Guyana: Bartica

The trip to Bartica from Georgetown is simple, and relatively fast, in real time. First you drive the 30-40 minutes from Georgetown to the riverside community of Parika. Then you hop in one of the peak-bowed wooden launches with the 200 hp outboards and scream down the Essequibo River for another hour and a half. Like I said, relatively fast. But if you're measuring time in how your body has aged, the boat ride is in dog years. I now know why "teeth jarring" is a cliché, as in "teeth jarring ride."

There was a slight chop on the water the day I traveled, and I didn't get there early enough to sit towards the stern. The pilot simply gunned the engine full-throttle, and the boat proceeded to karate chop the water with such force I thought I was going to chip my teeth. I was scared to clench my jaw, and I was scared to unclench it, unsure which would reduce my dental bill. But this is the fastest way to get to Bartica, a mining outpost at the entrance to Guyana's vast interior, the site of the most recent brutal massacre.

Image courtesy of Tristram Korten.

Image courtesy of Tristram Korten.

When I arrived (teeth intact) and started asking questions, everyone directed me to Mango Tree Man's house, down the dusty main street.

Bartica's relative isolation and the fact that it is where gold prospectors come to trade raw gold for cash after spending months in the wilderness made it a vulnerable target. On February 17, gunmen in boats used cover of dark to storm the town. Authorities say ballistics indicate it was the same group who attacked the farming community of Lusignan -- The Rondell Rawlins' gang.

In Bartica they attacked the police station first, killing three officers, stealing guns and vehicles. Then they proceeded to rob two different gold-trading stations. Posing as police officers, they entered CBR Mining, where they promptly executed the guard. The manager showed me how they held the guard's head over a freezer stocked with fish, and put a bullet in his skull. He was in his 70s. They stole 11 guns, mostly shotguns and some pistols, and used sledge hammers to crack open safes containing the gold.

Across the street was Mango Tree Man's house, identified by a robust, leafy mango tree. This was a family-run gold trading shop, a spacious, sturdy concrete house with a balcony and iron gate. Mango Tree Man's son, Vishal GuruDatsingh, recounted how when they heard the gunmen trying to break in, the family, father, mother, son and daughter, all hid in a secret location. For the next 20 minutes they listened as the bandits broke in, first by trying to bash in the doors, which held. Then they used sledgehammers to smash an opening in the wall large enough to squeeze in and open the doors from the inside. GuruDatsingh said he overheard one of them tell the others that if they found anybody to shoot them. Bullet holes still pocked the stairs and walls. His family, he said, wasn't coming back. He was preparing to open the shop the next day, the first time in two months. "I don't have a choice," he said. "But I'm still scared."

Meanwhile, Rawlins and his men have restocked their armory and their coffers and no one knows if, or when, they will strike next.