Politicians and businessmen are paying gangs in the Maldives tens of thousands of rufiya to assault rivals, damage property, and in some cases have them killed, according to a report into the country’s gang culture by the Asia Foundation.
“Political and business elites exploit gangs to carry out a range of illegal activities that serve their political or business interests in exchange for financing the gangs,” stated the report, which collected data through 20 focus groups and 24 in-depth interviews with gang members.
“This has worrying implications for support for democracy among the young generation as they witness first hand corruption on the part of their political representatives,” the report states.
The research was conducted primarily in the capital Male’, which it describes as having 20-30 gangs, ranging in size from 50-400 members.
Gangs are described as including mainly males aged under-25 years. Of those involved in the focus groups, 63 percent were unemployed, and 54 percent admitted to being drug users – both prominent issues highlighted in the report.
The report cited anecdotal evidence suggesting that the root of gangs in the Maldives was linked to the introduction of heroin to the country in the early 90s.
“Gang members report that in the early 1990s, foreigners (purportedly Indians) gave away free packets of heroin (locally called brown sugar) that contained directions for use,” read the report.
“Subsequently drug users, through involvement in gangs, supported their drug habits by the sale of drugs and other criminal activities,” it continued.
The report also draws strong links between the introduction of political parties during the last decade’s democratic reforms, and the escalation of gang activity.
“Democracy is not working… people do not know what democracy is… even politicians do not know what it really is… there is too much freedom… people do not know how to use this freedom,” the researchers were told by one gang member.
Politicians are described as being involved in symbiotic relationships with gangs, who depend on the gangs to suppress opponents and carry out tasks to help maintain their popularity or to divert media attention from political issues.
“Politicians have asked us to cut the TVM cable for MVR 25,000 (US$1620), to light up a bus for MVR 10,000 (US$650). Also in the recent political riots we were involved in things like burning the garbage collection area,” said one gang member.
“We were given some amount of money, two of us and the 10 people who accompanied us were paid some amount, we had to set fire and run from the spot and be seen in another area. We got paid to do this by a political group. Sometimes in return for the work we do, we also get to party in their safari boats with girls and alcohol,” they added.
In other cases, gang members were paid MVR 20,000 (US$1230) to destroy shop windows.
Interviewees also stated that being offered immunity from prosecution was normally part of this deal.
Leaders, who deal directly with the politicians, were reported as earning up to MVR 1 million (US$65,000) a month via such activities.
One member even described instances where murder contracts were handed out.
“We may be given a file with all the information about the person and be told and told we may be paid in millions to carry out the killing,” explained one member.
Stabbings are commonplace and knives have become increasingly prevalent. Gun crime remains negligible, however one of the researchers was told by a gang member: “It is my fantasy to possess a gun, I had once saw a small pistol, I had it under my bike seat, it was planted but I returned it (I knew who it belonged to), that day when I saw the pistol I was so scared, but now I want a gun and I frequently fantasise of going on a killing spree, I have in my mind all those whom I will kill.”
Based on the interviews conducted, the report said that there was no evidence linking gangs to religious groups. Instead, gang members were contemptuous of the country’s religious leaders.
A lack of jobs was cited as one of the major reasons for young people to join gangs.
The report highlighted problems with the legal process, which produces a criminal record – which cannot be cleared for five years –even for minor offences.
“Due to police record, we can’t get a government job,” said one interviewee. “When government does this, the private sector usually does the same.”
“Hence it’s hard to get a job if a person has a police record…so join a gang to earn money,” they said.
Whilst the minimum wage in the Maldives is MVR 2,600 (US$170), the report states that a gang member can receive up seven times this amount for illegal activities such as breaking a shop window.
Young people who opt to leave school at 16 are also described as particularly vulnerable to gang association as they are not seriously considered for employment until they turn 18.
The report did find some evidence that some gangs do attempt to find legitimate work for their members.
“We try and help the younger generation… Show them the right path… we are very proud of this… some members have respectable posts in government and some run their own business,” one gang member said.
This strong group ethic was mentioned in the report of one of the primary reason for gang membership, with the group providing a surrogate for social welfare and dysfunctional families.
Gangs were also described as providing a strong sense of identity for its members. This status is also closely linked to violence, which large gangs can then provide members with protection from.
In conclusion, the report recommended that changes be made to the way minor offences are recorded as criminal complaints.
It also argued that better re-integration programs for convicts, as well as more drug rehabilitation and vocational training programs, might help alleviate the country’s gang problem.
The report also said that greater empowerment for young people would help to generate alternative opportunities for work and that better family counselling might help potential gang members cope with death and divorce.