Magic and mayhem
The world's youngest country is threatening to slide into chaos as local allegiances and superstitions feed a deepening gang culture, writes Fabio Scarpello
The diminutive Maria Ana Pereira, 28, does not look for excuses. The widow simply accepts that
life is tough in Hudi Laram, a neighbourhood southwest of East Timor's capital, Dili, where she is struggling to raise her seven children.
She has a part-time job. And she's also the leader of a local gang called Zero-Zero-One. 'The number means that we are neutral,' said Mrs Pereira, who was described by her neighbours as a 'tough fighter'.
Mrs Pereira's gang is one of about 300 outfits thought to be operating in the former Portuguese colony. In Hudi Laram, she said, the reason for her group's existence was obvious. 'Look around you,' she urged, gesturing towards a neighbourhood consisting mostly of makeshift houses. 'There is nothing here. No one is looking after us.'
According to Mrs Pereira, only a handful of the 800 people who live in the area have a proper job, and only a few of the young study beyond primary school.
'The gang keeps us together and makes us stronger,' said Mrs Pereira, who took control of the group after her husband died in 2004. 'My husband was killed by black magic, but his spirit still advises me,' she added, showing her husband's grave next to her house.
Mrs Pereira also claimed to have 'Jesus Christ on her side' and 'a special holy water that, when sprinkled around the houses, protects the neighbourhood'.
As she talked, young men gathered around, listening and nodding. Despite her petite frame, Mrs Pereira said she had earned the respect and the leadership of the group with her courage. 'The young respect me. They listen to me, and when we are attacked, I am always in front to defend our turf.'
She said her group used large stones, machetes, arrows and slingshots in their fights.
But far more deadly weapons have also made their way into the arsenals of the gangs, with international troops and UN police - in East Timor since last year's civil crisis displaced tens of thousands of people - having confiscated homemade pistols and primitive but lethal bombs made from steel fragments packed around an ammonium nitrate core.
Mrs Pereira said her group had done nothing illegal, but reliable sources claimed its members had been involved in a series of minor criminal acts. Some observers said groups such as Zero-Zero-One lived off extortion money, and they were blamed for much of the past year's violence and intimidation, including the burning of Chinese-owned shops in the area in September
Linking Mrs Pereira's turf to the village of Delta 1 is an area locally known as Banana Road, in which some of the capital's most violent gangs operate and where most of the fighting takes place. It is also where Catholic priest Angelo Salsinha spends his nights trying to mediate.
'They are not inherently bad. These are misguided young people who are also manipulated by politicians,' he said. 'Sometimes they have money, and I am not sure how they get it, since they don't work.'
The link between political parties and some of the gangs is well established, although few are willing to talk about it openly, let alone acknowledge that politicians have paid young people to commit crimes.
Last October another priest, Martinho Gusmao, partially broke the silence by telling Australia's Courier-Mail newspaper about the existence of a graded fee scale for rock throwing, burning houses and murder.
The Dili-based priest said he had been told about the list in confessions, and added that gangs were paid to commit violence both before and after the June national elections.
'The gangs claim that if they throw a stone, they get US$20, if they burn down a house, US$50, and if they kill a person, US$100,' Father Martinho said.
Father Angelo said that besides organising activities such as sports and basic education programmes, the church could do little. He called for more help from the government to create jobs for young people.
Long-term unemployment is rampant in the impoverished country, with the jobless rate above 50 per cent. In Dili, about 70 per cent of young people are without jobs.
'I can only keep doing what I can,' said Father Angelo. 'I spend my night talking to the gang members. No one pays attention to them, no one says hello to them, and no one tells them that they are important. The fact that I do makes them feel better already.'
Among those who regularly meet Father Angelo are members of two rival gangs, Seven-Seven, and Perguruan Silat Setia Hati, or PSHT.
The leader of the local branch of Seven-Seven is Paul Fernandes, 30, better known to his followers as Dodi. He's a heavily-built man whose house is surrounded by gang members, and approaching without an invitation would be asking for trouble. 'It's for protection,' said the unemployed father of two.
Seven-Seven is one of the groups that bases its membership on animist beliefs. Established during the Indonesian occupation to fight the invaders, its members believe they can gain magical powers by injecting themselves with a medicine that supposedly makes them invincible and invisible.
It has members throughout the country, identifiable by a scar with seven nodes that runs vertically up their right arms. Several other gangs, such as Colimau 2000 and Sagrada Familia, have similar beliefs.
'I joined this gang in 1999 to defend myself, my family and my community,' said Mr Fernandes, whose group is allegedly involved in gambling and extortion rackets. 'We have a code of conduct. We do not commit adultery, and we do not steal.'
He said he had 'never been involved in a fight', but acknowledged that his group was locked in a deadly rivalry with the PSHT. 'It started when PSHT killed two of our members a while back,' he said.
Only a few hundred metres away, another group of youths linger threateningly around cars near the house of Vincente Lopes, 33, who is recognised as the leader of the local branch of PSHT. 'I am just the mediator here,' he said, denying he was the leader of the group.
PSHT is one of about 20 martial arts groups in the country, which have an estimated combined membership of about 20,000 people. PSHT originated in Indonesia, and has branches in most of East Timor's provinces.
The gang is widely perceived as being close to the Democrat Party and the Social Democratic Party, and is believed to have heavily infiltrated the security forces. PSHT is also in open rivalry with another martial arts group, Korka, officially aligned with Fretilin, the country's main political party, which was forced into opposition at the last election.
'We have children at the end of our neighbourhood keeping watch if other gangs approach,' said the father of four, who works for an international organisation.
'Most of the people here are unemployed, and they are the ones in charge of security,' he said, adding that everyone in the area would come out if the neighbourhood was attacked. 'This includes my neighbour, who is a policeman. There is no distinction.'
Mr Lopes said youths as young as 13 are involved with the gang.
'There is neither an upper nor a lower age limit. It depends on people's conscience,' he said.
Fidelis Magalhas, a local facilitator in conflict resolution, said the gang phenomenon in East Timor was not all bad.
'There's the assumption that gangs in East Timor are always up to no good. This is a very misleading argument, because by joining martial arts groups for example, young boys also find a sense of belonging,' he said.
His view is endorsed by Australian academic James Scambary, who conducted a survey of gangs in East Timor last year, and estimated that half of Dili's population was involved in gang culture.
'The key finding of this report is the existence of hundreds of different village-based youth groups, all attempting in different but positive ways to engage and unify their communities through collective, socially-oriented activities,' Mr Scambary said.
'These groups are essentially voluntary, community-based, civil society organisations that represent important building blocks for future reconciliation and reconstruction programmes, and as vital points of engagement with marginalised youth.'
Mr Scambary, Father Angelo and Mr Magalhas all say that 'supporting these groups is the only way forward'. They also urge that 'there is no time to waste'.