Often overlooked in regional security assessments, South America’s only English-speaking country is rapidly becoming a hotspot for organized crime.
Guyana’s security situation is often eclipsed by the level of organized crime in two of its neighbors, Venezuela and Suriname. The first has become the main transit country for Colombian cocaine, and the president of the latter is a convicted narcotics trafficker accused of leading an international drug cartel.
However, a new study (.pdf) by the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey argues that Guyana has been plagued by street gangs, political corruption and drug traffickers, and has been for most of its recent history. Alarmingly, there are indicators that citizen security in the country is worsening. While the per capita homicide rate is much lower than South America’s average (26 homicides per 100,000), United Nations statistics indicate that it has risen from 10.1 in 2000 to 18.4 homicides per 100,000 in 2010. The incidence of other crimes is also on the rise, and Guyanese police officials say that street gangs are fueling the trend.
Perhaps the most infamous gang to emerge from Guyana was led by Rondell “Fineman” Rawlins, a gang leader who directed a string of armed robberies and murders in the mid- to late-2000s, culminating in 2008 when Rawlins “declared war” on the government after accusing police of kidnapping his girlfriend. As part of this campaign, he attacked two villages and three police stations, murdering at least 23 people before officials killed him in a shootout.
Despite the high-profile attacks conducted by Rawlins, most street gangs in Guyana are small, and do not have the organizational capacity of other groups in the hemisphere. They also lack the strong group identity of Central American gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha or Barrio 18. According to the Small Arms Survey, Guyanese gangs “do not have identifiable gang signs, tattoos, clothing, initiation rituals, or ‘codes’.” They generally form only with an explicit criminal venture in mind, and frequently do not maintain strong geographical control of neighborhoods or regions of territory.
But not all Guyanese gangs are so disorganized. Like the “posses” of Jamaica, some have ties to the country’s two main political parties, the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) and People’s National Congress (PNC). These “political gangs” reflect the strong ethnic divisions in the country between the Indo-Guayanese majority (which generally favors the PPP) and the Afro-Guyanese minority (which generally backs the PNC). Officials in both parties use their associated gangs to intimidate political opponents, and commonly cite opposition-affiliated gangs as reasons to support harsh police crackdowns against members of the other ethnicity.
Guyana is also home to relatively large-scale drug trafficking organizations, which make it a significant transit nation for cocaine bound for Europe and the United States. Guyanese customs officials claim that as much as 60 percent of the cocaine which enters Guyana is smuggled across the western Venezuelan border. From there, it is usually exported on commercial freight vessels, most of which leave from the shipping hub and capital city of Georgetown. According to the US State Department’s recently-published 2012 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR) drug traffickers are increasingly moving their product east on to Suriname.
Although the Guyanese government has downplayed the influence of drug trafficking organizations in the country, they have developed important strategic connections within the police force and judicial system, which allow them to operate with relative impunity. Guyanese drug kingpin Shaheed “Roger” Khan, for instance, reportedly had several active duty police officers on his payroll before he was arrested and deported to the US in 2006. According to Amnesty International, they acted as enforcers for Khan’s organization, torturing, “disappearing” and killing more than 200 people between 2002 and 2006.
Guyana doesn’t yet suffer from the urban gang violence seen in Venezuela; nor is the government known for its openness to criminal interests, as is the case with Suriname. But the country is clearly not immune from many of the same trends afflicting the region. Several US drug officials have predicted that security crackdowns in Mexico and Central America will make the Caribbean route more attractive to international drug traffickers in the coming years. If their predictions prove accurate, then there is a definite risk that the situation in Guyana could deteriorate.