East Timorese gangs gained notoriety in May last year when the country descended into civil turmoil, with fighting between police and army forces. The army split and the police disintegrated. Gangs filled the void left by the security apparatus, but ended up fighting each other. At least 37 people died and 150,000 others fled their homes, prompting the return of international peacekeeping troops.
More than 30,000 people remain displaced and sporadic violence continues. One gang member was beheaded two weeks ago.
Recent history and poverty are at the roots of the gangs' proliferation. Although some groups have been around since the Portuguese colonial era, most of the gangs and martial arts groups emerged in opposition to the 24-year-long occupation by Indonesia, which ended in 1999. Since then, several more have sprouted, spurred by the country's dire economic situation, in which 40 per cent of East Timor's one million people live below the subsistence line of US$0.55 per day.
Political manipulation and the proliferation of methamphetamine use have added further explosive ingredients to the mix, already worsened by widespread ignorance and superstitious animist beliefs.