Super-High Crime in Papua New Guinea
Papua New Guinea is not the most crime-prone country on Earth. However, it is a perennial contender.
Usually, the number one crime country is either in the middle of a civil war, an onslaught of narcotraffic, or a complete social collapse. The civil war cases don’t show up in the international crime figures because there is too much fighting going on to allow the government to collect any statistics at all. Yemen and Syria look pretty bad right now. Throughout the 2000’s and 2010’s the highest homicide rates for countries that actually had statistics were in Central America. This reflects the rise of gangs and narcotraffic in those nations. The highest crime rates in 2020 are in Venezuela which is in the middle of the collapse of the post-Chavez economy.
Papua New Guinea does not have civil wars or all-out economic collapses. However, it is remarkable for experiencing high crime all of the time. Papua New Guinea currently has the second highest crime rate of any country in the world. The Overseas Advisory Council, which is the crime-watching branch of the U.S. State Department, argues that crime in New Guinea cities, notably Port Moresby and Lae, are among the highest in the world. Raskols, which is the PNG term for criminal gangs, are active throughout the country. Kidnappings, home invasions, car-jackings, gang rapes (called “pack rapes” in New Guinea) and armed robbery are routine. OSAC recommends the use of security escorts, 24/7 guard surveillance of homes and places of business, and the wearing of personal tracking devices to allow for easier rescue in the event of an abduction.
Why is violence so high in New Guinea? There are many, many reasons. An absolutely first-rate discussion of the issue can be found in Sinclair Dinnen’s Law and Order in a Weak State: Crime and Politics in Papua New Guinea. (University of Hawaii, 2001). Dinnen’s book is an intelligent discussion of the causes of crime that occur nearly everywhere in the Global South. Things reach an extreme level in Papua New Guinea because Papua New Guinea has extremely high levels of the social factors that cause crime. On a scale of one to ten for crime causes, Papua New Guinea always comes in at nine or ten.
There are about fifty to seventy important causes at work, and Dinnen thoroughly discusses them all. In return for your pains, you will get a first-rate graduate education in the determinants of crime in the poorer nations of the world.
Here is a list of eight of Dinnen's very fine arguments.
1. Papua New Guinea is poorer than most of the rest of the world. Technically, the GDP statistics for Papua New Guinea are not bad because they have a lot of mining. The mines employ very few people; those they do employ are usually foreigners. There is not much other economic activity for New Guineans. Rural Papuans have a very low standard of living. Urban unemployment is sky-high.
2. Mines Are an Open Invitation to Crime. Mines are problematic net of their tendency to not create a lot of jobs. They are located in remote places, far from cities – and more importantly, far from urban police forces. Their isolation makes them vulnerable to banditry. Furthermore, mining is a highly lucrative activity. The companies can afford to pay both protection money and ransoms. When faced with kidnapping, sabotage or raids, it is far simpler for the companies to pay off the criminals than to actually try to have the criminals arrested or prosecuted. Mines become soft targets, inviting multiple attacks.
3. Low Government Control of the Hinterlands. The Hinterlands Are the Majority of the Country. Neither the colonial regimes in New Guinea nor the present-day government have really established strong political control over much of New Guinea’s territory. Much of the country is jungle-covered and mountainous. There are few roads. Most travel to the interior has to be by plane. Before independence, colonial authorities visited inland areas rarely. As such, the day to day governing was done by chieftains and warlords rather than the Australian or European administrations. Transportation and governmental control are a little better today, but not by much.
4. A Long History of Tribal Warfare in the Mountains. The New Guinea Highlands have long been one of the most war-ridden regions of the world. The coastal areas are more peaceful. However, raiding is the traditional occupation and pastime of most of the groups in the center of the country. When Central Highland residents migrate to the cities, the skill-sets associated with lifelong raiding translate easily into organized crime. Experienced warriors are used to fighting as teams, organizing elaborate and well-planned thefts and in defending territory against rival groups.
5. Local Norms of Justice in Opposition to Western Law. Traditional New Guinean groups may be warlike, but they are neither amoral nor self-consciously evil. There were complex local systems of justice. These were based on compensation of victims for losses suffered, and were grounded in humanistic assessment of well-being and damage rather than determination of offenders’ compliance or non-compliance with formal codes. Western formal jurisprudence is based on compliance or non-compliance with the law as written. Furthermore, “big men” in New Guinea are one-stop shops for the administration of justice. They are the police and the judge and the jury and the agent of punishment. In Western systems, police just catch criminals. Judges just determine guilt. Jailers just administer punishment. New Guineans came to regard the justice meted out by formal Western courts as being partial, idiosyncratic, pettifogging and incapable of providing swift compensation to victims.
6. New Guinea Is Extremely Patriarchal. In many New Guinea settings, women do all of the work in the society while men occupy themselves purely with status and warfare. An exception is made for clearing jungle which is a man’s job. Women do everything else. Women get little political power and zero say in decisions about the family. In some places, the sexes are strictly segregated, with men living in an all-male world and women living in an all-female world. Macho culture rules. Macho culture is violent. Women act to protect their children and keep them from being hurt. Men teach their children to be tough and courageous. Patriarchal culture is particularly pernicious in regards to rape. Isolation from women and lack of empathy with women objectifies women and legitimates taking what-you-want with no regard for women’s feelings. Street assaults on women become common. Gang rape becomes just another activity men do with their friends.
7. Fiscal Crisis. The finances of the Papua New Guinea government have always been shaky. The country is so poor that outside of mining, there is very little the government can tax. The government is heavily dependent on foreign aid which is fickle and variable in the extent of its provision. Fiscal crises are common. The government rarely has the funds to either promote economic development or cope with social problems. Fiscal crises are particularly pernicious when it comes to the administration of justice. Police often go long periods without being paid. When the government does not pay its police, someone else will.
8. Gangster-Politician Alliances. Papua New Guinea is a democracy. It is also a crooked democracy. A country that can barely maintain control within its own borders is not well set up to insure fair and impartial elections. Ballot box stuffing, ballot box destruction and multiple voting is widespread. No one is better at burning or stealing ballot boxes than criminal gangs. Thus gaining political power in Papua New Guinea virtually requires making some sort of alliance with one or more criminal gangs. Once politicians are dependent on the goodwill of the gangsters to remain in office, they are in no position to go on a law-and-order campaign. The price of electoral support is giving the gangs carte blanche to do what they want. The winning gangsters do just that.
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Those, in my opinion, are the top eight considerations that lead to crime being high in Papua New Guinea. But Sinclair Dinnen has about forty-eight or sixty-eight more arguments in case you don’t like any of the eight I just gave you. I recommend his book most highly.
I also make two other recommendations.
1. What applies in New Guinea applies in many other places. These causes of crime are very widespread – which is why violence is high in the Global South today.
2. If you are thinking about a beach vacation, you may want to choose someplace other than New Guinea. They tell me Bora Bora is nice.
For More Information
For the list of the countries with the highest crime rates in 2020, see the World Population Review “Crime Rate By Country 2020”
For earlier statistics, which are marred by missing data from some key violent countries, see the Wikipedia page on Intentional Homicide Rates By Country
OSAC advisories about the risk of crime in Papua New Guinea can be found in the Papua New Guinea Crime and Safety Report 2019.