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In early 2008, gunmen wielding AK-47 rifles started attacking villages in Guyana. Twenty three people died in a series of ambushes, including three police officers whose station was overrun and weapons stolen. The attacks are attributed to Rondell Rawlins, an escaped convict who had threatened violence if police didn't release his 18-year-old pregnant girlfriend.

Police deny they have her. Meanwhile, the hunt for Rawlins spreads throughout the Caribbean as Trinidad and Tobago loan officers and equipment to help in a search that has spilled over into neighboring Suriname. This violence didn't erupt in a vacuum. For years select officials in the government had been accused of funding and/or directing "phantom death squads" as a tool to fight a growing crime problem. But the poor neighborhoods where the squads allegedly operated, and where young men were dying, began to collectively feel besieged. Rawlins may be the blowback the government never saw coming.

Tristram Korten explores the limits of the state's power to battle crime in a region where resources are stretched thin, poverty is high and outlaws can create shadow governments every bit as powerful as the legitimate ones.