Sunday 1st May, 2005

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For T&T’s Wild West, a cautionary tale

The name of Guyana is commonly taken in vain to identify the abyss into which Trinidad and Tobago could heedlessly plunge. “Guyanisation” is the signpost for a dead-end road down which T&T is enjoined not to go.

Still, the anglophone South American republic, christened as West Indian and confirmed as a Caricom team player, exerts powerful fascination. Things happen there, good and bad, on a continental scale.

On the T&T “sister” islands, helpless agony prevails over a murder a day, a kidnapping a week, and fire and the threat of uncontrollable fire in city centres. The police and fire services remain clueless, flat-footed and waterless, as the case may be.

Looking through the louvres of self-absorption, T&T may observe the Guyanese have a more sure-footed and less tortured way of meeting similar challenges.

In the continental Guyanese scale, murder, gun running, kidnapping, corruption and arson may extend beyond T&T comprehension. In 2002-2003, jailbreaks by murderers, and the subsequent gunning-down of policemen threatened to make Guyana terminally ungovernable.

If Guyanese now speak of those conditions in the past tense, it’s because some people there contrived to make things happen. It was dirty work; somebody had to do it; and it appears they got it done.

This is how the period was recalled last week, not by a dispassionate historian but by a major actor, Home Affairs Minister Ronald Gajraj:

“Criminals, crime entrepreneurs and their political accomplices sought to hold this nation to ransom and carried out murderous acts with impunity. Fear stalked the land!”

More than 20 policemen had been murdered, he said. “The Police Force was frequently engaged by unscrupulous and dangerous criminals, armed with machine guns and other high-powered weapons.”

The public lost confidence in the police. In a related parallel with T&T, “the information gathering machinery of the police yielded very little.” He was recounting not the background to his career achievements but defiantly self-justifying considerations.

Mr Gajraj is shortly to become the former Home Affairs Minister.

Under heavy Guyanese and international pressure, he has quit the portfolio, whose T&T equivalent is called National Security.

The political opposition and public opinion organised under “civil society” banners wanted him out. Not because, like T&T counterparts, he appeared ineffective and hopeless. Indeed, for the opposite reasons.

“Wild, Wild West”, said the Guardian’s banner headlines reporting the noontime shooting on the Brian Lara Promenade and the related killing in John John.

So far from rising to claim the role of sheriff, the National Security Minister shut himself in, cowering in prayer to be born again as Minister of Housing.

Not so in Guyana, where barefoot cowboys ride bucking broncos in Rupununi rodeos. As gunfire echoed and blood spilled in Georgetown, Home Affairs Minister Gajraj pinned a badge to his chest, strapped on his guns, and raised a posse.

Mr Gajraj has not told all that he did. But what is known portrayed him as a ruthless and lawless, over-achiever, a fighter of fire with fire, guns against guns.

The minister became too much even for Guyana’s Wild Wild West. He was accused of organising death squads to terminate killer bandits.

The colourful Gajraj story took on ever more lurid hues. A cattle rancher called George Bacchus publicly alleged that the minister had recruited a trigger-happy taxi driver called Axel Williams as both an informer and an executioner.

If the police could not get intelligence, the minister resolved to find it himself; and he was profiled as ready to pay any price. He created resources to act on the intelligence.

Axel Williams, by the time he became the minister’s resource person, had already shot someone dead in a dispute over 20 Guyanese dollars. Relating how the minister and the gunman worked together, George Bacchus said one night Axel Williams phoned the message to the minister’s home, “Suspects identified,” and Gajraj gave the order, “Destroy.”

Six men were shot dead at a Georgetown corner that night.

As reports swirled about his role as organiser of death squads, Mr Gajraj gained a fearsome reputation. The US, Canadian, British and EU missions joined protests demanding his investigation and removal. The US and Canada cancelled his visas.

President Bharrat Jagdeo appointed a commission of inquiry, whose three members pointedly excluded any Indo-Guyanese names. The inquiry found no evidence (better than hearsay) identifying Mr Gajraj as a ministerial Dole Chadee.

But the commissioners denounced his usurpation of the police role by recruiting informers, and giving gun licences to, among others, Axel Williams, a man implicated in at least a dozen killings.

Living and dying by the gun is the rule of the Guyanese Wild West. By the time the commission sat, Bacchus, the finger-pointing rancher, and Williams, the minister’s favourite gunslinger, had both themselves been shot dead.

Nobody sent any memoranda to the commission. It heard only from those witnesses it had summoned by sub-poena.

The commission also obtained records of telephone conversations between the minister and Axel Williams from November 2002 to June 2003. The tapes confirmed a “special relationship between them” but did not capture Mr Gajraj giving the order,“destroy.”

There seemed to be at least one other group involved in contractual killings, the commission said, “since Axel Williams was himself killed by two unidentified gunmen acting in concert.”

In the closing scene of what could be a movie, “Guyana 2005”, Ronald Gajraj may be pictured standing anti-heroically tall over a field littered with the bodies of bad guys. The former minister’s role has already drawn critical acclaim:

“You have displayed superior moral and spiritual values, in serving the people of Guyana, and the Caribbean Indian diaspora. You have been—and would continue to be—a shining example of a brave leader, one who walked the walk, in addition to talking the talk.”

This toast to the fallen Ronald Gajraj, raised by the US-based Caribbean Center for Democracy and Social Justice, resonates loudly in a T&T desperate even for an anti-hero to lead its own fight against crime.

©2004-2005 Trinidad Publishing Company Limited

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