The Politics that Governs Gang Violence

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“You can’t compare us (Maldivian gangs) to the ones in the UK or to other countries. We are very different…Maldivian gang violence can be much more brutal and frequent as this is a small community and people can’t hide in places for that long.” – Gang member
(Rapid Situation Assessment of Gangs in Male’ – report by The Asia Foundation published in 2012)

The recent deaths of two 14 year old boys just this Friday (03rd June 2016), has once again stirred the outrage of the public when it comes to the existence of gangs and associated violence, especially in the capital. Calls on the authorities to take action has been pouring in from all sides, while the Home Minister Umar Naseer tried politicizing the issue as he is prone to do so to in order to earn his paycheck.

All the voices will die down eventually in a couple of days as it usually does, because for one, there is not much people can do apart from going onto the streets and playing out their own form of vigilante justice, secondly, the issue is far more complex than the very obvious resultant effect of violence and bloodshed, and thirdly, the law enforcement and the justice system has been in a loop of repeated failure for far too long for it to do an abrupt reversal and start being true to the principles of the establishments in question.

The Numbers

“Before we went out to attack…not to kill, but now… we use Nite 10; 30-40 tablets of 10mg each, drink alcohol and smoke cannabis, then we are numbed out and feel no pain when we kill.” – Gang member
(Rapid Situation Assessment of Gangs in Male’ – report by The Asia Foundation published in 2012)

While research into gangs and resultant behavior has been far and few when it comes to Maldives, The Asia Foundation published  a report on “Rapid Situation Assessment of Gangs in Male’” in 2012 which highlighted the reasons behind the emergence of gang culture in the country. A National Values Survey (NVS) conducted by the Foundation in 2011 brought to light that there existed about 20 – 30 different gangs operating in Male’, with 50 – 400 members in each group. I can only imagine that the numbers must have increased by now.

The research while primarily conducted in Male’, conducted 24 in-depth interviews with gang members and held focus group discussions with gang members as well. The picture that emerged then was a harrowing one at that, with gang members themselves expressing concern about escalating violence.

The website mvmurders.com lists down homicides that have occurred in the country, an attempt to document the lives that has been lost to senseless violence. Though not all of the murders recorded resulted from gang violence, most of it in fact can be attributed to just that. With 57 murders recorded, 49% of them have taken place in Male’, while 12% in other islands within the Kaafu Atoll and 7% in Laamu as well as Haa Dhaalu.

In terms of years, the highest percentage of murders (18%) were committed in the year of 2012 followed by 2015 in which 14% of the recorded murders from 2011 to-date have taken place. 2016 is following closely on the heels of 2015, with 6 murders already recorded, and we have barely made it halfway through the year.

For a country with a population that was recorded to be just 344,023 according to the latest census carried out in 2014, 38% of whom live in Male’; the numbers paint an alarming picture, given the continued inadequacy of the institutions in place to take constructive action to address the issue.

Emergence of Maldivian Gangs

“I had a very rough family… had many problems…my Dad used to beat me up. One time my Dad was so mad at me that he stepped on my neck…I see the gang as my family… they are much better…” – Gang member
(Rapid Situation Assessment of Gangs in Male’ – report by The Asia Foundation published in 2012)

It is only natural that the incumbent home minister be blamed on a large scale for the insensible deaths that has taken place. While I agree that he is indeed responsible in a big way since he has been occupying that position for over 2 years now, the inevitable truth is that the culture and existence of gangs that we see so prominently now, emerged during President Maumoon Abdul Gayyoom’s regime.

President Maumoon’s policies on centralizing development created the cesspool that is Male’ City, which in turn led to the unraveling of socioeconomic differences on a large scale. Thus spurred the establishment, growth and activism of gangs in the country, largely centered in the capital. This culture has been for the most part supported by the elites in the political structure, which is how gangs survive, become stronger and more embedded within the system.

According to the report from The Asia Foundation, one of the core reasons driving youth to join and participate in gang-related activities stems from the widespread breakdown in family structures which made them seek out ways of belonging in order to replace the breakdown of their familial structure. Because they want to turn away from problems at home, they seek out the companionship of the less than savory, which in the end means these children become part of the structure that forms these gangs.

Report also highlighted the weak democratization in certain areas which contributed to the problem. The political and business elite making use of gang members as a means to an end forms the cycle of exploitation and indebtedness that exacerbates the issue. This also means that for the youth, gang related activities also become their way of earning a paycheck – as difficult a pill as it might be to swallow this fact.

Lastly, the report also highlighted on the harsh sentencing carried out for youth committing minor offenses, the resultant effect being increased disillusionment among young people about the system that governs.

Ground Reality

“If one of the gang members is harmed or killed…we will have it in our hearts forever…we will only get peace if we take revenge…we will only be satisfied when we have killed the person.” – Gang member
(Rapid Situation Assessment of Gangs in Male’ – report by The Asia Foundation published in 2012)

A little bit of walk down the memory lane helps form the picture that relates back to the findings of the report discussed above. It was in June of 2008 that “gangs declared peace” in Male’, by announcing a new “alliance” or “peace treaty” in a press conference renouncing violence against each other. According to the press conference, the group would work with the government on issues such as blood donation drives for thalassaemic patients.

If I recall correctly, this was following an increase in violence on the part of gangs, which required the Maldives National Defense Force (MNDF) to come out into the streets to show to the public that they were indeed worthy of their monthly salaries. I also vividly recall one of the officers giving an interview to the press on how they had worked together with the gangs to hammer out this deal. In time, people also forgot.

Since then, gang related murders has become a sort of norm in the country. Periods of violence and lulls that people have more or less gotten desensitized to. The murder of Bobby in 2012 remains forever prominent because he was an innocent killed along the way, a case of mistaken identity.

Stories of how the senior judges of the Criminal Court have special procedures in place when it comes to gang related cases is also something we have heard over time. Police officers who are committed to doing their jobs, compiling evidence and presenting them in court to convict members of gangs on the offenses committed does not seem to make much headway when it comes to an issue that is riddled with corruption and vested interests of politicians.

One has only got to bring to mind an incidence that took place during Abdulla Riyaz’s reign as Police Commissioner, who faced the issue of a police officer that refused to testify against a member of the notorious Masodi gang for doing him harm. I remember Riyaz being livid over it; he might have been one of the executors of the coup in 2012, but from what I saw, he was someone who was big on establishing the police culture within which most law enforcement agencies in other countries thrive. But once again, the politics involved, the fear of being faced with a worse fate meant that even the police officer backed down on giving his testimony to court that would have convicted the gang member.

Moving on, we come to the current home minister’s reign. The man, as pompous as he might be, had a vision of grandeur in tackling drugs and gang related crimes in the city. Investment in the dog squad was one such move. Enforcement of MoniCon (monitoring and control) orders was another.

It was Umar Naseer’s move on former Vice President Ahmed Adeeb, a man who has been pictured many a time with various gangs along with his beloved President and wife, that clipped the wings of the golden unicorn that Umar rides on. His powers as the Home Minister were basically cut down to the point where he could still sound like pomposity itself while twiddling his thumbs at work. This was largely attributed to Umar’s orders to low ranking officers within the police service to investigate then Tourism Minister Adeeb for alleged unlawful activity.

In 2014 Maldives Police Service (MPS) launched an operation to dismantle huts used exclusively by gangs in the capital. The operation however, was a short lived one. What began in August of 2014 was quickly brought to a halt in September when President Abdulla Yameen decided cease the dismantling operation. As he stated it, the operation was being brought to a stop “until a solution could be found after studying the whole problem”. The President also stated that, though the operation had been undertaken with “good intentions”, dismantling the huts alone would not provide a long-term solution. So here is where one needs to ask, where does the long-term solution that the President was hinting at lie? And how soon, if ever,  would we see it?

Recalling the speech that was delivered by the President after jailing ex-VP Adeeb on various charges, which includes the alleged assassination attempt on the President, is also evidence enough of the lack of political will behind the rhetoric echoed by the government on gang violence. On a televised speech, President Yameen confessed that gangs were given money by Adeeb, and that an alternative arrangement needs to be sought when it comes to maintaining that particular line of “friendship” after Adeeb had fallen out of favour.

These I believe were statements delivered by the head of state, live on national television. One has to look no further to realize that gang related violence and other such activities are here to stay, as long as politicians who are in power continue to bankroll, make use of and back them.

One interesting development along the way, before the recent murders took place, was the incidence where Special Operations (SO) officers of MPS ransacked three gang hangouts, with no protocol or official mandate backing this “operation”. Equipment used by gang members were smashed to smithereens, blood was shed, though luckily none of it resulted in loss of lives; the story that emerged was that one of their officers had been threatened by a gang member or something of the sort. I believe threats of the sort must be hurled every now and then and that SO officers are more than able and thick skinned enough to handle a few slurs and insults.

This makes me believe that something more happened, something which their superior officers didn’t want to deal with officially, resulting in the officers taking matters into their own hands. While I don’t condone the act itself, I believe that this hints the level to which the issue of gang related violence and other such crimes has fallen – there is no justice to be had, so might as well take matters into own hands to ensure that the gangs receive the message loud and clear. Do not mess around with SO officers.

Not much news emerged in an official capacity on what took place afterwards. There was talk of SO officers being shuffled here and there, but we all know that putting up with SO is a ‘necessary evil’ by the government of the day, as long as they want a squad of people who would not hesitate to follow orders and beat citizens up. That is the most apt and fitting description of the squad I can come up with.

The news this morning that some 19 individuals apprehended right after the spate of violence took place have all been released is another such example. According to government aligned newspaper Avas, a love triangle seems to have been the reason over which the violence began in the first place. The chilling, matter of fact account from the anonymous gang related source cited on the paper says as much.

Interestingly enough, the police were quick to deny that the arrests made had been in anyway related to the murders that were committed within a span of just a couple of hours. The “lack of evidence” cited is just one of the many proverbial slaps on the face of the public, something which I believe will continue to happen long into the future. At the time of writing this article, a police news conference brought forth the news that two individuals had been arrested over the murders.

Is there a way out of this mess?

“I have tried to get a real job but I have not had any luck. Being in the gang allows me to earn some money. If I get a proper job I will leave the gang life.” – Gang member
(Rapid Situation Assessment of Gangs in Male’ – report by The Asia Foundation published in 2012)

While it is more than difficult to view the road ahead with any positivity, a “solution” such as the one proposed by the home minister is one doomed to fail. Umar Naseer told in an interview given to Avas that there are plans to send off minors involved in gangs to a police training facility, I believe with the hopes of disciplining these children. An issue that is multi-dimensional in nature requires multi-pronged solutions in order for positive changes to emerge.

  1. First and foremost, if any change is to take place, there has to be political will behind it. No social issue can properly be addressed without the backing of the government in place. Solutions requires funds, commitment and policies that can identify and address the various issues that can emerge and change over time. Which is why, with President Yameen at the government’s helm, it is near impossible to see the incumbent regime doing anything constructive regarding the existence and operation of gangs within the country.
  2. The law enforcement establishments needs overhauling in their entirety. There will never exist room for justice nor peace for the people of the country, as long as the police and the court system continues to trample on the rights of the people enshrined in the Constitution and the laws of the Republic. Changes need to happen from within, from the attitudes of the officers in place to rooting out corrupting influences and practices. Though easier said than done, I believe that reforming these key institutions is a necessity that needs to happen for any positive change take root on the ground.
  3. Developmental policies of the government needs to undergo radical changes if we are to stem the social issues owing to the centralization based developmental agenda that is currently in place. Everyone talks about how Male’ City is overcrowded, how social issues are rampant, how families break apart having to make do in congested one room “apartments”, the rising costs of living, the inequality divide that is prominent. All of this relates back to the fact that majority of the population has to shift to the capital in order to seek for better services in terms of education, basic healthcare and beyond. President Mohamed Nasheed’s decentralization policies were a starting point towards giving authority with accountability to provincial zones within the country – a dream long forgotten now. However, I still believe that decentralization is the key towards alleviating the burden of citizens who flocks to the capital – and along with it, the social issues which in the end leads to establishment and existence of gang related activities within the country.
  4. Education is the most powerful tool in empowering people. Which is why the educated always accuse the incumbent regime of despoiling contemporary education policies that could make a difference. Subjects on morality and ethics, education in terms of best practices in Islam are all lacking in our education syllabuses. Furthermore, identifying those kids who are having trouble in dealing with the school environment, the root cause behind kids who are acting out – all this requires teachers to go beyond their mandate and care about the welfare of their students beyond the borders of the classroom and school. This in turn requires that teachers be equipped with the skills to do so, that counselors employed in schools work with students to make a difference. It is a tough and ofttimes a heartbreaking journey for teachers who give their all to the “difficult” students, but I believe that this indeed would make a difference.
  5. Employment opportunities for the youth are crucial, if we are to keep them gainfully employed without having to resort to activities that are at most illegal in nature. Maldivian youth shy away from menial labor that can be classified under the 3D sectors (dirty, difficult and dangerous jobs such as construction). This is the reason why the government needs to identify areas in which youth would be willing to work in, to step up their efforts in vocational training, and ensure that entrepreneurship thrives and is given a fair chance in the economy. All this requires collaborative effort in terms of agencies specialized in youth, education as well as other sectors that could help pave the way forward.
  6. Family counseling services, as highlighted in the Asia Foundation report is also crucial. The stigma associated with seeking counseling, the policy issues related to giving graduates in the field the room to work and grow is essential. Otherwise, family issues that grows out of hand would continue to fester, leaving behind wounds that might never get the chance to properly heal, if ever. All this relates back to young children turning to the next best thing – gang culture within which they find that sense of belonging that should be nurtured within families.

The solutions outlined are just certain areas that I can think of, which requires proper in-depth study, finances and of course commitment and the backing of the political elites if they are to make a difference. I just hope that the people realize that without any of this changing, our country would become intolerable for the generations of tomorrow, the young ones that we are nurturing to lead this country of ours into the future.

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