The growing sense of lawlessness has caused a stir in Sri Lankan society, with bodies washing up ashore with alarming frequency and shots fired in broad daylight. Since 1 January 2022 to 8 August, 35 people had been gunned down in various parts of the island and the recent shooting inside the Mt. Lavinia courthouse can be considered as the pinnacle of these cases.

The gunman fired inside the courtroom in the presence of 16 policemen. The shooting inside such a high-security zone sparked a debate about law and order in the country and how could the suspect managed to get away.

CCTV footage of the ‘motorcycle murders’ show how masked gunmen on motorbikes brazenly attack their targets in broad daylight.

Speaking with regard to this spate of murders, Police Spokesperson SSP Nihal Thalduwa said the majority of shootings were linked to drug rackets and criminal gangs. He also said the deceased are associated with such rackets, and that certain shootings were ordered by drug traffickers operating from overseas.

He pointed out that several suspects have been arrested in connection with the shootings, and firearms used in the crimes have also been seized.

“Investigations into the shootings are ongoing. Police Headquarters has issued directives to Provincial Senior DIGs to remain vigilant, and Intelligence Officers are working to arrest those responsible for the shootings,” he said.

Spate of ‘Motorcycle Murders’

A total of 35 murders have been reported since 1 January to 8 August; a shooting has been reported every six days. Accordingly, it is clear that the beginning of this wave of killings started in April and is now gradually reaching its peak.

Considering the geographical plan in which these murders have been reported, 85 per cent of the cases have been reported from the Western and Southern Provinces. Fifteen cases each have been reported in the Western Province and the Southern Province respectively, while only five cases have been reported in the other seven provinces of the island. Three of the five cases have been reported in the North-Western Province and two cases in the Central Province. It is also important to note that no shooting incidents have been reported in North Central, Uva, Northern, Eastern and Sabaragamuwa Provinces so far.

Is Sri Lanka becoming the ‘second Chicago’?

Retired SDIG Priyantha Jayakody warned if the current gun violence is not controlled the country, could soon become a ‘second Chicago.’

“Our country is undergoing a very crucial period economically since independence. It has given a strong impact on the social structure as well, as we can expect. Recently, I went through the report submitted by the United Nations Organisation of Drug and Crime (UNODC). This survey was conducted in 15 countries between 2008 and 2009 during the global financial crisis in different geographical zones and the findings have been compared to last the 20-years of crime statistics. In this report, it was visible that there is drastically increase in certain crimes during economic crisis. Sri Lanka is going through the same sort situation currently,” he pointed out.

From Asia, Thailand and the Philippines was picked for that research since these two countries were severely affected by the 2008 recession. Now Sri Lanka is in that situation where Thailand and Philippines were in 2008. The economic crisis impact that has on social structure is vast; crime is one of these impacts. So, this is something expected. At least 150,000 unemployed people have been reported in the last two months, according to the Department of Census and Statistics.

“When daily wage earners come to cities looking for jobs and when they don’t find any, they might join criminal gangs. If they cannot find any employment, they will have to do something for their survival.

That’s why there is a rise in petty theft and robberies. This also makes a huge impact on drug use. Unemployed people get in to the drug trade, and then because of the severe frustration caused by the economic impact in their day-to-day life they too start using more drugs and liquor. Under these circumstances the drug situation expands, these have big impacts on the overall society,” SDIG Jayakody elaborated.

According to a survey conducted in the middle of 2021, it was revealed that 41 out of the 62 criminal gangs operating in the island are conducting their activities in the Western Province, which is a percentage of 66. The number of criminal gangs operating in the Southern Province was 16, which is a percentage of 25. Therefore, it is clear that 57 of the 62 criminal gangs that have been identified as active in the island conduct their criminal activities in the Western and Southern provinces. When these data are combined with the data of shooting incidents this year, it will not be difficult for anyone to find the connection between the activities of these organised crime gangs and the current shooting incidents.

Therefore, SDIG Jayakody said the main task that needed to be done by the Police to curb this alarming wave of shootings is to start their operations immediately, focusing on the Western and Southern Provinces. All the members involved in these organised crime gangs should be arrested and activities of these gangs should be neutralised, he added.

What is the Police doing?

“Today the Police is facing a massive crisis and they have to get involved to control the situation.  Most police officers who should have to attend duties such as combating crimes, doing patrols, monitoring criminals and arresting the culprits to protect law and order in the country, cannot do that because they are mostly guarding petrol sheds, gas queues and controlling the protests. You can see that we can hardly even see a police officer to even control traffic. Because of these circumstances the Police has forgot their day-to-day duties. This also have a big impact on the rising crime wave,” SDOG Jayakody said.

But now, the Police have to act very firmly against these shooters. When I look into these spate of killings, most of these incidents involve rival gangs. They are based on business rivalries. Therefore, the Police should act immediately as it is the responsibility of Sri Lankan Police to handle this situation because you can’t allow this to happen anymore, he added.

“When I acted as the DIG – Crimes and Organised Crimes, we set up crimes combative teams, because this is a very specialised job, and is not for just any normal Police officer. You need a particular knowledge, criminal intelligence, and certain abilities to combat these people. All those special units were not functioning properly these days because of heavy work put on them. Then have to take care of the security of the State. Under these circumstances, there is no room for them, and that is the main reason for this crime wave.”

Anyhow, the Police have to adjust to this situation. As a responsible Police Force they have to focus on this. Now there so many researches methods, therefore now they should focus and act accordingly. But I did not see anything happening under these circumstances in the current situation.

Speaking about the bodies washed ashore recently, SDIG Jayakody said he did not go through the details.

However, it is the responsibility of the State to prove who they are, find out under what circumstances they died, and find out whether they are natural or other causes. That is the responsibility of the State to protect the rights of the people whether they are alive or dead, he said.

Arrests so far

The Police arrested a couple involved in an incident where a person was shot dead after entering a house in Silva Mawatha, Ratmalana. That was when they arrived at Katunayake Airport to leave for Dubai.

Police said that the suspects were involved in a shooting in Ratmalana on 27 July.

The couple is connected to a network of drug traffickers residing in Dubai, according to Police.

Meanwhile, three suspects were arrested by the STF for the murder in Modara on 6 June.

The STF also arrested two henchmen of the infamous Sanjeeva Samararatne alias Ganemulla Sanjeeva, an organised criminal and large-scale drug trafficker who is hiding in a foreign country. The suspects were arrested with heroin and money in Makevita, Gampaha.

Bodies washed ashore

President of the Families of the Disappeared (FOD), Brito Fernando said they had lodged a complaint with the Police, requesting them to probe the recent discovery of bodies of youths at Galle Face Beach.

At least five bodies were discovered at Galle Face recently.

He said they had urged IGP C.D. Wickramaratne to uncover the truth behind the many bodies washed ashore.

Fernando added that the Police should reveal how these youths had died, whether it was by suicide, drowning or murder.

He said there are suspicions raised in society that those clad in civvies had started to abduct youths and added that the Police should conduct an unbiased inquiry.

BASL writes to the IGP

Meanwhile, the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) addressed a letter to IGP C.D. Wickramaratne urging him to investigate the recent spate of shootings and dead bodies found on beaches.

The letter by BASL President, Saliya Peiris PC seeks a prompt investigation into the incidents including that of dead bodies that washed ashore in the vicinity of Galle Face.

The BASL observed that these  incidents are a threat to the rule of law, adding that thereby prompt investigations should be conducted and action taken against the perpetrators.

Lack of transparency in the investigations

Speaking to Ceylon Today, Attorney-at-Law Manoj Nanayakkara said the lack of transparency by the Police with regard to these shooting incidents are unacceptable and alarming at the same time.

“Owing to the lack of transparency with regard the investigations of the spate of these ‘motorcycle murders’ and the unidentified bodies that was found washed ashore in recent months has grown suspicions in the public. Although there are 25 such murders have been reported since 30 May, the Police have not revealed any progress in the investigation process,” Nanayakkara said.

This silence from the Police and the Government even after continuous inquest of the public, media and even Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) has raised suspicions in the society. For an example, there are cases where the Police can identify the murderers using CCTV footage including their vehicle number, their physical appearances and the pattern of conducting the crime. But none of this information were officially revealed or verified in the Media nor given exposure to find the culprits, he added.

“When we analyse these footages, we can clearly see that these are trained killers and not ordinary hoodlums. The footages show them hunting the victims without any hesitation or fear; even in broad daylight, in public and spraying their victims with bullets,” Nanayakkara said.

It is easy for the Police to credit all these murders into the account of underworld gangs and drug addicts, as the Police press releases state.

However, regardless that the above 35 victims were drug addicts or petty theives siphoning fuel from parked cars to sell at black market prices, despite the gravest socioeconomic crisis that the country is facing after obtaining independence 74 years ago in 1948, they are all, either citizens or resident aliens of this country, equal before the law, having the right to live and for their cases to be heard and dealt with by the law and not be made victims of extra judicial killings.

The Police is maintained by the taxpayers’ money to ensure that the law is upheld and not for them to be gunned down, sometimes in broad daylight.

Therefore, it’s the bounden duty of the Police, including SSP Thalduwa, to inform the public how many arrests have been made in this connection?  How many of those cases have been solved/remain unsolved? If unsolved, the reasons for such situations? And, finally, what is the real story behind all these murders?

By Methmalie Dissanayake and Nabiya Vaffoor