Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Themed Series: Land Grab and Border Criminality in the Guiana Shield. Part I: Spectres and Distractions


Paul Mutsaers


Time to read

4 Minutes

Guest post by Paul Mutsaers, Department of Anthropology and Development Studies, Radboud University, The Netherlands. This post is the first post of a three-part themed series, entitled 'Land Grab and Border Criminality in the Guiana Shield'. 


When Karl Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto that all the powers of Europe had conjured up an image of communism as a dangerous force to be reckoned with, he continued saying that communists should ‘meet this nursery tale of the Spectre of Communism with a manifesto of the party itself.’ Communism — with Marx at the centre — would do a pretty good job in demystification. Other groups, however, do not always have that discursive power to speak up against those who do the labelling. While I’m driving on the East-West Link that connects Suriname to both French and British Guyana, I’m thinking about the spectre of the road bandit and border criminal, usually a smuggler.

map of the east-west link

They have been portrayed rather effectively as a danger across postcolonial contexts (see, for example, the work of Gabriella Sanchez or Janet Roitman), but do we ever hear firsthand stories from the people who have been labelled as such? Road bandits and smugglers in the Guiana Shield have been given a ghost-like status, which is maintained by media spectacle and police statistics that tend to be notoriously untrustworthy. None of this is to say that they aren’t real or don’t exist; just that there is a lot of mystification going on.  

Photo of the road from a car
Driving on the East-West Link (Oost-Westverbinding), Suriname, 4 April 2023. Photo by Paul Mutsaers 

One consequence of all this mystification is interpersonal distrust and a distraction from the root causes of problems in this region — the actual topic of this blog series. For example, while I was driving from Paramaribo to the Guyanese border, with my sight on the bridge over the Coppename River, and the blaka tingifowru—the black vulture—hovering low over the water, I thought of a conversation that I had the other day. An acquainted Chinese-Surinamese lady said to me  ‘Watch out when you’re on the road and don’t use your wiper when an egg is thrown on your windshield. Road bandits bet on this mistake, because it will blur your sight completely, forcing you to stop’. I replayed this conversation in my mind because a few miles back I had found myself in a typical road bandit situation, making it clear to me once again that anthropological fieldwork is what Clifford Geertz called an ‘experience-near’ enterprise.  

The situation: I see a car on the side of the road and three guys waving at me. This is the split-second moment in which I must figure out whether I trust in the goodness of humankind and discard the thriller stories, or be on the safe side and accelerate. It wouldn’t be much of a story if I had opted for acceleration on the right lane. I stopped the car, kept the engine running, opened my window and asked what was wrong. ‘Ai, we have a flat tire. Can you help us?’ The man’s Sarnami accent made it hard for me to understand him, so I wasn’t sure what sort of help he requested; a lift to the nearest town or materials to fix the car? ‘I’m so sorry,’ I replied, ‘but this is a rental car, and it doesn’t carry anything you need. But hey, here comes another car, perhaps they can help.’ The car didn’t stop, though, urging my interlocutor to explain: ‘Yeah, people don’t tend to stop on these kinds of roads you know.’ 

I was on that road to interview police officers at outer area stations in the Saramacca district about the crimes and conflicts that keep them occupied. These interviews took place within the framework of a project on restorative justice (RJ), designed to explore new avenues for alternative crime preventions, and solutions revolving around restoration and social assistance, rather than the usual punishment and retribution. A policeman I spoke with was very pessimistic about the potentiality of RJ in his country. When asked if he thought that RJ measures would stand a chance, he replied: ‘I don’t think so. As long as suspects or prisoners have to sleep on the bare floor in their cell complex, I don’t think they’re going to want to participate’.  

This, however, wasn’t the only reason why he thought RJ was bound to fail. He spoke about the interpersonal distrust and competition and how these projects tend to take an ethnic turn in a multi-ethnic country like Suriname, where ethnic tensions have always existed despite the government’s efforts of nation-building and branding. As an Afro-Surinamese officer, he even took that turn himself and started to badmouth Asians when the conversation had switched to the problems in his district, mainly domestic violence. ‘All Asians?’, I asked. ‘Mainly the Hindustanis [descendant of indentured plantation workers from India]. They get drunk and then just beat up their wives. It’s like in the Middle East, the women have nothing to say. But they live here, in Suriname, and notice that things can be different. That there’s freedom for women and that they have a say in things. The man doesn’t accept this and that’s when the beating begins. As we tend to say around here: it’s in their genes and in their culture.’ 

I was glad to hear, though, that when the road incident was brought up in our conversation, the policeman confirmed that a police car was send to the location, where ‘three Hindustani guys stood at the side of the road due to car problems’. Not only did it make me at peace with my own inability to help; it was also a relief to hear that the your-police-my-police situation that Julia Hornberger is writing about in South Africa has not (yet) been fully developed in Suriname.  

A police station in Paramaribo city.
A police station in Paramaribo city. Photo by Paul Mutsaers 

Any comments about this post? Get in touch with us! Send us an email, or post a comment here or on Facebook. You can also tweet us.

How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

P. Mutsaers. (2024) Themed Series: Land Grab and Border Criminality in the Guiana Shield. Part I: Spectres and Distractions . Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2024/01/themed-series-land-grab-and-border-criminality-guiana. Accessed on: 17/04/2024


With the support of