Bor­der se­cu­rity

Stabroek News Sunday - - EDITORIAL -

It was an ad­ver­tise­ment in this news­pa­per on Thurs­day which drew pub­lic at­ten­tion to the sit­u­a­tion fac­ing Guyanese min­ers in the Cuyuni River. It will per­haps be re­mem­bered that the Cuyuni for a sub­stan­tial por­tion of its course sep­a­rates Guyana from what has been for some time Venezuela’s most law­less state, namely Bolí­var. As is the case on our bank of the river, it is a min­ing area, and has al­ways at­tracted a large num­ber of Guyanese, as well as Brazil­ians in more re­cent times. It has too long been a cen­tre for cross-bor­der cor­rup­tion, with cheap fuel from our western neigh­bour for many years lead­ing the list of smug­gled com­modi­ties. With­out that cheap fuel, Guyanese would find min­ing dif­fi­cult, par­tic­u­larly in the We­namu River.

In an at­tempt to stamp out the il­le­gal trade, the late Venezue­lan Pres­i­dent Hugo Chávez with­drew the mil­i­tary from his coun­try’s fron­tiers, in­clud­ing the Cuyuni, and re­placed them with the Na­tional Ser­vice. They too, how­ever, be­came so cor­rupt, that he was forced to re­vert back to the army. There have been var­i­ous al­le­ga­tions of ex­tra-ju­di­cial killings on their part, par­tic­u­larly against Brazil­ian min­ers, and at this stage it is clear they are not in full con­trol of the state any longer, even though now un­der Maduro, pa­trolling du­ties are shared with the Na­tional Ser­vice.

Of course, the sit­u­a­tion ev­ery­where in Venezuela at present is quite dif­fer­ent from what it was when Chávez was alive, and Mi­raflo­res’s writ no longer reaches fully to any part of our bor­der. The anec­dote from White­wa­ter in our North West ear­lier this year will per­haps be re­called, when some Venezue­lan sol­diers ap­peared on Guyanese soil bear­ing their lit­tle tin of sar­dines, which was all they had left to eat be­cause no pro­vi­sions had been sent from Cara­cas for them in a long time. The Venezue­lan bu­reau­cracy in the pe­riph­eral ar­eas sim­ply does not func­tion nor­mally any longer.

It is no news to any­one that when­ever there is a power vac­uum, some­one will step in to fill it, and in the case of the Venezue­lan fron­tier zones con­tigu­ous to our bound­ary, the force which has set it­self up as a kind of mafia is a group – or more likely groups – of lo­cal ban­dits known as sindi­catos. They are not con­fin­ing their thug­gery to their own na­tion­als, or even those lo­cated only within Venezue­lan land space, but have ex­tended their at­ten­tions to our min­ers.

Ac­cord­ing to the ad­ver­tise­ment in­serted by ‘Con­cerned Min­ers’ a sindi­cato gang has set up a camp about three miles be­low Eter­ing­bang on the Cuyuni River and has been stop­ping all boats trans­port­ing fuel and ra­tions to min­ing camps and de­mand­ing gold and money. They ap­pear to make no dis­tinc­tion be­tween Venezue­lan and Guyanese ves­sels. “This Sindi­cato Gang is heav­ily armed,” the ad­ver­tise­ment reads, “and would fire at our boats if we do not stop. They also have boats and would drive up be­hind us if we do not stop.”

The ad goes on to re­late that an­other gang has es­tab­lished its camp at Bu­tanamo, which is about twenty miles fur­ther down the Cuyuni, and is in­volved in the same prac­tices.

In our edi­tion yes­ter­day, we re­ported one of the min­ers af­fected as telling us that the sit­u­a­tion had de­te­ri­o­rated about two months ago. “It is get­ting real tough for us in this area,” we quoted him as say­ing, “Every time we pass there, these men want their two pints, mean­ing we have to give them 1/5 an ounce of gold.” In ad­di­tion, they had to pay the sindi­catos at every other camp they had es­tab­lished.

Our re­porter also re­ported him as mak­ing clear that the sit­u­a­tion had got worse be­cause the Brazil­ian min­ers paid up, and was quoted di­rectly as say­ing that “They are very in­tim­i­dat­ing. They come af­ter you if you drive past them, and they have high­pow­ered weapons.” Fur­ther­more, ac­cord­ing to our re­port, the Venezue­lan mil­i­tary and Na­tional Guard do not help the min­ers.

The ad did not spec­ify on which bank of the river the sindi­catos had es­tab­lished them­selves, but Com­man­der of ‘F’ Di­vi­sion of the Guyana Po­lice Force, Kevin Ado­nis, told this news­pa­per that they were sta­tioned on the Venezue­lan side. If so, one can only pre­sume that the Venezue­lan armed forces are de­lib­er­ately turn­ing a blind eye to the smug­gling trade, if they them­selves are not ac­tu­ally profit­ing off it, as hap­pened in the past. It may be, how­ever, that our min­ers are labour­ing un­der the il­lu­sion that the river it­self comes un­der Venezue­lan ju­ris­dic­tion, which it does not; for the length of our shared bor­der, the en­tire wa­ter­way is Guyanese ter­ri­tory. As such, there­fore, it is for the Guyanese mil­i­tary to take ac­tion against the sindi­catos when they are out on the wa­ter, not the Venezue­lan mil­i­tary. In fact, any ap­pear­ance of our neigh­bour’s armed services on the Cuyuni would re­quire the prior per­mis­sion of Guyana.

It would seem that the Guyanese author­i­ties had re­ceived information about the pres­ence of sindi­catos in the area, but Com­man­der Ado­nis said he was not sure whether they were sol­diers or mem­bers of gangs, and they could not con­duct a thor­ough in­ves­ti­ga­tion be­cause they were on the Venezue­lan side. This would not ex­plain why they were not stopped by our po­lice on the wa­ter, un­less the Com­man­der too er­ro­neously be­lieves that this is Venezue­lan ter­rain or he is afraid to do so on the grounds of a lack of ap­pro­pri­ate weaponry or thinks it should be a Guyana De­fence Force op­er­a­tion.

For his part, the Ad­min­is­tra­tive Manager of the Guyana Gold and Di­a­mond Min­ers As­so­ci­a­tion Avalon Jag­nan­dan quite rightly said that this was a mat­ter of na­tional se­cu­rity, and the gov­ern­ment needed to act.

The truth of the mat­ter is that you are not in charge of your bor­der if thugs can men­ace and black­mail your cit­i­zens, and are in a po­si­tion to hound them out of the area. You are also not in charge of your bor­der if ban­dits can ply your river at will, stop­ping any boat which they feel like, de­mand­ing pay­ment. You are cer­tainly not in charge of your bor­der if the gang­sters who are per­pe­trat­ing all of these il­le­gal acts are en­camped only three miles down­river from your main army and law en­force­ment base. Just what, one won­ders, is go­ing on? Apart from the odd piece in the state-owned

last week’s ad­ver­tise­ment was the first more com­pre­hen­sive ac­count of what the Guyanese min­ers work­ing on their own side, are fac­ing. Has the gov­ern­ment called in the Venezue­lan Am­bas­sador, lodged a com­plaint with Cara­cas, alerted the UN Sec­re­tary General and his rep­re­sen­ta­tive, Dag Ny­lan­der, to the Venezue­lan gangs ter­ror­iz­ing the Guyanese min­ing com­mu­nity, and pos­si­bly Indige­nous vil­lages as well? But most of all, what is the GDF propos­ing to do about this sit­u­a­tion?

At the end of Fe­bru­ary this year, Pres­i­dent David Granger vis­ited a num­ber of bor­der vil­lages. In Kaikan the Min­istry of the Pres­i­dency quoted him as say­ing: “Fron­tier com­mu­ni­ties are guardians of Guyana’s ter­ri­to­rial in­tegrity and na­tional se­cu­rity. They are our first line of de­fence against any at­tempt at in­cur­sions and in­va­sions.” The Min­istry press re­lease also re­ferred to a num­ber of “ter­ror­is­ing en­coun­ters” the vil­lage had had with the sindi­catos, and said, among other things, that the res­i­dents wel­comed the boost­ing of se­cu­rity in the area by the GDF.

So if the GDF is boost­ing the se­cu­rity of fron­tier vil­lages – as in­deed it should – why is com­ple­men­tary ac­tion not be­ing taken in re­la­tion to min­ing com­mu­ni­ties and on the Cuyuni River it­self? There is no such thing as pro­tect­ing some parts of your bor­der and ig­nor­ing oth­ers, and then as­sum­ing that ev­ery­one will be safe with such a spotty ap­proach.

And what is hap­pen­ing at the GDF base at Eter­ing­bang? Does it not func­tion any more? Has the army ceased to pa­trol the River Cuyuni on a reg­u­lar ba­sis as it used to do? Per­haps it is time the Head of State vis­ited there as well, be­cause there is clearly a prob­lem in the area.

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