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Beware Indonesia's "road pirates"

Amid weakening economy, violence surges in Jakarta and police may be part of the problem.

An Indonesian police officer directs traffic on a central Jakarta street. Attacks on motorists stuck in traffic jams are part of the growing crime problem in the city. (Darren Whiteside/Reuters)

JAKARTA — In North Jakarta, in the shadow of an elevated toll road, roams the Red Axe Gang, infamous for their violent attacks on motorists stalled at busy intersections.

Brandishing their trademark painted axes, they threaten terrified drivers and make away with whatever valuables are on board.

They are known as “road pirates.”

Despite almost ritualistic crackdowns on the Red Axe Gang by police, they continue to resurface over and over again, as this crowded and crumbling city has been beset by a spike in violent crime in recent months.

Stories of daring ATM robberies and brutal murders regularly make the front pages. During one particularly bleak week in January, the police reported a spike in crime of 12 percent. Violent, armed robberies and vehicle theft were among the most common.

Police are blaming the worsening economy.

“The changing global economy is forcing people out of work,” said Zulkarnain Adinegara, the Jakarta City Police spokesman. “And many of those people are now involving themselves in both drugs and common street crime.”

Indeed, although Indonesia’s economic woes have so far not been as disastrous as some predicted, it is bad. In a country where 50 percent of 240 million people live on less than $2 a day, rising food prices can have tragic results. The Rupiah has continued to drop despite the government’s best efforts and the country as a whole is shedding low-income jobs by the tens of thousands.

The Indonesian Employer’s Association estimates that half a million jobs will likely be lost in 2009, most of those among low-wage workers.

And it is on Jakarta’s streets that the problem is often most evident.

Those Indonesians that haven’t returned to their rural villages are turning instead to busking, begging, and informal sector jobs like street vending or driving rickshaws.

The police believe many are turning to crime as well. The local press has repeatedly carried warnings from Jakarta’s police chief that a rising crime rate is likely as the economy worsens.