GEORGETOWN, Guyana -- In a remote area of southern Guyana earlier this month, security forces tried to surround the country's most-wanted criminal and his gang of well-armed fugitives in their jungle hide-out. But after a fierce firefight, in which authorities say three police officers were wounded and one of the fugitives was killed, the gang escaped deeper into the bush to continue its fight another day.
It was the closest authorities have come to capturing gang leader Rondell Rawlins, who they say has been waging a campaign of terror since January in this small English-speaking South American nation. The Rawlins gang is believed to have attacked two villages and three police stations, killing 23 people, including women, children and police officers, and stolen a cache of weapons and raw gold mined from the interior.
In its most immediate form, this conflict started as a blood-feud: Rawlins accused government agents of kidnapping his pregnant 18-year-old girlfriend and vowed violence if she wasn't returned.
But the roots of the problem go back years to unresolved allegations that the government was complicit in aiding or even creating what are known locally as 'phantom death squads.' These are gangs of vigilante assassins, formed in response to a crime wave that began in 2002.
The teams targeted alleged criminals in a series of extrajudicial killings, and their victims are estimated to be in the hundreds. One government report summed up the murders as ``an alarmingly high number . . . of killings of persons who were involved or allegedly involved in criminal activities.'
But the phantoms' identities have never been revealed.
Rawlins, who blamed the phantoms for his girlfriend's disappearance in a phone interview with a Guyana newspaper, Kaieteur News, might well be the blowback that those who formed the phantoms never expected -- a well-armed group motivated by a laundry list of bloody grievances.
The matrix for all of this, of course, is drugs.
Guyana's roughly 760,000 people are concentrated on the coast, and the interior, including its borders with Brazil and Suriname, are remote, unpopulated and porous. As a result, it is a busy transshipment point for drug smugglers.
FUEL FOR PHANTOMS
The crime wave that gave rise to the phantoms can be traced to the escape of five high-profile inmates from the Georgetown Prison on Feb. 23, 2002. The prisoners, armed with knives, were able to overpower the guards on duty, killing one and wounding another before escaping into the streets, hijacking a car and disappearing. The escapees immediately embarked on a mini-crime wave of carjackings and robberies in the weeks after the breakout.
The Stabroek News labeled 2002 'the year that Guyana lost its innocence.' Kidnappings, murders and carjackings dominated headlines. Even the head of security for the U.S. Embassy was kidnapped while playing golf. (He was later released.)
Meanwhile, the escapees' gang grew, and Rondell Rawlins, nicknamed 'Fineman,' a local term for skinny, joined. Fliers started appearing announcing the group as an armed resistance out to defend the Afro-Guyanese. One of the escapees even appeared on TV, toting a gun, to press that point.
Then criminals started turning up dead.
By the end of October 2002, unidentified gunmen had killed four of the escapees. There were never any arrests. Dr. Roger Luncheon, chief of staff for Guyana's president, labeled the mysterious murderers a 'phantom' force during a press conference. The name stuck, and the killings continued.
It's not clear whether the phantoms were a monolithic entity.
According to Raphael Trotman, a Georgetown lawyer who investigated their origins for the opposition People's National Congress, there were two groups of killers -- one was formed by an accused drug dealer named Shaheed 'Roger' Khan; another was organized with help from members of the government. Khan was charged with trafficking and extradited to the United States in 2006, where he has claimed he worked with the government on security.
But it was one of Trotman's clients who made the most shocking charge. Around October of 2003 George Bacchus came to Trotman and 'confessed that he was a member of a killing squad,' the lawyer recounted recently. Bacchus wanted revenge on his own gang for killing a close friend. He said he was going to expose the gang's links to Minister of Home Affairs Ronald Gajraj.
Soon after, Bacchus's brother was killed outside their home in what Bacchus believed was an attempt on his life. He went to the media stating he was willing to testify that Gajraj directed the killing squad. But before he could testify, Bacchus was shot dead in his bed at night. Police arrested three people and said the motive was a financial dispute.
President Bharrat Jagdeo appointed a commission to investigate Gajraj, who was suspended. The commission documented Gajraj's frequent communication (49 calls in one month) with the man identified as the leader of Bacchus' gang.
However, the commission reported it could find no direct link of Gajraj's involvement in extrajudicial killings, and he resumed his post.
The U.S. State Department issued a protest: 'We believe significant questions remain unanswered regarding his involvement in serious criminal activities.' Gajraj has since been appointed ambassador to India.
The final report in 2005 was the last official word on the phantom killers. The government gave little indication it was intent on answering any lingering questions.
Then Rondell Rawlins' girlfriend disappeared, sparking a new cycle of violence that promises to continue.
'We have a new generation of criminals now who have resolved never to be captured because they don't believe the system will bring them justice,' notes Trotman.