Crime and terrorism in New York's Guyanese community
The hardworking, tight-knit neighborhood known as "Little Guyana" is a peaceful home away from home for the many immigrants who left their violence-wracked Caribbean nation for a better life.
But lately, the neighborhood has been struggling to deal with images of terror and violence that keep putting the word "Guyana" in the headlines.
The latest blow came when four men from Guyana and Trinidad were arrested on charges that they plotted to blow up the jet-fuel pipeline and tanks at John F. Kennedy International Airport.
The reaction among residents is usually the same: Shocking. Embarrassing. Crazy. Stupid.
"They let a whole nation down! Stupid!" said Yadran Harry, a 37-year-old grocer in the Queens neighborhood that is home to at least 50,000 immigrants from Guyana, mostly of Indian descent. Thousands more Guyanese immigrants, mostly of African heritage, live in Brooklyn.
The Guyanese community has been struggling with other negative stories in recent months, despite the fact that residents up and down the main street -- Liberty Avenue -- insist that it's a peaceful place.
Last month, authorities said a young woman from Guyana was gunned down by her police officer boyfriend after she broke up with him.
Another crime involved a Guyanese-born woman whose throat was slashed on her doorstep by the man who allegedly raped her, to keep her from testifying against him.
And in a horrific case that has been playing out in a New York courtroom, a former insurance agent and an ex-postal worker are accused of taking out life insurance policies on impoverished members of their Guyanese community without their knowledge, then hiring hit men to shoot or poison them to collect the money.
At a time when the U.S. government is reassessing immigration laws, residents say a string of crimes associated with a particular nationality puts everyone in doubt.
"People are afraid they'll be watched more, that travel and immigration will be restricted," said Gary Girdhari, publisher of the Guyana Journal magazine.
Guyana is a former British colony on the northeast coast of South America where about a third of residents are descendants of African slaves and nearly half are the descendants of Indians imported as contract laborers in the 19th century, according to government figures.
The accused airport plotters are Muslim, but only 7 percent of Guyana's population is Muslim. Fifty-seven percent is Christian, and 28 percent is Hindu.
The country has long been plagued by violence and drugs; drug traffickers earn the equivalent of an estimated 20 percent of Guyana's gross domestic product, the U.S. State Department has said.
In Little Guyana, a group of community leaders issued a statement condemning the alleged beliefs of the terrorism suspects -- three of them Guyanese and one from Trinidad. One is a former member of Guyana's parliament.
"We vehemently condemn any and all acts of terrorism and call for the highest punishment under the law," said the statement, signed by a group of leaders including politicians and clerics who urged "neighbors and fellow New Yorkers not to rush to judgment, and more importantly, not to paint every Guyanese and Trinidadian here in the U.S.A. with a prejudiced brush."
For Harry, the grocer, the aftermath of the terror plot arrests came in a personal form: a phone call from his 18-year-old son.
"He asked me, 'Dad, what's going on?'" said Harry, who immigrated to the United States about 10 years ago. "Coming to America was everybody's dream. This drives me crazy. I can't believe it!"
The arrests were mostly a surprise to a group of immigrants more interested in making a good living than in international politics -- let alone terrorist causes.
"These men are aberrations," said attorney Albert Baldeo, a native of Guyana. "We've never had any ties to radical Muslim fundamentalism."
The accused mastermind of the alleged plot, Russell M. Defreitas, is a U.S. citizen born in Guyana, a Muslim of African descent. He told a federal informant his feelings of disgust toward his adopted homeland had lingered for years.
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