Criminal challenge to territorial integrity?

On those occasions when the issue of national security comes under serious official contemplation, the sanctity of our borders invariably becomes part of the discourse. Arguably, no Guyanese has written and said more publicly on crime and security than President David Granger and the conclusion has more-or-less been that it has been largely our inability to effectively police our borders that lies at the heart of what has become a national security challenge.

 We have simply not done enough over the years to create a police presence in our hinterland regions that is sufficient to realize a reassuring regimen of law and order at the level of the communities themselves. That much is exemplified in what, over the years, has been the periodic descent into lawlessness in some communities, on the one hand, and the ineffectiveness of the police in responding to those situations, on the other. As far as the sanctity of our borders is concerned there are simply no effective restraints on the movement of people from either of our two much bigger neighbours, Brazil and Venezuela, into Guyana. Those movements and their implications for national security coupled with the specific threat posed by Venezuela’s territorial claim (which, we hope, is now well on the way towards a final settlement in the ICJ) are concerns that have a particular bearing on both our domestic and foreign policies.

Open and vulnerable borders – as is manifested in the unceasing movement of both Brazilians and Venezuelans in and out of Guyana – have their own implications for the maintenance of territorial integrity, including the suppression of common trans-border crimes like drug and gun-running, trans-border ‘invasion’ of hinterland communities and the pursuit of illegal employment (overwhelmingly in the mining sector) here in Guyana by ‘migrants’ from neighbouring countries. The belated discovery of illegal aircraft and airstrips in Guyana territory, widely believed to be linked to major drug-running activities and what has been reported as an upsurge in the trafficking in women from other countries on the continent provides further evidence of the fragility of our territorial integrity and given the length of time that these weaknesses have existed, attest to our inability to do much to correct the situation.

Underpinning all this has been a failure amongst our political leaders/policy makers to recognize and respond to what President Granger himself has described as the dynamics of “remote location, quaint socialization, poor communication and awkward transportation” all of which, he says, have contributed to the “low level of integration” between some hinterland communities and “the rest of the country.”

Cross border movement from Venezuela into Guyana (and here one does not include the various military incursions associated with that country’s territorial claim against Guyana that have occurred over the years) have persisted over time, though not to a level hitherto considered as threatening as it now appears to be. Among the factors that may have brought the situation to where it is today are the steady growth of Guyana’s gold-mining industry and the attraction that it provides for external fortune-seekers and the more recent political/economic crisis facing the Maduro administration in Venezuela and the attendant outward movement of Venezuelans seeking relief from the crisis. Both of these considerations would have influenced an acceleration of cross border movement from Venezuela into Guyana.

Leaving aside at least one recent report from a hinterland community official to the effect that ‘migrating’ Venezuelans have been putting some measure of pressure on our health services in that particular region, not a great deal has been said at the level of government here about this issue, though, the experience of other countries on the continent, notably Colombia, with the cross-border movement of Venezuelans, ought to be instructive.

The other current threat which we reportedly face from across the border with Venezuela derives from what we are told are bands of marauding brigands known as Syndicatos who target hinterland gold-mining camps, robbing and sometimes killing local miners and making off with their gold. Their trademark, we are told is their fluent Spanish and their ruthlessness. The point should be made, of course, that first, the Guyana Defence Force (GDF) and more recently and more insistently, the Police, have expressed doubts as to whether the recent attacks on local mining camps are trans-border in origin though local ‘intelligence’ strongly challenges that view, asserting that there is indeed a threat that originates inside Venezuela.

Even if we take the security forces at their word, however, there is every reason, taking all of the circumstances into consideration, (not least our inability to discourage cross border movement) to take seriously the likelihood that there may be some measure of extra-territorial involvement in these unsettling situation that now appears to obtain at some mining locations.

The Syndicatos menace, if indeed that is what it is, opens up a three-pronged national security challenge. First, there is the (seeming) substantive and unchallenged incursion into our territorial space by armed and dangerous groups of bandits to which, up until now, we have mounted no effective response; secondly, there is the consequential threat to the lives of Guyanese living and working in hinterland communities and thirdly, there are the implications for the well-being of investors in the gold-mining industry and their employees. Of course, in circumstances where armed incursions are not, over time, met with robust responses, those might easily turn to a kind of semi -permanent occupation which then raises a whole range of other security-related issues.

Perhaps the most reliable barometer available with which to effectively measure  the extent of our commitment to hinterland security reposes in the fact that both the structure of the Guyana Police Force and, over the years, the relative paucity of resources allocated to the creation of a strong substantive policing infrastructure in hinterland communities have been cause for concern. Frankly, it had always seemed to be enough, over the years, to make the argument about affordability even though the advent of crimes in hinterland communities, (many of which appear to have links to gold mining)  and now the upsurge of talk about a Syndicatos threat ought, surely, to compel our policy makers to finally understand that considerations of ‘affordability’ cannot be allowed to compromise the imperative of strengthening our hinterland security capabilities.

 In the short term the threat would now appear to have given rise to a siege mentality in sections of the mining community that may well transform itself into a clamour for stepped-up state security in mining areas and perhaps even for the stepping up in the allocation of more high-powered guns to miners to secure their operations. There are those who would argue of course that the further proliferation of guns in the mining communities may do more harm than good. In this context one awaits such official follow-up as is contemplated to the recent visits to interior locations by President Granger, Minister of State Harmon and Public Security Minister Ramjattan.

  In the first instance, it would seem that there is need for more reliable intelligence that seeks to determine, definitively, whether or not we are dealing with an external threat, from the so-called Syndicatos, that is.  If that is determined to be the case then it is for the intelligence/security community to devise and execute strategies to minimize border incursions (we may never be able to prevent them altogether) and to provide an effective deterrent to criminal invaders. Leaving aside efforts to step up substantive border security there is the need to provide an enhanced measure of reassurance for the vulnerable hinterland communities themselves, including the mining community, by significantly stepping up the level of human and material resources at the disposal of our hinterland policing operations, bearing in mind that the excuse of a lack of resources must now be measured against the extent perceived threat level and what may now very well be the likelihood of further escalation of that threat.

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