By Caribbean News Now contributor
KINGSTOWN, St Vincent — Following the recent evacuation by the US government of 23 Peace Corps volunteers from St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) at short notice due to a “specific safety reason”, Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves last week denied allegations that their safety was threatened by what is said to be a modern-day equivalent of Eric Gairy’s infamous paramilitary “Mongoose Gang” in neighbouring Grenada.
The Mongoose Gang was a private army or militia that operated from 1970 to 1979 under the control of Sir Eric Gairy, the premier and later prime minister of Grenada. Officially, Mongoose Gang members were called Special Reserve Police or Volunteer Constables.
The Mongoose Gang was responsible for silencing critics, breaking up demonstrations and murdering opponents of the Gairy regime, and has often been compared to Haiti’s Tonton Macoute, a similar special operations unit within the Haitian paramilitary force created in 1959 by dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier.
Notwithstanding Gonsalves’ denials, the existence of a paramilitary branch of the Royal St Vincent and the Grenadines Police Force (RSVGPF), officially called the Special Services Unit (SSU) or Rapid Response Unit (RRU) but otherwise known as the Black Squad, has been reported and debated in Caribbean News Now archives since at least 2008.
However, an indication of its existence appears to have been given by acting commissioner of police Colin John on local radio two weeks ago.
“There are some police officers within the [RSVGPF] who are involved in activities unbecoming of the oath and expectations of their positions,” John said.
According to one local source, Gonsalves, who is also the national security minister, got the idea of the Black Squad from the Cuban Avispas Negras (Black Wasps), the elite forces of Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR).
Members of the Black Squad dress in an all-black uniform with the word ‘Police’ written on their backs and on caps, with no name tags, no rank tags, and no other visible identification.
Suspicions of the political use of the Black Squad are reinforced by its appearance at polling stations, collecting the ballot boxes and taking them where they can be opened and counted, leading to allegations of vote tampering.
The following is a brief summary of online reports about the Black Squad. Readers will no doubt contribute their own additional experiences.
• According to Assistant Superintendent of Police Eric Browne, the Black Squad was formed to deal mainly with emergency police matters.
• Gonsalves announced that the size of the Black Squad would be doubled because it is the only division in the police services that the people are afraid of, interpreted by many to mean that the country will be governed through fear, using the Black Squad to intimidate citizens;
• The Black Squad is reported as “omnipresent at all public functions”, heavily armed with openly displayed M16 automatic rifles;
• Two teenagers were arrested and spent 12 hours in police custody during which they were badly beaten, leaving one in a coma for seven days;
• “Vincentians very worried and concerned over the extreme behaviour” of the Black Squad towards citizens. “Many are arrogant, overly aggressive and run around the capital openly displaying M16 automatic rifles”;
• President of the St Vincent and the Grenadines Human Rights Association (SVGHRA), Nicole Sylvester, told US embassy officials that she has been followed by police and received death threats;
• According to US embassy officials, it is not clear what it would take for Gonsalves to subordinate himself to rule of law.
• In a striking parallel to Saint Lucia’s Operation Restore Confidence, which ultimately led to the ongoing imposition of sanctions by the US, during Operation Vincy Pac police shot and killed three men;
• An SVGHRA representative stated that police brutality is a problem, particularly in cases when suspects have been questioned and detained. The SVGHA representative reported that cases of civilians shot by police or sustaining serious injuries, such as broken bones, have occurred;
• Three people, including a Barbadian, were shot to death by the Black Squad. SVGHRA president, Nicole Sylvester, alleged that police brutality is being carried out with reckless abandon in the country and called on the commissioner of police to act swiftly to address the problem. Sylvester said that police brutality is alive and well and said that the police have not been taking the complaints that are brought to their attention seriously. She said that her organisation has received no less than 30 complaints of police brutality in recent months. She said that she has photographs and medical certificates to support her contention.
• Black Squad members shot and killed an escaped prisoner;
• A team of Black Squad members “ripped down the gates” to land belonging to a local businessman who had run afoul of the Gonsalves regime;
• The Black Squad turned up at the bankrupt Buccament Bay Resort to control and frighten employees and contractors who were seeking their wages and money owed to them by the developer, Harlequin.
• A 49-year-old woman died in hospital one day after the Black Squad raided her home;
• A local tattoo artist was threatened and assaulted by two females, one of whom he alleged was a member of the Black Squad. After he filed a complaint with the police, eight members of the Black Squad turned up at his place of business, saying they had received a complaint about him and had come to pick him up;
• Comment on cruisecritic.com: “St Vincent wasn’t particularly appealing… especially after seeing the Black Squad (government militia who ride around in the back of a truck with submachine guns)”;
• A resident told Caribbean News Now that his house had been broken into by the police Black Squad: “My interpretation is that the police are so incompetent and desperate (because of political pressure to clamp down on violent crime) that they are madly dashing from pillar to post to at least seem to be doing something.” The same individual also described details of three apparent extra-judicial murders in SVG by security forces: “There was never any investigation, formal or otherwise, as far as I know, of any of these three killings. I have to assume there were others of which I am unaware.”
As reported previously, the reports of extra-judicial killings may represent the real nub of the issue so far as the US is concerned and the experience of Saint Lucia is instructive in this respect.
In 2013, Saint Lucia was restricted by the terms of the Leahy Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act (FAA), commonly referred to as the “Leahy Law”, from receiving security-related assistance from the United States as a result of “credible evidence of extrajudicial killings of 17 people in 2010-2011” by the island’s security forces. The US Department of State suspended assistance to the local police force and cancelled the visas of a number of senior police officers, denying them travel to the US.
Five years later, this is still an issue successive governments in Saint Lucia have been unable to come to grips with.
In SVG, if the Black Squad is indeed fact not “fairy tale”, the question remains what is the chain of command in relation to its activities.