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 has 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.
“I have decided to speak on this matter today because of much “fake news” which have been in circulation about it including in one local newspaper and in an online regional publication. In the case of the latter, the brazen falsehoods were published that one of my sons has allegedly organised a ‘mongoose gang’, a group of thugs, going about smashing vehicles belonging to the Peace Corps volunteers because of their alleged links to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the USA,” Gonsalves said.
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.
The parallel with the Mongoose Gang in Grenada was brought to the attention of Caribbean News Now by a US government source, speaking on condition of anonymity, who told us that the safety concerns expressed in relation to the Peace Corps volunteers had in fact existed for some time and were not simply based on one specific recent incident.
In fact, the alleged incident involving a 70-year-old Peace Corps volunteer was dismissed as yet more misinformation, adding, “If you believe this, then how about 50 percent discount on your purchase of the Brooklyn Bridge.”
The existence of a so-called police “Black Squad” has been reported and debated in SVG for some years, something that appears to have been confirmed by acting commissioner of police Colin John on local radio last week.
“There are some police officers within the Royal St Vincent and the Grenadines
Police Force (RSVGPF) who are involved in activities unbecoming of the oath and expectations of their positions,” John said.
According to one local resident, the Black Squad is made up of men “who, literally, have been taken from the streets and with little or no police training are placed in the force with guns… They actually go around terrorising and intimidating opponents of this regime.”
Another resident told Caribbean News Now that his house had been broken into by the police Black Squad a few weeks ago.
“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,” he said.
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,” he said.
In fact, this may point to the real nub of the issue 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.
According to Gonsalves, the incident in SVG on August 20, 2018, involved a 70-year old female Peace Corps volunteer who had arrived a few days earlier on August 16, 2018, following her initial five-week Peace Corps training in Saint Lucia. She was placed with a host family in rural St Vincent and had make a familiarisation visit by bus to Kingstown with her host family on Friday August 17; this visit, among other things, was for her to learn the bus route from her host family to Kingstown and the Peace Corps training site locally.
The gist of the allegations made by the volunteer are that:
“At or about 7:30 a.m. on Monday, August 20, 2018, she disembarked her bus. She began to walk and enquired of the direction of the Peace Corps Office [which is in New Montrose]. As she was walking she was grabbed from behind in a bear hug; her arms were pinned and she was pushed into an alcove next to an empty market table and partition. In the process of the alleged assault she was punched in her stomach, her button-up blouse was ripped open, her breasts were grabbed and squeezed; her head was slammed down on a vendor’s table; and she was spat upon at the back of her neck.”
The volunteer alleged that there were two assailants, both of Middle Eastern descent, who did not speak with a Caribbean accent. The volunteer further alleged that both of them were wearing olive green pants tucked into the top of black boots and a dark-coloured long-sleeve shirt tucked into pants; one had a scarf, a lot of cloth fabric, wrapped around his neck; and he had a full beard. The other alleged assailant had no beard.
The volunteer further alleged that during the assault upon her, her assailants spoke many angry and derogatory words about the American president, the Peace Corps generally, and female Peace Corps volunteers. She gave details of these alleged angry and derogatory words.
The volunteer received directions from passers-by and made it to the Milton Cato Memorial Hospital after the alleged assault. She was attended to by a doctor and a nurse at the hospital. Gonsalves said he has been advised that the doctor’s medical report affirms/confirms scratches to the face, neck, upper arm and chest; and bruises to the left upper arm, left abdomen, and left breast of the volunteer. The police were called to the hospital and met the volunteer there along with the local Peace Corps coordinator. The volunteer took them to the location where the alleged incident had occurred three or so hours earlier.
As they drove in the general area where the assault was alleged to have occurred, the volunteer’s bag was observed on a table; in fact, she pointed it out. The police retrieved the bag and the volunteer identified the contents as her own; she noted the missing items were a Peace Corps folder and an identification card with her home address in the USA; later she said that EC$60 was in a folder that was not touched. The alleged disappearance and alleged return of the volunteer’s purse – not the bag – with keys in it remain among the many puzzles for the police, Gonsalves said.
The police are still conducting their investigation into the matter and have been in touch with relevant officials from the US Embassy in Barbados; two such officials visited SVG on Monday, August 27, 2018, and have been working on the investigation with the police. The police have made available to them footage from CCTV located at a nearby building. I have been advised that the CCTV footage shows, among other things, what appears to be a bag being placed by the volunteer on a table, the very spot from which the bag was later retrieved, three or so hours later. There is no evidence on the CCTV footage of the alleged incident itself. A sketch artist’s rendition of the volunteer’s description of her alleged assailants has been made available to the police, courtesy the relevant officials of the US embassy. The artist’s sketches of both alleged assailants are being circulated to the public to aid the ongoing investigation.