Thursday, November 23, 2006

I haven't blogged decently for a wee while but there are a couple of social phenomena, increasingly virulent here in the last few months, that the rest of the world really should know about. They are to a certain extent related, and although they are apparently "bad things", they may yet bring about some fundamental changes in the way the Mozambican state (dis)respects its people.

The first is the almost exponential rise in public lynchings. Just to be clear about terminology here, in the Maputo area, a "lynching" means that a crowd of locals chase, grab, beat (if he is lucky, into unconsciousness) someone, then give him a tyre necklace, douse him with petrol, and burn him alive. No-one survives. Basically, once you have been accosted, you are already dead, the only question is how and how agonisingly you die. Several hundred of your assailants will keep any nearby police at bay, should they even want and have the courage to try and intervene.

This may seem horrible, but when you see at first who started off the lynching frenzy, you can understand, even if you don't agree. In one case, a man who had brutally raped three women in his local area, and three times been caught and taken to the police station, was always set free soon afterwards after paying the appropriate bribes. The fourth time he raped someone, he was caught and once again taken to the police station and put in a cell. Once again he got out in short order after greasing a few palms. But this time the locals ("populares" in Moz portuguese) were ready. 300 people had waited outside the police station because they knew he would get off Scot-free. As soon as he came out, the police were warned off and he was apprehended and lynched. The next day, the private TV stations showed his burnt corpse, although the state broadcaster managed not to.

In a second "trigger" case, a known local gangster was caught for the nth time, after holding up a market stall. As he and his sidekick were being frogmarched to the police station, they started to laugh, insulting and threatening their captors - "just you wait - we'll be out in a jiffy - and then we'll come back and get you, really f*ck you up". At some point someone snapped, frenzy set in, and the two never made it to the station alive.

What do I mean by "trigger" case? Well, the first few were all like the examples I gave above - "cut and dried" cases of well known evil fucks getting their just deserts. But since then, the phenomenon has taken off - petty thieves, suspect characters walking around at night, whatever - as soon as someone shouts "thief", doors will spring open all around and poor, enraged locals will rush out armed with whatever they can find.

And of course, if you ever study this kind of thing in history, it always ends up being abused. The Inquisition, scottish witchhunts, the Indonesian slaughters, even in some parts of Rwanda during the genocide - once the vigilante mood sets in, the sharp guys quickly start using it to get rid of rivals - and women to get rid of their husband's mistress - etc.

Even more worrying, it has happened before here - in the early nineties when the civil war ended and the country was struggling to get back on its feet, this phenomenon was very common. Nina and many of my friends and colleagues have all confirmed, too, that abuses of the system and false accusations were indeed commonplace.

The sad thing is, it was all very foreseeable. I remember distinctly one of my colleagues shaking his head, a couple of years back, as we discussed yet another violent crime on the outskirts of Maputo.
"You mark my words", he said "if this doesn't get sorted out soon - the lynching will come back - just you wait and see".
Others nodded their heads in agreement.

And now it is here. Why? The core reason, is the fundamental incapacity of the Mozambican state either to reform the police, or at least to get them to do something - ANYTHING - useful, instead of preying on society. They really are a national joke, loathed, feared, derided and yet in some ways pitied, all at the same time. And unlike in many other more established nation-states where civilian alternatives have grown up, here the ruling (read: single) party has such a fear of anything which might challenge its grip on power, that it has blocked any such initiatives. A few years before I got here, the govt. sponsored a neighbourhood watch program. At first it went well, and several local associations were formed. But soon afterwards, the gangsters regrouped and began to fight back. Not surprisingly, the neighbourhood associations demanded the right to carry guns or at least sticks on their night patrols. The govt balked at this thought and the initiative was quietly left to die.

Which brings me to my other topic - the spiralling internal war within the Maputo police force. There are many other indicators of the desperate state of the police all over the country -
- 4 cops from Maxixe currently on trial for stealing TWENTY TONNES of dope from a confiscated stock they were supposed to be guarding. They bundled it into a transit van and drove it off. They were only caught by chance.
- 80 police trainees who were sacked before completing their course, after it was discovered they had falsified their entry documents (ID card, school certificate, etc.)
- several hundred candidates for the police who were forced to do an HIV test, despite the fact that in 2003 Moz passed a law explicitly forbidding such testing for an employer. When questioned by the press, the city police chief just talked about everything but the actual law.

...however the most systematic and worrying trend is the dozen or so apparently related shooting deaths over the last 4 months, which have taken place almost exclusively within a specialist brigade - the Mambas - rather akin to the UK's Special Branch crossed with MI5. Consistent facts are only gradually coming to light, but what appears to have happened is that this squad - the "heavy mob" of the Maputo cops - enjoyed a long heyday under the previous-but-one minister of the interior. They were the dudes, they had the dirt on everyone, and they walked the walk. Rather like Kurt Russell's LAPD hard squad portrayed in the film "Dark Blue".

Anyway this minister was eventually replaced after enormous public pressure given that he was basically a bad mofo. His substitute, although as it turned out perhaps did more long term harm to the country, was a more suave and subtle operator. He didnÂșt want trouble and was building up his own structures - so he saw the Mambas as a threat to all this. Gradually he weakened them and brought them down from their privileged position.

The upshot was, the Mambas turned to other sources of power and privilege - most notably, alliances with the gangs they were supposed to be chasing. Basically they got a montly retainer for never managing to seriously catch anyone. This became fairly common knowledge. Serious criminals were only caught when they had the stupidity or temerity to rob a Judge's house or rape a minister's daughter. Then they were magically caught and shot to pieces within days.

Recently all that changed, as the new president replaced even this minister (after discovering that he could not account for EIGHTY PERCENT of his department's budget during his tenure). The current minister appears to have a genuine desire for reform, but at the same time be WAY out of his depths in the sea of competing organized crime outfits that is the Ministry of the Interior.

With all this confusion with the police, the gangsters appeared to want to get their own back on the Mambas and assassinated their boss very publicly a few months back. After this, the various subgroups within the squad seem to have started striking out on their own, and are competing - violently - for the protection racket business. Just in the last month, there have been 3 mysterious drive by shootings in the suburb of Maputo. In all cases, armed out of uniform police, waiting in a certain place in a certain car, have amazingly been victims of drive-by machine-gun slayings, by other policemen both in and out of uniform who bystanders never seem to be able to identify.

Hmmm. At least for the moment they seem to be leaving non-cops out of it.

Rule number #1: if you see a cop on the streets of this town, cross the street as soon and as discreetly as possible. Walk past calmly, without looking in his direction. To speak in american, "you never know what shit he's going to pull, and you sure don't want to find out either". Upon reflection, very like avoiding neds in glasgow in the wee hours of sunday morning. Except they generally only have chibs instead of AK47s.

Well, that's it for today - have just finished upgrading to the latest version of Ubuntu Linux, so will go and try it out.

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