Last Thursday the United States renewed its Level 2 travel advisory on Guyana. It advised travelers to exercise increased caution. The US’s four travel advisories range from ‘exercising normal caution’ to ‘do not travel.’ The recent shooting to death of three men at Black Bush Polder, Berbice, and another three men in a home in Norton Street, Georgetown, that they had invaded, is a backdrop to the travel advisory, which is the same level of caution that Guyanese would normally exercise.
Most who live or work in Georgetown avoid certain areas and exercise increased caution even when not in those areas. Most do not wear jewellery or keep it safely hidden on their person. It is not safe for women to walk with handbags or for men to have easily accessible wallets which are easy targets for pickpockets, with the aid of knife or gun. Reports of harrowing incidents fill our daily news and these are only the tip of the iceberg of what happens every day in our streets and homes. Many overseas Guyanese, particularly from Berbice, do not visit Guyana on holiday because of the crime situation. All Guyanese know that visiting relatives are an invitation to bandits, as the Norton Street incident demonstrates.
In response Mr. Joe Harmon, Director of the Ministry of the Presidency said: “I wish to give the assurance to all of our citizens, including those persons who are abroad and making decisions to travel to Guyana. Guyana is a safe place. It’s a safe place to live, it is a safe place to work, it’s a safe place to invest…..” Mr. Harmon was in high praise of the Police who, he said, are capable of dealing with the crime situation. He said: “From the government’s standpoint, we have every confidence in our police officers to be able to bring and keep crime under control and deal with serious criminals when they emerge.” It is to be expected that Mr. Harmon’s political duties require him to make these comments. But these views have no basis in reality.
The Police do not have the capacity to keep crime under control anywhere in Guyana and particularly in Georgetown. Policemen or Police patrols are hardly ever seen in areas where crime proliferates. In the case of serious crime, the public perception is that the Police only become active when there is clear and demonstrable public anxiety as was the case in Berbice, not only recently but in past years, under several past governments. In the case of the Norton Street incident, if the Police did not happen to have been passing, the consequence for the victims of the attempted robbery might have been more serious.
The Police do deserve our support and Guyanese do express that support, even if in inappropriate ways, as when the onlookers cheered, as the bodies of the young men who were killed by the Police in Norton Street, were brought out. While the Police must be commended for its intelligence related successes, which Mr. Harmon stressed, and which is based on public cooperation, there is no evidence to support his confidence in any marked improvement in the crime situation. The pattern of criminal activity is well established since Police began to regularly shoot and kill criminals or perceived criminals from the 1970s. When criminals in Berbice, or some other region or area, are killed, crime subsides for a while. Criminals direct their attention to some other area. Eventually they return to areas where the pickings are perceived to be good. One of those areas is Berbice.
The Ministry of Public Security, reflecting the statements of Mr. Harmon, has said that “community support is extremely necessary.” The past PPP/C government greatly emphasized community policing on which an increasing amount of funds were allocated. There is no evidence that a similar emphasis is exercised by this Government. In any event the achievements of this Government in crime fighting is no better than the past Government. And crime fighting techniques, apart from killing criminals and extracting confessions, do not appear to have advanced to any more sophisticated degree, except in the rare case. There are still complaints that the Police, particularly in outlying areas, are under resourced. When crimes occur, Police are unable to respond because they have no means of transport or are afraid.
But can Police of killings of criminals, however popular, be termed success in dealing with crime? Police killings of criminals started since the 1970s and has increased every year since then, as in Trinidad and Jamaica. The boast about success, based on the killing of criminals, is therefore, empty. The boast about public support, based on a cheering public when criminals are killed, I equally empty.
Guyana has lost a brave and courageous voice in the passing of Andaiye, an educator. For several decades she was a fearless and principled champion in the struggle against authoritarian rule and a noted campaigner for Women’s Rights. Andaiye bore her private health travails with the same dignity that she responded, if at all, to political attacks and discrimination for her public activities. She has served Guyana with selfless and exemplary commitment and distinction.