Subject: Protection rackets on the rise in East Timor

Protection rackets on the rise in East Timor

Paul Toohey | April 15, 2009

The Australian

PROTECTION rackets run by so-called martial arts gangs are an increasing part of life in the East Timorese capital, Dili, with up to 20,000 paid-up members available for standover work and rent-a-crowd destruction.

Gang specialist James Scambary will publish today a report on gangs and armed violence in East Timor [], with the backing of Austcare and the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey. It claims gangs are increasing their grip on social and political life in Dili.

Mr Scambary says joining one of the so-called martial arts gangs -- many of which do not actually practise martial arts, but adopt associated insignia and swear gang allegiance -- is a way for the estimated 60 per cent of unemployed male teenagers to find income, status and personal protection.

The report found there were 100 gang-related fatalities in 2007.

Most of the victims died after being hit by rocks or because of attacks with homemade weapons, including darts tipped with poison or battery acid.

Mr Scambary's report claims there are up to 90,000 informal members of gangs, many of which began as clandestine groups under Indonesian rule but, since East Timor's liberation in 1999, have grown and consolidated as young men have failed to find a way in the new order.

Mr Scambary said the fighting in Dili was "public and frequent".

He said that although many gang leaders denied political affiliations, they were closely linked by blood ties to various leaders and were known to have been paid to mobilise as a disruptive force during the 2006 crisis.

"Protection rackets are rife in Timor," Mr Scambary said. "They're a scourge. It's hard to run a business without them. The Chinese shops are a popular target and they also offer security to brothels and gambling dens. But there's a thin line between security and extortion."

Mr Scambary said an apparent lull in troubles after 2007 had allowed the gangs to evolve and develop links with Chinese and Indonesian organised crime syndicates. "There's a booming building trade and gang members are now getting contracts to build buildings," he said. "There's a need to keep an eye on these groups.

"The drug trade isn't big but there is increased human trafficking.

"A lot of the issues of 2006-07 haven't really been resolved and, if things don't improve, the whole thing will break out again. I see the need for the long-term presence of Australian forces here."

Mr Scambary's report says the "most prolific street corner gangs that proliferate through Dili are family based".

The gang violence that featured so heavily in 2006 was "not organised through cohesive, monolithic gangs, but through personal, family, political and clandestine networks", it says.

"The leaders of these gangs cultivate loyalty through patronage such as loans, cigarettes, alcohol or fear," the report says.

"When political parties or business figures need to organise a crowd these figures act as procurers or fixers."

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