25th July, 2004  Volume 11, Issue
2

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ISSUES

Operation crime control

By Dharisha Bastians

The alarming crime rate in the country has started causing grave concern once again, with the latest being a spate of brutal murders over a period of days and officials claiming that many of them are carried out by highly organised underworld gangs. Statistics made available by Police Headquarters, Colombo indicate that the crime rate has increased this year in comparison with 2003, with homicides in particular showing a sharp increase in the first quarter of 2004. According to these figures, 1245 murders were recorded around the country in 2003, while in 2004, 433 murders have taken place in the first four months alone. (See box for details)

However, law enforcement authorities maintain that while there has been a ‘slight increase’ in crime in recent months, when compared with two decades ago, the crime rate has remained fairly static.

"There is no sharp increase as such, but it is the nature of crime that has undergone a fairly drastic change," said Director-Crimes Division, Senior Superintendent of Police, Alfred Wijewardena. "In the past, criminals used knives or chillie powder or arrack bottle bombs (dappis) against their targets but these days they use firearms and automatic weapons, making the crimes far more dangerous," Wijewardena added.

According to Wijewardena, in recent times, firearms have become freely available to criminals because of the war in the north and east. He says that it has become very apparent that security forces deserters have a hand in many of the serious crimes taking place around the country today. "They have the weapons and after they leave the security forces they join underworld gangs," Wijewardena pointed out.

Statistics made available by Police Headquarters, Colombo indicate that while it may seem like there is a growing trend of violence and crime in the island, in reality, the increase in rates from as far back as 20 years ago is marginal and in some instances even show a reduction.

"The thing is, crime has come into focus so much of late because of the ongoing ceasefire between the government forces and the LTTE," explained Wijewardena. "The media cannot report on defence so much anymore, so crime is big news," he said.

In an intensified effort to curb crime, Wijewardena said the Police Department has put into place several initiatives including an incentive scheme for police officers who put extra effort into solving crimes and rewards to the general public who might have information about criminal activities or the whereabouts of suspected criminals.

Crime within Colombo

Despite these measures being in force however, the rate of crime, within Colombo City itself appears to be on the rise. Over the past week, four homicides were reported in the Borella and Maradana areas, according to Director, Colombo Crime Division, SSP Sarath Lugoda, who said this latest spate of killings was a result of a clash between two rival underworld groups.

Lugoda said that between January 1 and July 1 this year, 17 homicides have been reported in the City of Colombo alone, with the month of July having been an especially bad month. "We don’t have the records for July as yet but according to reports we have received, there have already been four or five murders this month, many of them having taken place on the last few days alone," Lugoda said. According to him, many of these killings remain unsolved since the killers had fled the crime scene long before the police arrived.

"Crime investigation is not that easy," laments Lugoda, "ours is a third world country and we lack the necessary technical facilities and know how to make our investigations easier and more efficient." According to him, criminals have also become far more sophisticated in recent years, with many of them using firearms to terrorise their victims.

"The underworld remains highly connected and very powerful," he says. "Politicians protect them because they in turn protect the politicians. It is a mutually beneficial relationship between politico and gangster because one cannot survive without the other," Lugoda explained, warning that the underworld phenomenon in the city was reaching dangerous proportions. The fact that certain corrupt police officers can be bought over by politicians and gangsters alike and the battle against money, Lugoda says, is why the Police Department has a hard time fighting crime.

Public assistance

"One of the biggest problems we face is the lack of public cooperation," says Lugoda, who feels that people think assisting in law enforcement was a waste of time unless it affects them directly. "They are afraid that they will have to go to court or become targets themselves in some case but most of the time they can’t be bothered because it is not directly beneficial to them," Lugoda complained.

A lack of community consciousness and public feeling combined with the freedom of movement resulting from the lack of road blocks and security checks around the city and the attitudes of political leaders has contributed to what looks at least, like a drastic increase in violence against society.

Creating awareness

If however, the Police Department feels that the public could contribute to a reduction in the crime rate in a significant way, public awareness campaigns, complete with the assurances of confidentiality and protection are necessary. While posters and cut outs have been placed in several strategic places at Police Headquarters, Colombo and police stations around the country, such awareness raising material is not available in other public places.

For a government that swept in to power screaming about the increase in violence and crime on our streets, politicians have so far kept mum about what appears to be a continuous trend of organised and random criminal activities. The underworld phenomenon if not arrested in time, could result in gang warfare on the streets with far reaching consequences and repercussions.

Crimes reported

Serious Crimes 2003

Homicide                                                  -      1245
Rape and sexual exploitation of children      -      1733
Vehicle theft                                              -      1376

Serious Crimes 2004 (January-April)
Homicide                                                    -      433
Rape and sexual exploitation of children         -      451
Vehicle Theft                                                -      360

(Source: Crimes Division, Police Headquarters, Colombo)

*  *  *

Emergency number soon

Speaking to The Sunday Leader about the crime rate in the country, Inspector General, Police, Indra De Silva said that it was natural that almost 50% of all grave crimes taking place in the island were recorded in the Western Province, because of the problems of urbanisation and population density. According to the IGP, the Police Department has put in place two strategies to combat crime, firstly to weed out underworld criminals and put an end to their activities and secondly to detect illegal firearms and ammunition and confiscate them.

The IGP added that an all island emergency number would soon be in place, for the public to call in as soon as a crime takes place or some information about criminal activities or whereabouts are received. According to De silva, this will make it easier for law enforcement officials to get to the scene of the crime immediately. The new number is expected to be in place and operational within the next two months, the IGP said, adding that he hoped that it would provide an incentive for the general public to be more cooperative with the Police Department in matters pertaining to crime and criminal investigation.

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