I was surprised when Jaime Xavier Lopez, the head of Sacred Heart, a notorious “martial-arts” group, told me to meet him at the government’s Office of Cadastral Surveys and Property, where he has his day job. Or that’s where he did work, since he is now imprisoned.

Lopez is well-educated, soft-spoken and unassuming, not quite what I expected from a gang boss. According to him, Sacred Heart has 6,000 members and 10,000 students enrolled in a four-year course of training.

One eye locks on me while the other wanders off as he denies that his martial-arts group has links with prominent political opposition parties.

But he does admit that many members may have overlapping memberships. Lopez complains that some rioting gangs wear Sacred Heart’s distinctive uniforms trying to discredit it, but he does acknowledge that in some cases its members engage in violence — but only for self-defense. The police see this differently, explaining why he is in jail.

The omnipresence of these so-called martial-arts groups and gangs in Dili reflects the bankruptcy of the judicial system, and contributes to a cycle of retaliations and police confrontations. Arrested gang members know that in no time they will be back on the streets.

Meanwhile, UNPOL (the 1,300-strong international police force in East Timor under UN command) expresses frustration that there is no law banning the carrying of dangerous weapons like machetes, darts, knives or slingshots. The gangs know the rules of engagement for the international police units, and act accordingly — pushing street melees perilously close to the edge.

Culture of impunity

Gangs are thriving because a culture of impunity prevails. Law enforcement is lax, prosecutors are overwhelmed, there is no witness-protection program and the courts barely function.

Only the Portuguese police units inspire fear among criminals. They are a scary- looking, musclebound bunch, bristling with menace and weapons. I was told that if these Portugese officers need to get out of their air-conditioned patrol vehicles, they get pissed off and find some heads to bang just on principle. Their no-holds- barred approach to policing is lamented by human-rights activists, but for many people they are a welcome pit bull to cope with the breakdown of law and order.

Nonetheless, a U.S. Embassy source said that gang violence is escalating, and gangs have become a much more visible and menacing presence on the streets since the middle of 2006. The government has at times brokered what amount to ceasefires among the gangs, but these have all fallen apart.

An Australian federal police officer agrees that the situation on the streets has worsened considerably since UNMIT [United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor Leste] took responsibility for security in August. He was withering in his criticism of the UN bureaucracy and endless red tape that made effective policing far more difficult than it should be.

“The UN has been long on promises, but has not delivered, sapping morale among police units,” he said. When told that two Japanese officers were coming, he chuckled, saying, “That should do the trick.”

This officer said the gang violence has reached a new stage, and that it shows signs of coordination. Whereas previously gang attacks seemed random, they are now being choreographed. He cited an evening when three melees broke out simultaneously in different parts of Dili, in a move that seemed designed to test the responses and capabilities of the overstretched security forces. He said this is all the more worrisome in view of this year’s upcoming political campaigns.

There is concern, too, that political parties are mobilizing and funding gangs in preparation for this year’s elections. Police report that many young gang members they arrest carry sums of cash that are beyond what they could possibly earn on the streets. The source of the gangs’ cash, mobile phones and motorbikes is uncertain, but suspicions focus on political parties. For example, Korka, one of the largest martial-arts groups, has ties with the ruling Fretelin party.

According to some estimates, as many as 70 percent of Dili youth are gang members. For many unemployed youth with no prospects, the gangs seem to be their only option, and they join for status, reputation, money and illicit thrills. The emergence of a youth-gang culture is yet another symptom of the deep social malaise that prevails, and a further impediment to stability.


There is a proliferation of gangs that distinguish themselves by scarification of upper arms with razor blade cuts in numerical patterns such as 77, 21 or 55, while some of the martial-arts groups favor distinctive tattoos. These martial-arts groups distinguish themselves from gangs because of their organizational hierarchies, training and discipline, and many members hold regular jobs. However, it does seem that some members engage in typical gang activity, and are often involved in violent confrontations with other gangs and security forces.

The gangs maintain checkpoints in Dili where they shakedown citizens and check for gang membership by having people roll up their sleeves. One young woman who studies in Australia was home on holiday and described a harrowing experience of being stopped by drunken, metal-bar brandishing gang members who told her to take off her jacket so they could check her arms. She escaped on her motorbike when they lurched into the road to wave down a potentially more lucrative passing car. Many people experience such harassment and modify their routines to avoid it.

After 7 p.m., it is very difficult to find a taxi anywhere in Dili because drivers fear being robbed or having their vehicle damaged. I was told by several people never to walk around at night, especially alone. Japanese NGO workers spoke of their embassy requiring all nationals to return home by 8 p.m. unless they had informed others and had their own car and driver. They were strongly advised not to ride in taxis under any circumstances for fear of kidnapping or random violence.

This self-imposed curfew makes Dili an eerie place in the evening; gangs control the nights. The pervasive fear of gang violence creates a culture of intimidation that haunts the city’s residents.

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