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– why we must ensure this dastardly phenomenon does not raise its head again
It is difficult to ignore and or hold back one’s pen whenever one encounters social media reactions by some persons to the death of individuals who the press and the police label as ‘thiefmen’ or ‘bandits’. Despite the facts appearing murky and smacking of foul play, numerous comments still insist: ‘great work Guyana Police Force’, ‘kill them’, ‘you live by the gun, you die by the gun’. Oftentimes, there is little consideration for the possibility of these developments being cases of extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions.
Because of this, it is an opportune time to remind all and sundry that in times of rising crime and a fed-up population, a natural appetite for extrajudicial killings and vigilante justice will understandably emerge but it makes no one safe. When criminals run rampant with their brazen acts of violence against innocent hard-working civilians, the citizenry will pick up their pick forks and torches and demand blood by any means necessary. In this, it is extremely difficult to cool passions and ask victims who have had knives and guns placed to their heads to be rational. However, as difficult as it may seem, rationality must be embraced to ensure that during our haste, we do not create more insecurity and become less safe. To achieve this noble objective, we must stick steadfastly to the belief that extrajudicial killings make us less secured. It should never be considered as an option.
LESS SAFE: THE TARGET SQUAD EXAMPLE
I am certain, case studies after case studies will corroborate the general thrust of the point being made here. However, no need to look very far because Guyana’s recent history of extrajudicial killings provides a treasure trove of evidence that demonstrates that no society achieves good public security by utilizing this dangerous method. Exhibit A: in response to the rising crime during the mid – 1990s, there was the formation of the Guyana Police Force Special Target Squad whose members donned black military fatigues and rightly earned the moniker, the ‘Black Clothes’. The political directorate boasted that this new robust unit was the panacea needed to solve all crimes and secure the population. The President gave his support, the Minister of Home Affairs puffed his chest and the Police Commissioner was beaming with confidence. From the onset, it was clear that the squad and its enablers proceeded from the dangerous assumption that once you kill enough alleged ‘criminals’, fear will spread throughout the criminal underworld and crime will be reduced and possibly disappear.
To the cataclysmic contrary, in a short period of time, the squad which was led by the fearsome Sergeant Leon Fraser, reigned terror on what they called the criminal underworld, killing 240 people in dubious circumstances over 20 years. Fraser was hailed by some sections of the society as Batman who had come to save Gotham but in reality, he was El Sabah Nur of X-Men:Apocalypse.
Those who monitored the affairs of this unit provided evidence that showed that they operated with impunity and killed at will without an iota of adherence to due process and as a consequence, made the society less safe. Not only was crime increased, the ‘Black Clothes’ became a main source of crime. Proof of this was uncovered in the trial of the Vice Consul of the US Embassy in Guyana, Thomas P. Carroll in 2000. Carroll was convicted of selling 250 tourist visas at US$8000 apiece and admitted under oath that the Target Special Squad was his private army that executed and kidnapped clients who became recalcitrant. Added to this, they were used by the police directorate to spread fear in constituencies that did not support the government of the day.
While the criminal activities of the Target Squad are important to note, for all intents and purposes of this column, their commitment to summary executions as a solution to make society safe, remains the key focus. They are forever a negative example for posterity and serve as a constant reminder that extrajudicial killings make us less safe.
THE PHANTOM DEATH SQUAD EXAMPLES
On February 23rd, 2002, the customary revelry and celebratory Republic Day mood on Vlissingen Road was dashed when whispers of a jailbreak permeated the social air. Most were hoping that it was just another good old Guyanese rumor. Sadly, it was not. Five dangerous criminals escaped from the Camp Street prison and ushered in one of the most deadly periods in Guyana’s history. The escapees immediately began to spread terror in the society and even the members of the police force locked their doors early. Kidnappings, executions, robberies and more became the order of the day. As a consequence, the national appetite for summary executions reached its apogee. The people were not too concerned about lawful arrests, charges, trials and convictions. They wanted blood and bodies with little questions asked. In response to this demand, if the reports are to be believed, a few businessmen determined that the formation of a killing unit might just suffice and the horror show started. Bodies popped up everywhere and Guyana became a war zone. Owing to this, Stabroek News referred to 2002 as ‘the year Guyana lost her innocence’.
In 2002, at his weekly Post-Cabinet briefing, the bespectacled and heavily beard-laden, Dr. Roger Luncheon coined the phrase ‘Phantom Squad’. He expressed concerns, based on intelligence, about the existence of a killing squad. His ‘concerns’ were vindicated when the well-oiled, financed and state-protected squad began to manifest their vigilante justice premised on the view that summary executions are the best form of public security.
Running dangerously adjacent to this development, was the existence of the Death Squad which George Bacchus alleged was under the direct control of the Ministry of Home Affairs. Again, treacherously poised on the false premise of no man, no problem. The confessions of George Bacchus submitted that the government compiled a list of ‘criminals’ and passed it to the death squad who executed at will. Of course, the short-sighted strategy took Guyana to its lowest public security ebb since its independence. Once criminals start to believe that the system will not bring them to justice, they become more violent, more armed and more ruthless. As such, we are less safe.
The foolish Phantom Squad and Death Squad strategy never worked and will forever remain etched in the ignominious halls of bad national memories which remain as a permanent caution: extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions make no one safe.
THE ‘KICK-DOWN-THE-DOOR’ BANDITRY’ EXAMPLE
Regrettably, some proponents of summary executions as an efficient crime fighting tool often refer to the 1980s experience with ‘kick-the-down’ banditry and the subsequent response by the state. During the 1980s, the crime wave was characterized by the phenomenon of ‘kick- down-the-door’ banditry. Criminals brazenly kicked down the doors of citizens and terrorized unsuspecting victims in violent and sadistic efficiency. Society could not sleep and naturally, they became desirous of any response that could restore basic security. Relief came in 1985 when Desmond Hoyte became President and activated the hangman. Legal executions resumed and this phenomenon disappeared.
Now, some point to this example to illustrate the point of executions being an efficient solution to crime-fighting. It has to be apparent to anyone with basic intelligence that there is an inescapable distinction between legal executions and extrajudicial executions. According to Guyana’s Constitution, the death penalty can be imposed after persons have been found guilty of murder after a thorough due process. This is completely different from summary executions. There can be no comparison.
Extrajudicial killings make us less safe, a society is always better served when suspects are arrested, charged and convicted via the legal process.