East Timor's youth gangs have been more than a headache for the nation's new government, flaunting names like Devoted Heart Lotus Brotherhood, Sagrada Familia, Seven-Seven, and El Diablo. Notorious gangsters such as Lito Rambo, Ameu Van Damme, and Kung Fu Master were behind the country's first post-independence outbreak of mass violence in 2006.
But this summer, after riots resulted in 30 deaths and the displacement of around 200,000 people in Dili, the capital, gang violence appears to have subsided as a result of intensified government and NGO initiatives.
The prize for good behavior: a visit by martial artist Jackie Chan. For three days in June, Chan toured East Timor (also known as Timor-Leste) to spread a message of hope and lead thousands of young men and women in martial arts training.
"It does not matter what school of martial arts we are from as long as we are united. Training for martial arts helps you to strengthen your eyes, your mind and your body. When you have a good body and mind, let's help people. Don't harm them," was the message from the real kung fu master.
Chan was the logical choice to help tame Timor's gangs. A 2006 study commissioned by the Australian Agency for International Development (AUSAID) noted that of the 100 known youth gangs in East Timor, approximately 15 to 20 were martial arts groups, or gangs formed out of martial arts clubs. An estimated 70 percent of Timor's 230,000 young men and women may be active or involved in martial arts gangs.
Many gangs in East Timor have been linked to extortion, theft, and illegal drugs, which serve as the primary means of livelihood for their unemployed members. Gang rivalries are fierce and incidents of gang violence have been particularly vicious. Some members killed during gang fights have been beheaded by rivals, and there have been cases in which gang members were pulled out of hospital beds to be executed.
Many gangs are also allied with political factions and have carried out various acts of political intimidation and harassment, including during the 2007 national elections. Gangs were used extensively by political factions in fomenting the 2006 riots. Plan International, an international youth development NGO with offices in 49 countries, found that 10 to 25 percent of Timor's youth were involved in the 2006 riots. This figure is lower than originally thought, but the image of young, drug-crazed Timorese men wielding machetes and setting homes on fire will not easily be forgotten.
Timorese gang culture predates independence. Many groups were formed during the 20-year Indonesian occupation, either as militias for the Indonesian military or as part of the Timorese resistance movement. Many are therefore intimately linked to the raging social divides in post-conflict Timor. Meanwhile, other groups were formed after independence to make up for weak law enforcement and the persistent feeling of insecurity.
The AUSAID-commissioned study noted that youth involvement, particularly among males, was fueled by "a sense of disenfranchisement due to a range of factors including unemployment, security concerns, and a lack of education."
In some ways, the gangs in Timor are no different than disaffected youth gangs elsewhere, on the streets of countries like Brazil, Colombia, and Honduras. But Latin American gangs have become more sophisticated over time, transforming into transnational criminal networks that operate locally as well as in the United States. Central American gangs have an estimated 70,000 to 100,000 members, including some who have been deported from the United States. They are well armed, usually with assault weapons, and have strong links to the illegal drug trade.
Gangs in the Brazilian capital Rio de Janeiro control the favela shantytowns and mete out their own justice.
The Timorese gangs more resemble the youth gangs that proliferated in Sao Luis in northern Brazil in the 1990s. Groups named Lack of God, Messengers from Hell, and Crazy Ducks were also comprised of marginalized young men and women who were pushed into gang culture by poverty and lack of opportunity. The Sao Luis gangs engaged in various crimes using knives and machetes, sometimes under the influence of drugs and alcohol.
Similarly, the Timorese gangs do not have sophisticated weapons at their disposal. Some carry machetes, arrows, stones, slingshots, and poisonous darts which they use to execute rivals. These weapons are more than enough to sow fear among the populace. Foreign aid workers and UN peacekeepers are all too aware of the risks of straying from safe routes and into gang-controlled territory. Gangs have been known to pelt stones at UN vehicles passing through internally displaced persons (IDP) camps. In November 2006, a Brazilian missionary was killed by gang members near a hospital in Dili.
While Timor's problem with gangs appears small by Latin American standards, it remains a serious concern. Timor has one of the world's youngest populations, with 45 percent of its population 15 years old and under, according to the United Nations Development Program. Illiteracy and unemployment rates greater than 50 percent suggest a population highly vulnerable and available to gang culture.
Large-scale efforts to redirect the energies of Timorese youth started early in the post-independence era, but the drive intensified after 2006. Chan's visit capped efforts by the Timorese government and various NGOs to curb gang violence and thus improve Timor's law and order. The initiatives range from peace-building training sessions on human rights and nonviolence, to government-initiated meetings to bring rival gangs together, to youth civic education projects and foreign-funded sports clubs and programs including a "peace and sport" initiative supported by the government of Monaco.
The results have been encouraging. Atul Khare, the UN Secretary-General's Special Representative for Timor-Leste, recently told a forum in New York that criminal incidents in Timor this year dropped to 35 incidents per week from 55 per week last year. In August, two rival martial arts gangs signed a peace pact and apologized for their role in the 2006 riots.
Did Chan's visit lead to this change of heart? It's difficult to say, but it looks like kung fu is becoming a positive force in Timor.
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