Gang violence is threatening to ruin the chance for peace and prosperity in East Timor
THE lethal projectile was a rama ambon, a 20cm dart with a barbed, razor-sharp tip. It is the preferred weapon of Dili's gangs, who often coat them in battery acid. It speared deep into Jose da Silva's chest, stopping a millimetre from his heart. Doubling over with pain, he grabbed the wound and held it to stop the bleeding, then staggered to the main road to get a taxi to hospital.
A week later, lying on his bed in his small airless bedroom, wincing from the incision which doctors made to remove the dart, he says: "I've told my friends not to get revenge. I want the guy who did it - and I know who he is - to face justice. To be arrested and go to court."
But official justice may be slow in coming for da Silva. The police haven't even bothered to interview him, let alone his attacker - something that has become common in East Timor. It's a measure of the power and immunity of the gangs, which many believe now pose a significant threat to the nation's security.
On the surface, East Timor appears to be undergoing a miraculous transformation, thanks to its oil and gas industries and the government's decision to expend revenue from the nation's $5-billion petroleum fund on infrastructure and other projects. President José Ramos-Horta recently announced East Timor had experienced 14 per cent economic growth in 2009 - among the highest rates in the world. And where once burnt-out buildings lay smothered in weeds, a modern city is emerging. A three-storey shopping mall is half-built; a beachside resort is planned; fleets of new government cars hog the streets; and on weekends businessmen take the afternoon air in their European convertibles.
But the development picture is misleading. East Timor is ranked 162nd out of 182 countries in the United Nations' human development index. AusAID, the Australian Government's overseas aid program, says it is estimated that almost half of East Timor's 1 million people live on less than $US1 a day; half are illiterate and more than 40 per cent of young males are unemployed, offering the gangs plenty of recruitment opportunities.
Even on the new construction sites, freshly painted gang signs are daubed - demonic skulls and murals, such as the distinctive four-pointed symbol that designates the PSHT, or Persaudaraan Setia Hati Terate ("Brotherhood of the Faithful Heart of the Lotus Flower"). Formed during Portuguese and Indonesian occupation, the 15 or so major gangs have an estimated membership of around 90,000 and boast names such as Commando or Korka. Australian-based gang expert James Scambary, who compiled a Who's Who of the groups for AusAID in 2006, says many were originally established as a form of resistance to Indonesian rule; others were set up by the Indonesian military as a means to impose order.
Fighting for turf
TO view Dili therough a gang member's eyes is like looking through night-vision goggles: suddenly you see the invisible markers and boundaries that etch out each gang's territory. "See the old fence over there? That is their territory, and the other boundary is the dirt road over here," says Lucio Borgas, signalling the stamping grounds of his enemies, the 7-7 gang, who are fighting for control of the Bairo Pite district. By day Borgas is at college, studying public administration, but after hours he is a member of the PSHT. He trains regularly with the gang, practising their special brand of martial arts, which incorporates Portuguese and Indonesian styles of unarmed combat. The groups imply that their training is primarily for recreational purposes, but the bonds go much deeper. In a dangerous city, gang membership offers security. "I joined in Indonesian times for the sport, but there is more," says Borgas. "There is a doctrine we must follow, and we help one another."
Enhanced by the absence of an effective police and judicial system, by corruption, political ambition and tribal or family loyalties, the gangs' power has long been on violent display, notably during 2006, when the country was on the brink of civil war, and during the 2007 election. Few Timorese can forget the images of hundreds of youths battling on Dili's streets with samurai swords, firing rama ambon darts at each other and burning down rivals' houses.
Unable or unwilling to eradicate them, the government has instead recognised many of the gangs as legitimate martial arts groups, which take part in official competitions. But their activities often go well beyond sport. The gangs have political connections and access to weapons; many of their leaders are linked to serious criminal activity. Others foster cult-like beliefs and practices that appear at odds with the country's Catholic tradition; one gang has latched on to an 11-year-old boy whom they represent as the son of Christ, according to media reports.
Scambary says the gangs represent "a huge problem" that is spreading across the country. "Conflict is breaking out all over Dili in about eight areas," he says. "Not all is gang-related, but there seems to be a new rivalry between PSHT and [another gang] Kera Sakti." Scambary warns that if nothing is done, the gangs will become institutionalised, and East Timor will go the way of Papua New Guinea or Indonesia, with gangs ever more closely tied to political parties that use them as rent-a-crowd thugs. "Already, you see leaders from some of the gangs in 2006 have now got business contracts," he says.
In 2007, the United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor Leste (UNMIT) set up a task force comprising a wide range of stakeholders including the UN, the local police and military to deal with the gangs. When efforts at mediation failed, the task force raided the headquarters of PSHT, arresting its leader and 47 other members and seizing a variety of home-made weapons.
For the Dili locals who live among these groups, they have become a sometimes dangerous but depressingly normal feature of the country's landscape, now intertwined with the concept of traditional justice and rights, and vigilantism.
The power vacuum
Near Comoro, in the city's west, Father Pankras's Catholic Church stands on the front line between some of the most feared gangs in Dili. He says the gangs have been empowered by the authorities' failure to enforce the law. This has led to gangs being called in to resolve the many land disputes in the country, to conduct revenge attacks, and to settle family feuds or clan disputes.
"In 2006, some people were killed and it has not been resolved; and families of those that have been killed will take revenge," Pankras says. "In 1999, the Indonesians abandoned a lot of houses when they left. The problem is, people went and occupied the houses and then [during the riots] in 2006, people left their houses and moved to IDP [refugee] camps; when they came back the house was occupied. It's the root of all the problems," he says. "It's very difficult for us to resolve the problems in the community. Today they seem resolved, but tomorrow they are back again."
Pankras says the gangs are allied with significant politicians. "When political leaders have a big argument, this is picked up at the level of the martial arts groups and they fight on their behalf," he says. "I can't say who is paying them to fight, but martial arts groups have the link to the politicians and the politicians have the link to the martial arts groups."
Aniceto Neves, whose NGO works with gang members to try to encourage non-violent resolution of their disputes, agrees. "Right now there is no justice. Who should be responsible for this violence or attack, the police do not find out. They do not arrest anybody. Both sides feel injustice," he says.
He cites a murder where a gang member from PSHT was killed by one from Kera Sakti, but the killing was related to a land dispute in Baucau, on the other side of the country. "They wear the uniform of the martial arts gang to do the killing," he says. "The police don't catch anybody. It's very hard for the UNPOL [UN police] to do these cases, as only the Timorese police know how to get information."
Following the UN police as they patrol through eastern Dili gives a sense of the difficulty of monitoring gang violence. Blue lights flashing, hazard lights on, a small group of four-wheel-drives weaves its way through the darkened streets. Locals smile to see the convoy. "They often do this. There was some trouble, but it was way over there," says a local.
Another afternoon, the gangs return to Aimutin, where da Silva was wounded. According to locals they block the road and the East Timorese police are called. The rapid response unit arrives but, like ghosts, the gangsters melt back into the back alleys and the police walk pointlessly among the silent shacks for about an hour before leaving empty-handed. "No, it is nothing," says one officer, asked if it was gang-related.
His dismissive attitude is explained a few days later, when our photographer arrives to document a PSHT gang martial arts session (pictured above). Dressed all in black to avoid detection by the UN patrols, the gangsters freeze into invisibility as the police car's spotlight sweeps across their training ground. Some of the participants refuse to have their faces photographed. The reason? They are serving police officers.
An UNPOL spokesman says later that police membership of martial arts groups is not an issue as long as the officers follow the local police code of conduct.
As the corrupt links between gangs, politicians and police solidify, the prospect of a peaceful, settled society developing in East Timor seems to recede. When the UN leaves, it will require "a very strong dictator to stop the gangs", says Father Pankras. "If this problem is not dealt with, the people will live in instability and the nation will be unstable." When dictators are seen as the answer, the battle for stability may already be lost.