The Spiraling Crime Wave: Fear of Criminal Victimization Grips the Nation

No place could be regarded as safe in Guyana. Street crimes like robbery have invaded homes and brutalized victims with reckless abandon. Even in police’s custody, things go wrong and things go missing! At least 7 of every 10 Guyanese say that they live in fear of being criminally victimized. Many of them say that every night when they go to bed, they worry about criminal victimization.

The Spiraling Crime Wave: Fear of Criminal Victimization Grips the Nation

No place could be regarded as safe in Guyana. Street crimes like robbery have invaded homes and brutalized victims with reckless abandon. Even in police’s custody, things go wrong and things go missing! At least 7 of every 10 Guyanese say that they live in fear of being criminally victimized. Many of them say that every night when they go to bed, they worry about criminal victimization. When will this mayhem stop? Guyanese are looking for answers from the Public Security Minister, who has been criticized by former Attorney General Anil Nandlall as ‘reacting’ to the crime problem rather than becoming ‘pro-active.’ The FITUG (Federation of Independent Trade Unions) says that the subject Minister seems to be at a loss over the crime problem.        

The killing of 3 bandits in Black Bush Polder by the Police’s SWAT Team as well as the recent killings of a few women by their husbands, has cast the crime problem into the center of the radar again. While having a lively discussion on the Black Bush killings in the social media, we have learnt of an execution-style murder of a man at Mandela Ave, opposite East La Penitence Police station. Also, there was a home invasion perpetrated by 4 armed bandits at a family party that was held in Grove, East Bank Demerara. It’s no wonder that the news of criminal activities has been dominating the media headlines in Guyana.

One aspect of crime, i.e., domestic violence, has also reached epidemic proportion. Another woman was stabbed to death by her husband in Essequibo last week, while the murder of Zaila Sugrim has ignited a sharp debate on the gravity and prevalence of domestic violence. The Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA) stated a decade ago that Guyana had become a violent society. Current evidence suggests that this label remains valid today, as violence is  pervasive and seems to be spiraling out of control.

The attitude of criminals and of Guyanese towards crime must be placed into perspective. When a Hindu Priest and his son were brutally murdered at their home in Campbellville, Georgetown, in what was believed to be a contract killing, that horrible act sent a chilling message to peace loving Guyanese that nothing or no one is beyond the reach of criminals. What is even more troubling is when a criminal and not God, decides if you or I should live or die.    

Minister Khemraj Ramjattan has been in the habit of quoting figures that the crime rate is down compared with the previous period last year. What is critical is not necessarily how many crimes have been committed but rather the gravity and pattern of such crimes and what impact these have on the families and the wider community. The public is not moved by utterances such as  there has been a reduction of crime when they know differently.The primary responsibility of any government is to protect life, liberty and property.      

With respect to the killing of the 3 bandits at Black Bush, the police have earned much praise from the public, including people in social media. However, family members of the slain bandits are skeptical and wonder why they (bandits) were not arrested instead of being killed. Family members also claim that they never knew that the 3 men killed were involved in robberies/killings, since they always claimed that they had been “working.” Notwithstanding, the police believes that they have broken the backbone of a major criminal gang which has been terrorizing several families in the Corentyne.  

Ironically the police action at Black Bush brought some relief to many PNC supporters when they learnt that the bandits were Indians. They claim that Indians have always blamed Blacks for the commission of robberies. Now they have some evidence to dispute that position: the victims and perpetrators were of the same race, Indians. It’s not surprising that race is injected into every aspect of social life in Guyana. The hostile political climate in Guyana does not lend to dispassionate and sober analysis. Race reductionism has become a major pre-occupation of Guyanese at almost every event.

This race reductionism thesis has been building up gradually over several decades and no serious attempt has been made to curtail or minimize its growth. This has allowed for the simultaneous advance of the ethnic security dilemma (ESD). It is this (ethnic insecurity) more than anything else that drives a wedge in attempts at unity, healing and reconciliation. This (ESD) is a massive challenge for Guyanese leaders. Who or which group among them will be able to rise to crush the curse of race hatred and bigotry?

There are those advocates, including President David Granger, who have argued for an understanding of the causative factors in criminality. They believe that the crime problem cannot be effectively addressed unless the causes or motivation for criminal behavior are known. Unless such causative factors are identified, the society will be dealing mainly with the symptoms of the problem. It cannot proceed to the next level to implement a “cure.” In medicine doctors first identify and then treat symptoms and causes.   

The root causes of crime are complex. There is no one factor. But while multiple factors combine to produce a deviant response, there is usually one factor, such as ‘relative deprivation’ or wide ‘income disparity,’ that serves as the trigger. Analysts believe that crimes against property tend to respond to the economic condition into which people are located. The theory goes like this: “in times of economic distress, robberies/thefts tend to increase. The corollary is that in prosperous times, property crimes tend to fall.” How valid is this theory? We know from past research that where everyone is poor there is very little incentive to steal. However, where poverty and wealth exist side by side, then that situation tends to breed alienation, resentment and envy that are transformed into greed which expresses itself in stealing. .  

A 2016 London School of Economics study states: “income differences create an incentive for those relatively poor to steal from richer households.” This disparity, whether real or imaginary, helps in large measure to explain the high level of corruption in Guyana. There seems to be high tolerance of corruption to such an extent that it has emerged into a sub-culture.. Telecommunications Minister Cathy Hughes refers to this sub-culture of corruption and indicates that corruption is pervasive at every layer of Guyanese society.   

What’s also fascinating is that people who are well-to-do and steal, tend to develop what is known as “techniques of neutralization” to minimize or eliminate their guilt. This is evident in politics. When a government official or minister is accused of corruption, his/her supporters are likely to say, “who is more corrupt that the previous officials and ministers?” They hardly focus on the intrinsic nature of the act but rather try to explain it away by reference to previous acts of that nature.   The criminals will also rationalize their position by saying, “if the higher ups are stealing, why shouldn’t we?” The criminals tend to view the system as being rigged against them.               

Income inequality does not only relate to property crimes but also to violent crimes. A 2002 World Bank paper, for example, found strong correlations between income inequality and rates of violent crime, both within countries and between countries. The report says, “High levels of inequality create a permanent underclass forced to compete, sometimes violently, either with itself or with other classes for scarce resources.”

Criminals are for the most part, not necessarily the products of faulty socialization or suffering from any genetic mutation. Rather, they tend to calculate their odds of success at engagement in criminality. Their acts (modus operandi) are carefully conceived and executed. The bandits at Johanna, Black Bush, for example, were well equipped with weapons, live ammunition, and bullet proof vests. The Police must upgrade their skills and intelligence in order to cope with this new structure of criminality. The prison riots, prison arson, and prison break outs are cases where criminals are prepared to challenge the system; by their action they are saying that they want a better deal. The general public view those acts differently; as an apparent break-down of law and order.

 

Fighting crime is everybody’s business. Strong moral leadership is required. The public must be engaged continuously in any crime fighting strategy. As a short-term measure, what is needed is a Conference on Crime and Penal Policy, where all the stake holders can gather under one roof and come up with recommendations. Creating employment for the youth is important, but care must be taken that the vulnerable groups (characterized by hopelessness) must be involved in any employment package. If not, there will be no demonstrable impact on crime reduction. Perhaps this is the reason why the UK funded Citizen Security Strengthening Program (CSSP) has had limited impact.