Going Straight In Port Moresby


Lawrence Martin’s face is unblemished, but his body isn’t. His right leg was shattered by a police bullet in 1993, as he fled from recapture. His back is tattered by prison fights. But despite his years as a gang leader in Port Moresby’s most notorious "raskol" gangs, the GGB 105, Martin’s face is smooth, free of scars.

It’s no accident. Martin would take blows anywhere but his face as he fought to protect his place in the prison hierarchy. "I got in a lot of prison fights and I’ve got a lot of scars. But I never let my scars be seen," he says, grinning. "When you rob a bank, you have to have someone go in first to hold up the teller. That was me, the ringleader. If I had scars on my face, the teller would know I was dangerous."

Martin is 41. He’s been out of crime and out of jail since May 2001. Of his eight years in jail, he spent five in solitary. It was by choice — he didn’t have to stay. In Papua New Guinea, prison is permeable. Martin escaped five times in his wilder years. But the time in solitary, visits from his mother and a dose of reflection led to that rare thing — a reformation. "When I talk to young people now, I show them my scars. I tell them: what, you want to be a criminal? The world will fall, it will turn against you," says Martin, his trademark grin disappearing for a moment.

There’s something incongruous about Martin’s infectious smile and the stories he tells of armed robberies gone wrong, police shootouts and prison brutality. How can this charming, dapper man sipping a soft drink through a straw at the Port Moresby Holiday Inn be the man the police had a shoot-to-kill tag on in the late 1980s? But Martin’s voice has the ring of authority, authority he uses to good effect in his job working with wayward teenagers in the settlements around Moresby. "I am talking from experience. If I am successful in what I am now, they can do it," he says.

Martin’s past drives him. All around him, the young are following a familiar path. From the age of eight, Martin started stealing small things in his settlement of Rabiagini, shoplifting and pickpocketing. It was the late 70s, shortly after Papua New Guinea’s independence from Australia. The largest city in Melanesia, Port Moresby was ballooning, drawing in thousands upon thousands of villagers seeking a different life. Instead, they found themselves trapped in a city with high rent, low prospects and no road connections to other major cities.

Today, Port Moresby is a place of broken dreams, frequently ranked amongst the most dangerous city in the world for the raskols’ prolific carjackings, robberies and murders. With huge unemployment and the majority of people eking it out in the informal economy, selling betel nut and cigarettes on the street, crime is the one prospect for making real money. The wealthy live in reverse jails — homes with razor wire, permanent security guards and bedrooms with solid steel doors — as the raskols roam outside.

It was an intoxicating time to be a bandit. Eight hundred raskols strong, the Goilala Gaire Boys were nearing their zenith, robbing people, banks and stores with near impunity from the understaffed police. Tim Flannery writes in Throwim Way Leg, his memoir of his time in Papua New Guinea, of the "daring and brutality of the 105 gang". The gang’s notoriety drew young men in like flies. "When I went to juvenile jail, I learned about organised crime. When I came out, I was already a hardcore criminal. We called ourselves the elite," Martin says.

He discovered a flair for armed robbery. "What we’d do was to steal a car. We’d come with bushknives or with homemade guns and we’d drive to easy targets like banks or big stores, and we’d go in and hold it up," he says. "Some were inside jobs. If you conspire with someone, you get good money. It was pre-planned and everybody played a role." He pauses, remembering his youth. "Sometimes the police provided the getaway. We’d buy them off."

In his criminal career Martin led more than 50 armed robberies and innumerable car thefts. He and his friends were invulnerable, spending their proceeds on booze and partying. But as the GGB 105 gang and other major raskol gangs became more brazen, the police began to employ deadly tactics. A large swathe of the GGB gang gave themselves up in 1992, believing that police were working through a secret hit-list of top raskols. Several of the dead were Martin’s close friends.

Fleeing from an armed robbery in a stolen car, Martin heard the whine of a shot. He turned to his left to see his friend slumping into death. "I shook him, but he was already dead," he says. He mimes his friend’s body, tongue lolling, body sagging into the seat. During his years in jail, Martin thought about his lost friends. "I was tormented, haunted by those memories for so long. They still come back."

In 1987, Martin was arrested and taken before the Supreme Court. The Australian-born judge Stan Cory rifled through a thick sheaf of paper listing the known crimes of the 17-year-old. "It was this thick," says Martin, opening his thumb and forefinger wide. "The judge said, Lawrence Martin, you are a very bad young man." Martin shakes his head, remembering. "I felt the injustice. I argued with the judge in the courtroom."

Five times he escaped from Bomana prison. "I cut through the cell bars with a hacksaw, I climbed the fence and came out with other prisoners. I got into all sorts of trouble and the police arrested me again. I stayed in prison for a couple of months and escaped again," says Martin. "I was always on the run, sometimes for years. I was almost killed so many times. The police put a tag on me. But luckily, the last time I was arrested, I was shot only in my right leg."

Thrown into solitary, Martin’s only visitors were his parents. Over many months, his mother and father begged him to give up life as a raskol. "Nobody encouraged me but my parents," says Martin. "They were the ones who really encouraged me to change. So I made my peace. I didn’t escape, and I came out a free man in the right way." On 27 May 27 2001, Martin re-entered the world outside his cell. Port Moresby had kept growing, engorged with internal migrants. But his raskol gang was still there — diminished by shootouts with police, but still active. "My good friends came to see me and said drink with us, go along with us. I said no," says Martin, a tinge to his voice. "It was a difficult break. But I was a different person. I wasn’t interested in that world. I was interested in my own life and the little world I was gonna build."

Build it he did, fathering three children with his wife, Maryanne Vauro. "I met her when I was into crime," Martin admits. From his home in Rabiagini, the gang-run settlement, Martin decided he had to work to expand his little world. As a volunteer working with youth, he met AusAID advisor Steve Sims, who recommended him to the Port Moresby Chamber of Commerce. Chamber of Commerce head David Conn says simply that he decided to give Martin a second chance. "If we were going to ask others to take such characters, we had to be seen to be doing it too," says the gruff Scotsman. "He’s a classic case of giving someone a chance and watching them fly."

Martin threw himself into a radical new plan to encourage Port Moresby residents to take pride in their city and reduce crime. The AusAID-supported Yumi Lukautim Mosbi (Let’s Look After Moresby) project paid residents to clean streets, encouraged more sport and paid for youth skills training in sewing and farming. "It’s gone from strength to strength," says Martin proudly. One of his roles was to manage Justice, a band made up of former raskols. Named after the program, their first song reached #5 on the Papuan Top 20. Martin breaks into sudden song: "You, me, luuuuukautim Mosbi," he sings proudly.

From there, he began working on the real problem. How could Martin and the Chamber of Commerce help youth whose parents couldn’t afford PNG’s expensive school fees get involved in the formal economy, rather than the shadow economy of crime? One promising project has been a skills training and placement program. "Last year, we placed 548 young people in Port Moresby companies," says Martin. "70 per cent of those were retained as permanent employees. That helps young people with no hope."

This year, for the first time, a new skills bus will drive into the illegal settlements and set up camp. Young people will come and learn pre-employment skills — the importance of being on time for work, how to dress, and a boost to self confidence.

"It’s a challenge, a great challenge, but how can we run away from it?" asks Martin. "This is our country. We are the people and we can help." He pauses. "Sometimes 30 people live in one house and there is no-one working. But if you help one of them in this house, that means fortnightly he brings something home. It gives young people pride, a sense of belonging and they feel appreciated. It changes things."

Martin leans back slightly on his chair. "When I was in jail, we had a saying: When I die, you can bury me upside down so that the world can kiss my arse. But it’s not like that anymore. If I die, I die a happy person," he says, smiling. "I feel satisfied. I was a very bad person. But that was once upon a time."


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