Story Publication logo November 17, 2008

Where Phantoms Live


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In early 2008, gunmen wielding AK-47 rifles started attacking villages in Guyana. Twenty three...


Vishal Singh paces nervously around his family's stucco home in Bartica, a town in northern Guyana overlooking the Essequibo River. A few months earlier, gunmen under cover of night had ambushed the community, an outpost for gold and diamond miners operating in the country's wild interior. The bandits robbed two gold trading stations, including one run by Singh's father in their home. The family survived by escaping to a fortified hiding place. Afterwards the Singhs fled town. Only Vishal has returned. He is preparing to reopen in the morning, but at the moment is suffering a kind of post-traumatic stress episode—his breath is short and his eyes wide. Bullet holes still pock the walls and the stairway. "I'm still scared," the 25-year-old of East Indian descent says softly. "But I don't have a choice."

For more than six months, Guyana's most wanted, Rondell Rawlins, and his well-armed gang carried on a vicious campaign across the country, attacking villages and police stations, killing men, women and children, and stockpiling stolen weapons and valuables. Between January and August of this year, the gang was credited with killing 11 people in the farming village of Lusignan, including five children; murdering another 12, among them three police officers, in the Bartica attack; and ambushing eight miners in a remote camp. In addition, authorities have linked Rawlins to the 2006 murder of the country's agriculture minister Satyadeow Sawh and his brother and sister, all three of whom were Canadian citizens (there are an estimated 200,000 citizens of Guyanese descent in Canada—one of the largest Guyanese communities outside the country).

Authorities worried the group was preparing a protracted insurgency, and described the attacks as attempts to "destabilize" the country, if not the government. Despite a massive manhunt, the armed band eluded police and security forces by hiding in the country's brushy backlands and vast rainforest. In June, a joint services team of police and military came close to capturing the gang in a jungle hideout, but after a fierce gun battle the outlaws disappeared into the leafy terrain they had been hiding in.

Rawlins won't terrorize the Singhs or anyone else again. At the end of August he was killed in a shootout with police near Guyana's main airport.

Authorities are hoping that the gang, now decapitated, will be easy to round up, and the whole bloody period will be over. But most Guyanese are not used to having their problems wrapped up so neatly. As V.S. Naipaul wrote more than 40 years ago: "In British Guiana it is almost impossible to find out the truth about any major thing. Investigation and cross-checking lead only to fearful confusion."

And so it would seem here: Rawlins is merely part of a continuing saga that involves allegations of a shadowy campaign to eradicate criminals using extrajudicial killing teams—known locally as the "phantom death squads"—with links to the government. Rawlins accused the phantoms of kidnapping his pregnant girlfriend in January to get at him, and had vowed violence if she wasn't returned (she remains missing). His attacks began as a blood feud that played out along the fault lines of race; Rawlins and his gang were mostly Afro-Guyanese, and the government and elite business classes are made up largely of Indo-Guyanese.

Many in Guyana saw the phantoms as a necessary response to a murderous crime wave following a prison break in 2002, which authorities failed to control. The phantoms were rumoured to be funded by businessmen scared by the increased crime, and possibly drug dealers whose business was threatened by the chaos (there have been allegations that the tentacles of the drug trade reach high into government ranks). The phantoms were also a clear indication how little trust people had that their undertrained, under-equipped police department could curb the violence. "The phantom was a direct response to the likes of Rawlins, who had this country in near anarchy," says one Georgetown businessman who asked not to be identified. The inability of the security forces to "take on the gangs," the businessman adds, created a need. "Without the phantom, I'm not sure where Guyana would be right now."

Others, of course, see it differently. "Everyone should condemn extrajudicial killings as a proxy for justice," asserts Rickford Burke, president of the New York-based Caribbean Guyana Institute for Democracy, an advocacy group that frequently criticizes President Bharrat Jagdeo's administration. The phantoms didn't thwart anarchy, Burke maintains—they are its manifestation.

One thing is clear: the widespread perception that the government is complicit with the phantoms, true or not, created blowback. It gave Rawlins a distinct enemy—a perceived rogue government—and fuelled the gang's resolve to take to the bush and wage a guerrilla-style campaign whose targets appeared to be mostly Indo-Guyanese.

Guyana, an English-speaking South American country with about 770,000 residents, has been grappling with waves of violence for years now, largely the effects of the drug trade. Its tiny population is concentrated along the coast, near the capital Georgetown, and consequently its eastern border with Suriname and its southern one with Brazil are notoriously porous. That, coupled with lax law enforcement, makes it a busy transshipment point for traffickers.

But the crime wave that gave rise to the phantoms was different. It can be traced to the escape of five high-profile inmates from the Georgetown Prison on Feb. 23, 2002. Using knives to overpower guards on the night shift, the prisoners fled through an open gate, hijacked a car and disappeared. They were joined by others, including Rawlins, nicknamed "Fineman," in a loose network of gangs. A rash of robberies, carjackings, murders and kidnappings followed. The head of security for the U.S. Embassy was abducted while playing golf in 2003 and released after a ransom was paid.

The violence took on the overtones of political resistance when the escapees declared themselves "The Five for Freedom" and stated their mission was to defend the rights of the Afro-Guyanese. One of the escapees even appeared on TV in military fatigues, proclaiming he was a freedom fighter. There were numerous shootouts with police and security forces, who appeared outgunned. Officers were killed not only in gun battles, but also in what appeared to be targeted hits while commuting to or from work. At least 25 officers were killed from 2002 to 2006, pushing the department into a siege mentality.

President Jagdeo conceded that the country's police were ill-equipped to handle this year's paramilitary-style attacks of the Rawlins gang and others. "The nature of crime has changed dramatically," he said in a brief interview in May inside the wooden barracks-style building that serves as the Office of the President. "They've become more sophisticated." The country's police continued to use antiquated methods to fight back, he said. "We use human intelligence instead of technology. Our laws are sometimes outdated." As an example he noted that there is no witness protection program in Guyana. He declined to comment on the phantoms.

Within a year of their breakout, the escapees and their accomplices started turning up dead. Police never found witnesses or made any arrests. Rumours circulated that government-sanctioned hit squads had started hunting criminals after the 2002 kidnapping and ransom of an Indo-Guyanese drug dealer. They were further fuelled in December 2002 when an army patrol stumbled upon Shaheed "Roger" Khan, a wealthy businessman, sitting with a police officer in a vehicle containing high-tech weapons and surveillance equipment capable of intercepting phone calls. According to press accounts at the time, Khan explained they were tracking the escapees. The men were detained, but the case was dropped. (Khan is currently in a U.S. jail on drug trafficking charges.)

By October 2003 four of the prison escapees had been murdered. A government official conceded at a press conference that a "phantom force" appeared to be on the loose. The name stuck.

More damning evidence of possible government complicity came around the same time, when a man named George Bacchus arrived at the home of Georgetown lawyer and opposition politician Raphael Trotman. "In essence he confessed he had been part of a killing squad," Trotman recounted in a recent interview. "Not in actually killing, but in locating suspects and fingering them. Others would do the killing." Bacchus explained that he was talking because he had fallen out with the gang and wanted to protect himself. And Bacchus had a bombshell; he asserted that the minister of home affairs, Ronald Gajraj, who was in charge of the country's law enforcement, was in constant communication with a member of his gang, Axel Williams.

In the months that followed, both Williams and Bacchus's brother were killed, the latter apparently in a mistaken attempt on Bacchus's life. Many saw the murders as attempts to kill witnesses who could expose Gajraj. Bacchus sought safety by going public. He told reporters he was willing to testify in the investigation into his brother's death. But before he could, he was shot dead in his bed on June 24, 2004. Police arrested two business associates and blamed the matter on a financial dispute. But after the murder, TV's Capitol News received an anonymous package containing phone records of calls between Gajraj and Williams.

Even before Bacchus's death, President Jagdeo had appointed a commission to investigate. Gajraj subsequently admitted he talked to Williams regularly, but only because he was so fed up with the police department's incompetence that he was forced to use an outsider to gather intelligence to use in the fight against crime. The commission verified calls throughout 2002-2003 between the two men, 59 in June 2003 alone, but couldn't find proof that Gajraj was directly involved in any extrajudicial killings. He was reinstated to his post amid protests from, among others, the U.S. State Department, which released a statement noting that "significant questions remain about his involvement in criminal activities." The Canadian government promptly revoked Gajraj's visa. The Jagdeo administration appointed him high commissioner to India and whisked him out of the country.

The commission of inquiry's report on Gajraj, released in the spring of 2005, was the last official word on the phantom killers, whose victims are estimated to be in the hundreds. In 2006, Roger Khan travelled to neighbouring Suriname, where authorities promptly arrested him and extradited him to the United States on charges that he ran an organization that imported cocaine into America. After his arrest, Khan claimed through his lawyers that he was officially working with authorities to fight crime in Guyana, an assertion the Guyanese government has denied. In court documents, the U.S. Justice Department called Khan the leader of a paramilitary group of enforcers "commonly known as the Phantom Squad."

Khan's arrest ushered in a period of relative calm, until a pregnant 18-year-old named Tenesha Morgan disappeared after leaving her home in January of this year. Her unborn child's father was Rondell Rawlins, and in a telephone call to the daily paper Kaieteur News he blamed the phantoms and vowed violence if she wasn't returned. Morgan has not been heard from since. In March, Rawlins' sister was killed. A new cycle of violence had begun, one that would not end for months.

Meanwhile, Khan's trial, scheduled to begin in October, was eagerly awaited by many as a hearing on the government—as people waited to see what links between Khan and the government emerged. But in early September, two of Khan's expensive New York lawyers, Robert Simels and Arienne Irving, were charged with conspiring to have witnesses killed on their client's behalf. A Khan cohort-turned-informant recorded calls, among them one in which the lawyer is heard saying that the government's case would fall apart if one witness is "neutralized by us [pause] or neutralized by us on cross-examination." The trial is delayed indefinitely.

V.S. Naipaul would not have been surprised.

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