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Did police mobile squad’s decline contribute to Hela killings?

The police mobile squad's effectiveness is argued to have been compromised by LNG camp security duties


RICHMOND, TAS - Prior to the commencement of the Papua New Guinea liquefied natural gas (PNG LNG) project, the Police Mobile Squad was an extremely feared entity in the Southern Highlands and later Hela Province.

Their Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary’s mobile squad had a modus operandi that at times was brutal – including rape, destruction of crops and livestock and burning of houses.

However, they did stop the fighting and brought most of the criminals to heel.

The very threat of their deployment made clans think twice about fighting and payback. Not only would compensation have to be paid between warring clans, but the mobile squad’s collateral damage usually had to be compensated for as well by the fight ‘owners’.

Early in the construction phase of PNG LNG there was a fight going on adjacent to one of the camps and some of the combatants jumped the perimeter fence when they saw a couple of people from another clan working in the camp.

The latter fled and the former climbed back over the fence, reassuring gob-smacked on-lookers that they were quite safe as they were only interested in their enemies.

But there was a consequence.

ExxonMobil head office immediately threatened to halt construction on the project if the PNG government did not guarantee security of the workforce.

The upshot was that the mobile squad was deployed throughout the project area to act as Exxon Mobil’s armed security force.

The police were funded and rationed by Exxon but commanded by their police hierarchy. They were also asked to moderate their usual slash and burn style of law enforcement.

The PNG LNG project thus became security based, unlike its junior partner, Oil Search, which was, and still is, community affairs based.

But, apart from a few token applications of fan-belt therapy applied to the odd recalcitrant tribesman, the mobile squad gradually became neutered.

Its normal modus operandi was curtailed by less onerous security duties and a good life including three massive meals a days, pay allowances and plenty of games of cards and darts.

The regular police looked with envy at the lifestyle of the mobile squad, which may have contributed to their own decline into corruption and ineffectiveness at all levels.

Over the years, the local population was emboldened by a growing lack of fear of the mobile squad and tribal fights, camp invasions and property destruction became the norm in the project area.

The clans learned that no one in the project camps would venture from their secure havens, go through the gate and confront them.

Meanwhile, Oil Search continues to effectively engage with its communities. Community affairs staff are the first out of the gate if trouble is brewing and they are yet to have a major camp invasion despite over 25 years of operations in the most volatile part of PNG.


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