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.


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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