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Beware Indonesia's "road pirates"

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


But not everyone buys that argument. Some here say the police are using the weaker economy as an excuse to cover their own failures.

“The economy is worsening — that’s true. Job opportunties are scarcer and income hasn’t increased. But it doesn’t automatically mean the poor are responsible for the rise in crime,” said Wardah Hafid, director of Jakarta’s Urban Poor Consortium, an advocacy group.

Jakarta’s police have conducted well-publicized raids in recent months, at one point netting more than 3,000 people. But almost all of them were homeless beggars, street performers, sex workers and street vendors lacking proper licenses. Most were quickly released.

“It’s a joke. This has become a tradition,” Hafid said. “When they want to impress everybody they organize raids against the gangs, but what happens is that they arrest just about anyone —targeting the poor, who are powerless and often innocent.”

The raids had little effect on actual gang activity, which often comes in the form of intimidation — mob-like behavior where gang members extort businesses for money.

In fact, Zulkarnain, the Jakarta City police spokesperson, practically admitted the force was running out of ideas.

“We catch them, arrest them and rehabilitate them. After they get out of jail, if they do it again, it’s not our business anymore, it is the responsibility of a social service organization,” he said, referring to the resurgence of the Red Axe Gang.

Hafid said the worsening crime rate probably has less to do with the worsening economy and more to do with an ineffective police force and government that repeatedly fails to lead by example.

“The white collar crimes are so much worse: corruption in parliament and by high-ranking government officials that impoverishes this country and its people. And the police go after the pickpocketers,” she said.

The questionable ethics of the police force is no secret. There have been several campaigns to try to improve their accountability and efficiency.

In February, after a survey found the police to be the country’s most corrupt organization, the president of Indonesia, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and the country’s national police chief signed a memorandum that aimed to improve response times, increase the ability of police to investigate reported crimes, and to root out corrupt activities.

Though analysts have seen some improvements, bribes are still commonplace and such efforts often seem dubious, especially while authorities continue to shift the blame — this time on the economy.

“It’s all just politics,” Hafid said.

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