed to address, was the drug houses, so why is this not being done? (It might be noted en passant, that drug money has also corrupted the police force at some level.)
In tandem with the President himself, the Berbice Chambers also listed the lack of employment among youths as another of the matters which needed attention, although here, as they well know, that depends in the first instance on a stable economy, and at the moment it would appear the economy is in contraction. It also depends on a lot of other factors, including the upgrading of the education system, the evolution of a rule-governed society and tackling drug use among youths. Again, there cannot be easy delivery on any of those fronts in the immediate term.
However, the Chambers had some practical immediate suggestions for Mr Ramjattan as well; these included quick response teams and permanent SWAT teams located in Berbice, with more patrols, and the conversion of the Rose Hall Town police into a police station. Given the high crime rate in Berbice, these appear prima facie to be eminently reasonable requests.
The Chambers of Commerce also castigated the Minister for refusing to meet them on the matter of crime until after the jubilee celebrations as he said he was “extremely busy. If this is so, then it does him absolutely no credit. These are organisations representing business people across the county, and it is his duty to spare time to listen to what they have to say, no matter how busy he thinks he might be. In any case, he should always be open to viable suggestions from sensible people. As it is, he was probably taken up with security issues in relation to the jubilee, and now events at the Ramada Princess have presented him with an additional challenge in that regard.
If visitors cannot feel safe in their hotels, then the government can say goodbye to establishing the reputation of this country as a good place to invest, or as an exotic tourism destination. What happened on Friday, as said above, is potentially a new step in terms of the escalation of crime, and it is high time the administration devoted serious effort to short, intermediate and long-term strategies for dealing with the larger issue. It is absolutely critical that the Ramada Princess remain an isolated incident.