The killing of Estevao Costa Marques

The actual facts of the matter may still be the subject of investigation though it seems very much that last week’s Puruni incident that led to the shooting to death of Brazilian miner Estevao Costa Marques by a policeman points again to the chronic weakness of the regime that governs interior policing and the protracted failure of government over many years to do anything really meaningful to correct the situation. Interior policing can expose, as indeed it frequently does, the worst excesses of a Guyana Police Force burdened by grotesque organizational and operational shortcomings and no less some police functionaries whose preoccupation is less with service and protection in those remote areas than with the ‘hustle’ offered by the fact that gold is in their reach.

Quite why, in the circumstances, Minister of State Joseph Harmon would say that “a situation in which you may have a policeman allegedly shooting somebody is more an aberration than a norm” is, to say the least, baffling.  The fact of the matter is that reports of lawless behaviour by policemen including crude and sometimes physical enforcement measures designed to extract ‘backhanders’ from gold miners have long been par for the course so that even if killing may not be necessary in order to get the desired result, systematic harassment and shakedowns (which the Guyana Gold and Diamond Miners Association (GGDMA) says is a common occurrence) is no more acceptable.   

The robust statement issued by the GGDMA reflects an unmistakable sense of outrage over the brutal killing of the young Brazilian miner, pulling no punches in calling the act an “execution,” and in effect leaving no one guessing as to its feelings about the manner in which the man met his death or to the wider “corruption” and “shakedown” of miners “at the hands of the security forces and appointed government officers” (there is no mentioned as to whom these “government officers” might be). It is a grim characterization of what the miners believe is a gang-like enforcement that obtains in what is clearly a dangerously toxic relationship between some policemen and the mining community.

It was the Guyana Police Force (GPF) itself, after the shooting of the Brazilian, that declared in a statement that the Constable who reportedly killed the Brazilian man, along with a colleague, had “abandoned” the Kurupung Police Station to which they were assigned and left on an ATV armed with a .30 Carbine rifle on “patrol duties.” Except ours is a completely mistaken understanding of the term “abandoned,” its use, it seems, was a pointed query of the ‘mission’ undertaken by the policemen. That should be no small point in the context of the promised inquiry into the killing.

What the killing of the Brazilian miner does as well is to further peel away another layer of the crisis in which the GPF finds itself so that neither President Granger’s search for an “incorruptible” Police Commissioner nor Minister of State Harmon’s reference to what he described as a ‘small restructuring” of the Force to beef up manned responsibility in the hinterland areas are likely to have any real traction in the context of solving the fundamental problems of the Force particularly as far as interior policing is concerned. Indeed, if anything, Harmon‘s reference to a “small” restructuring has the effect of obfuscating the broader, far more relevant issue of the need to completely overhaul hinterland policing an issue upon which the President has pronounced on more than one occasion. When will government understand that tinkering with the periphery of the problem and subsuming the entire issue of enhanced policing beneath what has now become the most talked-about issue in the society, that is, who will be the next Commissioner of Police, is not the answer to the problem. Frankly, it is patently evident that whoever eventually gets ‘the pick’ to step up, that will not be a sine qua non for a better Police Force. Unfortunately, there appears to exist a widespread view that the failure, up until now, to appoint a substantive Commissioner of Police is a function of a crisis of confidence in the capabilities of the current upper echelons of the Force.

Then there is the issue of what has become a widely-criticized recruitment regimen which has been unable to keep at  bay ‘recruits’ whose only motive is to exploit the uniform and the attendant authority to become part of shakedowns and enforcement rackets which are widely believed not to be confined to the lower ranks and which range from the ‘lef something’ culture pursued by some underpaid traffic cops to more elaborate and reportedly more ‘structured’ shakedowns such as those referred to by the GGDMA.

A COI into the Brazilian miner’s death must not only probe the circumstances, it must embrace and act now on the reality that the GPF, in its present operational shape, is not serving and protecting our hinterland communities effectively. Indeed, no inquiry of this kind can help but recognize as an acknowledgement of its own inadequacy the admission by the Force’s high command that the policemen who killed the Brazilian miner took it upon himself to commit the unpardonable ‘sin’ of abandoning a police station.

It is not so much the promised Commission of Inquiry (COI) that is important at this stage as is its speed, its transparency and whether or not its outcomes translate into actions that go well beyond the incident itself that matters. Frankly, the pronouncements attributed to the Minister of State in the Stabroek News does not appear to frontally embrace the sheer enormity of the incident and (whatever the eventual truth of the matter) the implications of the occurrence for an already embattled, crisis-ridden Police Force. One makes this point if only to express the hope that the COI itself will recognize the incident for what it probably is, a microcosm of a fractured Force that is in   need of considerably mending.

Time is not on the GPF’s side. The security ramifications of the hoped-for economic takeoff associated with the imminent exploitation of oil and gas cannot be separated from what, inevitably, will be the greater law and order demands that will be placed on its shoulders. To borrow a phrase invented in an entirely different circumstance some time ago, the GPF, in its present state can hardly be said to be ‘fit and proper’ for the challenge that lies ahead. 


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