Wed, 24 May 2000

Focus on Medan's Godfather, his pals and victims

By Donna K. Woodward

MEDAN (JP): His name is known across the Medan community, though it tends to be whispered. He keeps a low profile, yet his reach extends everywhere. His arrivals at ceremonies and events are often through back doors, but ostentatiously accompanied by an entourage of bodyguards and friends taxied in a fleet of vehicles bearing his distinctive, initialed license plates.

Like other low-life figures in history's crime annals, this one has a reputation embellished by apocrypha, and claims that a special spell put on him at birth bars him from marrying.

There are tales of generosity confirmed by the large tips he dispenses and the lavish receptions he arranges for family members' graduations or weddings. He consorts with the town's most notorious collection of thugs as well as with illustrious members of our local security forces.

It is he, not the police, to whom local businessmen often turn for protection, with his pemuda (youth) group of bullies. Regardless of who holds the positions of official authority in Medan, all pay their respects to this man, and in turn receive his patronage.

Residents refer to him as the Godfather. And like the old Mafia dons of New York or Chicago, this man too has so far been untouchable by police and prosecutors. Untouchable, or only untouched?

Medan was recently shattered by the fatal shootings by police of two university students. The incident was triggered by alleged gambling. Instead of focusing on the Godfather of gambling and prostitution and his cronies, police are preoccupied with easy-to-arrest, petty gamblers found on campuses and at food stalls.

While the Godfather offers businesses protection-for-a-price, the police protect the Godfather -- or so it seems. And purveyors of gambling, prostitution, drugs, illegal weapons, and extortion operations are given carte blanche to operate.

Wouldn't it make more sense for the police to put the Godfather out of business?

He is not hard to find, yet the police of Medan are unable or unwilling (or both) to put an end to the criminal activities of Medan's most honored gangster. What can be done?

During the Prohibition era in the U.S., when organized crime proved too much for the regular, often corrupt American police, the Federal Bureau of Investigation formed a special unit of elite crime fighters with an irreproachable reputation for being incorruptible, the Untouchables.

Perhaps this is what Medan needs, a new crime force that will be trained properly, paid properly, supervised properly -- in a context of zero tolerance for corruption, beyond the cheap temptations offered by the Godfather.

Indonesia has many young, idealistic job seekers looking for work that will make them feel proud of themselves and their country. Instead of maintaining the youth groups, why not appoint some promising police commander to form a corps of competent, trustworthy law enforcement officers?

Perhaps some of the countries that now offer large sums to train the Indonesian Military in tactics that have sometimes been used in questionable military activities, instead might channel funds into a pilot training program for the civilian police.

For in reality domestic crime, not danger from without, is the real threat to Indonesian security. Indonesia's whole law enforcement system, from the lowest level of police work to the Supreme Court, needs reformation; at the higher end it seems that the wheels of reform have been set in motion.

But the Medan Police are still immune from reform, as many businesspeople of North Sumatra could confirm, if only they would.

The authorities might also take steps to disband the so-called youth groups that now prop up the enterprises of people like Medan's Godfather.

Our Godfather would not have the cadres he needs to run his protection racket so easily, were it not for the youth group he is allied with. The government might at least withdraw the official sponsorship which gives such groups a quasi-official role in the eyes of the community.

Too many youth group members are quick to use their status to intimidate residents and small shopkeepers for purposes of legalized extortion.

At times persons who prefer to remain anonymous use these groups to provoke civil unrest. While there may have been a time in Indonesia's early history for these groups, now as the government is attempting to build a civil society and control excessive use of force and abuse of power, their place in the community seems questionable at best.

Some politicians believe that if these groups were not given their paramilitary type uniforms and permitted to carry out their petty extortions, they might commit worse crimes. This is an inadequate, pathetic solution to the problem of crime. Create real jobs for young men. To allow them to become parasites of both the government and their communities serves no purpose except to create an underclass of men who prey on the system.

Instead of shooting at students, will the Medan Police authorities do something responsible and effective about illegal gambling? Students' demands for an end to illegal gambling are becoming more urgent, and larger numbers are joining demonstrations.

The problems of organized criminal activity and community backlash are not confined to Medan. But if the next explosion of community vigilantism occurs in Medan, the interethnic repercussions could be calamitous.

The credibility of the Medan Police, and indeed of all Indonesian Police, in fighting organized crime is at a crisis point. For the sake of domestic peace the police must establish their bona fides as honest law enforcement agents. No doubt the Godfather has the police over a barrel: if they touch him, he can definitely tell some interesting tales about them.

Maybe it is time to offer members of the public rewards and government protection in exchange for their cooperation in fighting mafia-like crime in Medan. Maybe it is time for the National Police chief to offer Medan's new police head only two options: pursue evidence sufficient to lead to an arrest of the Godfather within 90 days, or resign.

The writer, an attorney and former American diplomat at the U.S. Consulate General in Medan, is president director of PT Far Horizons management consultancy firm.