In 2001, when news broke out about the murder of a young woman at the Chamber of Commerce, it shook the nation to its core. The brutality of the crime, and the sheer thought that in a close-knit community such as the Maldives, a murderer was among us, was hard to fathom. Fast forward 20 years to 2021 and we have, as a nation, now become desensitized to many such violent crimes. Time and again, news outlets and Police have claimed that the evolution and growth of gangs operating in the country as the cause for the rise in crimes.
According to the National Values Survey (NVS) conducted by The Asia Foundation in 2011, there are between 20 to 30 gangs operating in Malé alone, with members ranging from 50 to 400. The survey further stated that the majority of gang members are youth and juveniles, under the age of 25. Gangs are exclusively male-dominated, with high rates of drug abuse, unemployment, and a high percentage of members with a criminal record.
There is evidence to show that the formation of the gangs’ go back to the early 1990s through the proliferation of the use of heroin and subsequent associated crimes. Furthermore, the 2003 Maafushi jail riots and deaths further fueled the rapid growth of gangs. Additionally, the hiring of gangs by politicians or businesspeople to execute crimes was also reported to have been a cause for gang sustainability.
Why join gangs?
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), children and adolescents are motivated to join a gang for a sense of connection or to define a new sense of who they are. Children coming from broken families or poor socio-economic backgrounds find solace within a gang. Domestic violence, abuse, death, divorce – all of these have pushed local children and youth from their homes onto streets, and ultimately to gangs. Once they join a gang, a sense of brotherhood creates a fallacy of a family, ironically providing a more stable social structure than their own homes. There are reports to show that children and youth who join Maldivian gangs also seek such belonging. This is further aggravated if an existing family member or close friend is an existing member of the gang.
Others are motivated to join as a means of protection from rival gangs. Children may view their neighborhood gang as a solution to the torment and threats from other gangs due to alleged gang affiliation or due to actions of a relative or friend – a fine they may have to pay with their own blood.
It is evident from data that unemployment is a major factor in driving youth into gangs. With low or insufficient salaries, the motivation to get employed is low. Thus, the appeal of obtaining fast money can be overwhelming. Gangs involved in drugs and other criminal activities give children opportunities to earn money quickly such as for delivering a package or being a lookout. This lucrativeness drives children to remain in the gangs as they enter youth and even adulthood.
In the Maldivian context, conflicting reports from 2012 show the relationship between gangs and drugs. While the majority of respondents to The Rapid Situation Assessment of Gangs in Male’ study reported the use of both soft drugs, hard drugs and alcohol, a minority of gangs had a no drug use policy. It further stated that many members utilize the gang to establish and flourish a drug selling business, while others had a sensational claim of how politicians and business people often offer drugs and alcohol in exchange for crimes as a motivator for members to join and stay in gangs.
Economic and social issues such as unavailability of places of recreation, childhood bullying at school, issues within the education system, challenges of dealing with mental health issues in the country, are additional reasons cited by people as to why they choose to join gangs. MFR’s article, ‘Gang Violence – the first step’ further dwells into some of these reasons.
News of murders, stabbings, kidnapping, rape and sexual assault have been making headlines regularly. The frequency and brutality of the violence is alarming. The total disregard to life, properties and community is appalling. The Rapid Situation Assessment of Gangs in Malé reported 7 main causes of violence among local gangs.
1. Revenge for perceived slights or previous disputes
2. Drug and alcohol abuse
3. Commissioned violence from politicians or businesspeople
4. Sport competitions turning violent (specifically baibalaa)
5. Competition over material goods alluding to affluency and status
6. Self-preservation – the need to retaliate by the gang when a member is attacked
7. A gang’s desire to be seen as the most powerful and dangerous
If one were to go through reports published by news outlets, there is certainty that news regarding gang violence will not be missed. Yet, the quarterly Crime Statistics of Maldives Police Services (MPS) does not mention any of this. There are statistics on domestic violence, drug abuse, theft, robbery, burglary, road accidents, cybercrime, embezzlement, crime against children – but none on gang violence. None on murders. This omission is deafening. This raises questions as to why gang related crimes are not recorded.
The proliferation of gangs means bringing in fear, violence, and pain rampant across a city. In addition to suffering unacceptably high numbers of deaths and injuries, gang-besieged communities are plagued by intimidation, economic and physical decay, and withdrawal from civic engagement. Therefore, prevention efforts are vital, especially given the young age at which many gang members join. To reduce gang-related violence and victimization, teams of various stakeholders representing the public, private and nonprofit sectors must come together. Law enforcement officials such as MPS, prison and judiciary, drug rehabilitation agencies, child and family protection services, schools, religious scholars, and community partners must start work to formulate long-term plans and marshal the required resources.