Maldives politicians enlist violent drug gangs
Paradise tourist spot plunged into violence as politicians allegedly enlist gangsters to intimidate opponents and silence activists
The Guardian in Male
Ibrahim sits in a dark corner of a cafe, talking about his gang, the stabbings and the money he makes from selling heroin.
Outside, locals splash through the narrow lanes of the congested capital of the Maldives under a heavy monsoon shower. "It's been a good few months. We've been doing well," he says, lighting another cigarette.
Recently, Ibrahim's gang has been busy with a new sideline: providing political parties with muscle to intimidate opponents, swell meetings and provide security. "There's so much demand, we've had to appoint someone just to run that side of our operations. Requests are coming in all the time," he says.
Many of the 900,000 tourists who visit the Maldives each year remain blissfully oblivious to its seething political instability, violence and social problems.
In 2008, presidential elections ended the three-decade dictatorship of Mamoun Abdul Gayoom and brought Mohamed Nasheed, a veteran human rights campaigner and well-known environmental activist, to power.
But after a series of clashes over issues, such as the independence of the judiciary and alleged "anti-Islamic" policies, Nasheed was forced to resign in February.
In two weeks, he faces trial on charges of illegally detaining a senior judge. Conviction could see him barred from participation in a new presidential poll scheduled for next year.
"They will fix it one way or another," the former president, 45, said in Male last week.
Since Nasheed's ousting, there has been a wave of attacks on activists and politicians. In July, a secularist blogger survived having his throat cut. Two weeks ago, a cleric and member of parliament was fatally stabbed.
"I get regular threats by text or calls. Some say they will kill me, some threaten me with paralysis," said Eva Abdulla, a parliamentarian from Nasheed's Maldivian Democratic Party.
Senior officials of Adhaalath, the Maldives' main religious conservative party, said they too received death threats.
Amid such political instability, gangs thrive.
Ibrahim's outfit of more than 70 members works around the clock, trafficking heroin, enforcing its territory and carrying out what he calls "political work".
Ibrahim asks for 10,000 rufiyah (HK$5,000) for 10 of his gang to attend a demonstration for an hour. The rate for roughing up a political opponent - damaging his car or house - is up to 50,000 rufiyah. For a stabbing the price would be US$24,000. At least.
"It's enough to pay our expenses for a month," he said.
Corruption means police officers often "lose" evidence, while judges can be bought off.
Mohamed Jameel, the minister for home affairs, said some political parties "continuously seek the involvement of gangs".
"We have a lot of unemployed youth, dropouts end up on the corners of the street, there is peer pressure, he said. "It is easy for them to be recruited."
Spokesmen for major parties all denied any contact with criminals. But a recent report by the Asia Foundation, based on interviews with more than 130 gang members, found most political parties use gangs.
Dr Aishath Ali Naaz, the report's author, cited bullying and family problems, as well as the rapid - but unequal - economic growth in Maldives in recent years as contributing factors. Widespread narcotic use is also a significant factor.
The fear is of a violent downward spiral in the Maldives, accelerated by the country's squabbling politicians.
"The gang members are getting used to greater severity of violence. So is society generally. Once, if someone was stabbed, everyone would be talking about it so much. Now people barely notice," said Naaz.
Ibrahim said there are clashes - some fatal - between gangs working for different political parties.
He hopes to leave soon. After a near-fatal stabbing 18 months ago, Ibrahim wants "a quieter life".
"I'm not sure where I'll go," he said, "Maybe [Sri] Lanka. Maybe India. Out of here, anyway."