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Indonesia Field Report I - Crime as a Mirror of Politics: Urban Gangs in Indonesia

Gang Truce in Indonesia  … and El Salvador

Following a wave of violent confrontations and tit-for-tat killings, the leaders of five mass organizations-cum-urban gangs in Greater Jakarta – Pemuda Pancasila (PP), Pemuda Panca Marga (PPM), the Betawi Brotherhood Forum (FBR), the Betawi People’s Forum (Forkabi), and Badan Pembina Provinsi Keluarga Banten (BPPKB) – agreed to a ceasefire in June 2012. The violence to be shut down had erupted in the late winter and early spring of 2012, escalating and taking on ethnic overtones in March 2012 when the leader of another gang John Refra, a.k.a. John Kei, was arrested on murder charges. Fronting as a debt-collecting business, Kei’s Key Youth Force (Amkei) was centered on Moluccan migrants in Jakarta and had been clashing with rival gangs from Flores. The June gang truce, facilitated by police negotiations and mediation,[1] for a moment seemed to turn the violence off. The gang truce paralleled a ceasefire announced by two large gangs in El Salvador – an ocean away.

In El Salvador, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Calle 18, two large transnational gangs whose notoriety and proclivity to violence greatly surpasses the Jakarta toughs, declared a ceasefire in March 2012. In exchange for various privileges for imprisoned gangs leaders and members, the two maras promised the El Salvadorian government that they would turn off the violence that has significantly contributed to El Salvador’s extraordinarily murder rate of over 60 per 100,000 which for years plagued El Salvador’s citizens. Endorsed and facilitated by the government and the Catholic church, the truce was celebrated as a major breakout from the high urban criminal violence. Indeed, the truce appears to have reduced murders and other visible violence in El Salvador during the past year.[2] Even as extortion and less visible forms of violence have continued since the deal and even though there were signs in the fall of 2012 that the truce was becoming shakier and less stable, the truce has held so far and has been declared (rather controversially) by the government to be a model of dealing with urban gangs.

By contrast, in Jakarta the truce did not hold; and several weeks later, turf contestations among its gangs were back on. Of course, with 8 homicides per 100,000, Indonesia’s murder rate is nowhere close to El Salvador’s. In fact, despite occasional dramatic killings by the gangs that draw sensationalist media attention, Indonesia’s urban gangs come across as rather docile compared to their Central American brethren. Jakarta’s smog may be deadly and its traffic murderous and the inability of Jakarta’s cabbies to locate any address may well push one’s self-control to the threshold of violence; but with respect to crime, Jakarta is a remarkably safe city. Even in the vast slums where, as in San Salvador, the state is absent and the gangs rule, the atmosphere of violence is palpably lower than in many of Latin America’s cities. That does not mean that the Jakarta gangs do not exercise a great deal of power and authority over both slum areas and some business parts of the city. Just like in Rio de Janeiro, some gangs may at times have a virtual stranglehold on a neighborhood, complete with checkpoints and controlled entry into the slum.[3]

The State and the Street Rough  

Yet the violence is indeed much lower in Jakarta – one reason being that the influence that official authority, such as the law enforcement, exercises over the gangs is great. Indeed, Indonesian gangs have a decades-old history of thick and complex relations with the Indonesia government, primarily its military, intelligence, and police forces, and also with Indonesian political parties that goes back to Indonesia’s independence. That basic set-up of the gangs doing the bidding of the formal powers has weathered dramatic changes in the country’s fundamental political arrangements and forms of rule over the decades. The faces and names of the gangs have changed, but the essential arrangement of official power remaining the true master and overlord of the criminal underground and employing the gangs for the purposes of the state and political bosses – as shady and illicit as these purposes may often be – has persisted.

In Latin America too, the state has often used criminal groups to advance its goals: In Mexico, deals and arrangements between the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional [PRI] that ruled Mexico for 71 years plus Mexican law enforcement agencies on the one hand,  and drug-trafficking groups on the other hand, moderated crime until the 1980s.[4] In Rio de Janeiro and Jamaica, politicians have long used the urban gang bosses to deliver votes and collect donations for their political parties in exchange for patronage.[5] In Central America, the military and intelligences services employed criminal groups to fight insurgents during the civil wars of the 1980s; and in the 1990s, organized crime groups there evolved from the military-crime nexus of the civil wars. However, Latin American urban gangs have frequently broken away from their subservient relationship vis-à-vis the official power elite and have become rather disobedient, and at times very violent.

In Indonesia, and throughout much of South and Southeast Asia, the state and major formal political parties have been better able to hold the rein on the criminal gangs. That is not to say that the urban gangs, and their facades and manifestations as youth wings of political parties, are totally under the thumb of the politicians or military and police forces. They are agents in of themselves, with their own political and coercive power, at times fiercely asserting their own identity and agency. They negotiate and push back against their political-military overlords even as they take orders from them. Still, in contrast to Latin America, the relationship between the gangs and official political power in South and Southeast Asia has overall remained far smoother and less confrontational. By and large, the gangs have remained tightly integrated into the formal political processes and often closely linked with particular political parties.

Whether taking over unregulated spaces through force due to the absence of other regulators or being de facto granted concessions from the state, the Indonesian gangs have collected rents from various informal and illegal enterprises. They will organize, direct, and tax informal parking on Indonesia’s city streets; the fees are minimal and a refusal to pay may well result in slashed tires or a scratched car, but unlike in parts of Rio, it is unlikely to land one in a hospital. Gangs will also tax nightclubs and street vendors for protection. Often, this informal tax collection can be pure extortion; at other times, the gangs may actually provide protection against rivals, often from different ethnic groups, not merely against themselves. The nightclub protection racket tends to be highly lucrative: The Association of Indonesian Entertainment and Recreation Center Entrepreneurs claimed that over 400 nightclubs, bars, massage parlors, and discos in Jakarta generate revenues of around $200 million annually, with owners spending about 20% on formal and informal fees.[6]

At times, the protection racket can become quite formalized, with gang members hired off the street by “formal” security or debt-collection services.[7] In fact, Jakarta’s business operators have increasingly moved to these formal, legal firms, instead of hiring the informal gangs straight off the street to pay for protection and debt-collection services. The membership between these two types of protection outfits often highly overlaps, but the bosses of the former tend to sport ties rather than tattoos. Like their brethren around the world, gangs in Indonesia also have taxed, or run, gambling, prostitution networks, and local drug distribution operations. At times, the gangs provide informal microcredit, but that service tends to be rather abusive and frequently slips into loan-sharking.

The Many Facets of Preman

There are many types of gangs in Indonesia and they vary in their savviness of how to accumulate power, cultivate political connections, and acquire political capital.[8] Rather surprisingly, many Indonesian gangs frequently do not appear to provide extensive socio-economic services to the communities where they operate or deliver otherwise absent public goods, beyond providing protection and security. Many of the street vendors I interviewed throughout Java and in Sumatra, for example, complained about the gang taxes and claimed that the gangs were of little use to them and appeared to welcome when the state acted to suppress the gangs.[9]

Some are informal organizations of soldiers and sailors out for fun after dark, and one would not expect them to have political ambitions or organize services parallel to or in the absence of the state. Neither would one expect such behavior from the motorcycle gangs, such as the Moonraker, Grab on Road (GBR), and Exalt to Coitus (XTC), that operate in Indonesia.[10] But since Indonesia moves on mopeds and motorcycles, distinguishing a motorcycle gang of the Hells Angels-type from a gang that employs the typical Asian means of transportation may be tricky.

Indeed, the labeling of groups and individuals as preman (with the term encompassing everything from a criminal, street tough, to an outright organized crime group) has often been used and misused for political purposes. As much as the formal state institutions and political parties have used the gangs for their purposes, they have also often found it convenient to make the gangs and, more broadly, the urban poor their scapegoats. Many underprivileged urban young, or homeless people and beggars have been labeled preman merely because they are poor and live in a slum. Similarly, the Indonesian police have a tendency to call even peaceable groups of young kids just hanging around on the streets preman.

Some gangs, such as the aforementioned of John Kei’s Key Youth Force, are ethnically based. The transmigrasi policy encouraged population movements throughout the archipelago – mostly Javanese and southern Sulawesi natives moving to other islands; and, inevitably, quite apart from the transmigrasi policy, Jakarta’s economic growth and opportunities attracted migrants from elsewhere. With poor skills and lacking access to established patronage networks, they would often languish in Jakarta’s slums, with particular ethnic groups settling down in particular areas. The young unemployed become easy recruiting targets for ethnically-based gangs. The wider ethnic-minority community would depend on the gang for access to formal and informal jobs and other patronage, with other ethnic enclaves and their gangs remaining closed to outsiders. Some of the prominent ethnically-based gangs have included groups from Ambon, the Moluccas, Timor, and southern Sulawesi, particularly Makassar.

Violence between the ethnically-based gangs has occasionally not only triggered violent confrontations in the criminal market, but also set off wider ethnic violence in Indonesia. The November 1998 Ketapang riot in West Jakarta between gangs from Ambon and Flores, provoked by clashes over the control of parking lots and a gambling den, was believed to be the last spark igniting the ethnic and sectarian violence in Ambon during the late 1990s and early 2000s. But that narrative may have merely provided a convenient excuse for the police and military forces to be supporting Betawi (Jakarta native) gangs since then. Of course, ethnic tensions over access to land and state resources in Ambon had been growing for a number of years and were intensified by the Islamist salafi global mobilization of the 1990s. (The ethnic violence itself, despite its terrible human toll, provided Indonesia’s military and law enforcement forces with a plausible justification to keep high budgets after the collapse of the Suharto regime.)

But the gangs that do provide socio-economic services and hobnob with the politicians can accumulate a great deal of political power. Indeed, it is often very difficult to draw clear distinctions between some gangs and formal political youth organizations in Indonesia. The two entities may strongly overlap in leadership and membership, with each being unique and separate only at the margins. The gangs with the most explicit and thickest connections to formal political parties provide – rather naturally – the most extensive socio-economic and social services beyond protection, such as street cleaning, electricity, water distribution and sewage, flood assistance, and blood donations. They also resolve disputes, whether over land in slum areas without formal justice institutions and rule of law, or even among businessmen who choose to risk going through Indonesia’s corrupt and increasingly unpredictably bribable courts. Importantly, they also deliver votes for their political sponsors, put on mass rallies to demonstrate the particular political party’s street power, intimidate opponents, and break up the opponents’ rallies or labor strikes. Both the gangs and youth organizations help local party bosses to win public goods tenders and are themselves rewarded with such tenders by their political overlords.

From Nationalism to Ethnicity and Islam: The Evolution of Urban Gangs in Indonesia

One of the most powerful gangs and most visibly used as a tool of the political order and highest formal political power is Pemuda Pancasilla. A criminal gang with large membership on the one hand, it also managed to present itself as the ultimate defender of Indonesian nationalism and the New Order of President Suharto. Established in the early 1980s in Sumatra, it grew under the leadership of Yapto Soerjosoemarno to claim a pan-ethnic membership of 10 million throughout the archipelago in the late 1990s.[11] Often doing the bidding of Indonesia’s military and intelligence services or Suharto’s political party (Golkar) it coerced support for Suharto’s regime, beat up opponents and extorted the Chinese business community for private rents and political donations, as well as partook in charitable activities and the provision of socio-economic goods to local communities. It also provided privileged access to jobs. Unlike the gangs that the Indonesian state employed after the creation of Indonesia and those that had been used by Indonesian political actors even during the colonial, pre-independence days, PP succeeded in sufficiently covering its origins and connections to the criminal underworld so as to portray itself as the ultimate voice and carrier of the official ideology and values of the Suharto’s regime.

Given how tight with the Suharto regime PP was, it is not surprising that it did not weather well the end of the Suharto regime. After the end of Suharto’s reign, Pemuda Pancasilla tried to transform itself into an official political party, and twice, under different names, it did very poorly in national elections. It still exists as a youth group and a street gang, but it now needs to share power in the criminal market and in the political space far more than ever before with other gangs-cum-political-organizations.

The criminal gangs that emerged in the wake of the collapse of the Suharto regime have reflected the diversification of political cleavages in Indonesia. Many have remained ethnically-based.[12] Not surprisingly, some of most successful urban gangs have been those that have received the most support from the post-Suharto state and law enforcement – namely, Jakarta’s Betawi gangs, such as the Betawi Brotherhood Forum (FBR) and the Betawi People’s Forum (Forkabi), based on ethnic groups “native”[13] to Jakarta. By supporting them, the security services believe they have a better capacity to control outbreaks of ethnic violence beyond the criminal market.[14] By the late 2000s, the Betawi groups displaced other ethnically-based groups from large areas of Jakarta, such as Tanah Abang area.

Reflecting the new era of Indonesia’s Islamization during the 2000 decade, the Betawi gangs have also embraced Islamist narratives. Donning Islamic regalia, they have at times taken it upon themselves to enforce sharia and harass the Christian and Ahmadyyia minorities in West Java – both because of genuine ideological drive and because such actions would make them politically useful to politicians mobilizing on the basis of Islamization as well as generate various resources, including access to land, and other economic rents for the gangs. This coating with Islam too made them appealing to Indonesia’s military and law enforcement agencies, which since the early 1990s have also become increasingly Islamized.

The (Non)Evolving State’s Response: Beyond Cooptation and Selective Repression?

The selective embrace of some of the preman and targeted repression of other gangs is nothing new in Indonesia. The most brutal campaign of such selective weeding out of the gangs who were most troubling for the regime and cooptation of those most useful to the regime took place in the early 1980s. Suharto’s so-called Petrus campaign (short for mysterious killings) viciously and rather indiscriminately targeted all manner of “inconvenients” – unemployed youth, disobedient criminal gangs, or those supporting Suharto’s rival General Ali Moertopo, and sometimes even just street children. At the end of the campaign, between 5,000 and 10,000 people were killed.[15]

Although far less violent than during the Suharto era, the anti-preman repression waves during the 2000 decade have continued to target political criminal enemies as well as to cater to the growing middle-class fears of criminality and distract the broader body politic from other problems, such as the country’s socio-economic difficulties, and also away from having to fundamentally redesign the tight relationship between the state and political parties and criminals. Like the mano dura policies in El Salvador and Central America, the suppression campaigns would target vulnerable marginalized individuals merely because they sported a tattoo, and would flood the jails with low-level offenders or members of targeted criminals simply on the basis of their membership, rather than any evidence of actual criminal behavior.[16] But this seemingly indiscriminate repression has consciously coincided with highly-selected nurturing of some cultivated “friendly” gangs.

Indonesia’s politicians continue to be deeply complicit in the perpetuation of the state-crime/cooptation-repression pattern, for fundamentally breaking with the system would require their sacrificing the various advantages they get from employing the criminal gangs. It is far easier and more convenient to occasionally give in to periodic public outrcries for anti-crime campaigns and to round up the most vulnerable people.

In labeling the sponsorship of favorite proxies and ethnic-kin vigilantism as “community policing,” politicians and law enforcement agencies in Indonesia put a new face over the past decade on old practices.  Often underwritten with a lot of money, such “community” initiatives and “community partners” would receive official blessing to cleanse areas, such as Tanah Abang in Jakarta, of ethnic and business rivals. At the same time, in a classic Mansur Olson fashion,[17] the repression waves have made membership in a gang all the more valuable: those without membership and sponsorship would be more vulnerable to arrest and have more difficulties obtaining patronage. Within certain bounds, gang membership would materially, politically, and psychologically empower marginalized individuals, while, paradoxically, by reinforcing the pressures toward gang membership within the slums, gang leaders and politicians as well as police and military officials would profit from the repressive anti-gang campaings.

Such a policy of incomplete, selective repression is also much cheaper than addressing the basic socio-economic and public safety deficiencies that trouble Indonesia’s sprawling slums. Rather than bringing the state into the slum in a comprehensive, multifaceted, and accountable manner,[18] periodic selective repression allows the powers that be to get away with murder (literally and figuratively) while minimizing the resources necessary to suppress crime and manipulate it for one’s purposes. In the long term, the outcome is a profound marginalization of vast segments of society and perpetuation of political and socio-economic conditions that give rise to alienation and that sever bonds between citizens and the state, but in the short term, such an approach is cheap and delivers benefits to adroit politicians and law enforcement agents.

Nonetheless, the concept and language of “alternative livelihoods” for the preman have seeped into political discourse and policies in Indonesia. Formally organizing the gang members in official security or debt-collection companies has been described as one form of “alternative livelihoods.” This approach has several limitations: One is that the amount of jobs these companies generate is still vastly fewer than the amount of jobs provided by the gangs. Second, the “services” that the gang members obtain from belonging to a gang go beyond employment and regular services and are not matched by the formal security companies. And fundamentally, as long as the formal security or debt-collection companies behave no less thuggishly than the informal gangs, they are merely a cover for the same old nexus of political-power-formal-business-and-crime that has characterized the Indonesian scene.

What may perhaps be changing in that nexus is its increasing interaction with terrorism in Indonesia. While still much less violent and virulent than in South Asia or the Middle East, Indonesia’s salafi terrorist groups have been experiencing a certain revival over the past several years – reinvigorated by the influx of refugees from the Middle East, funded by Saudi Wahhabi money for two decades, and at least indirectly fostered by the apathy and meekness of Indonesia’s government and politicians over the past several years when it comes to speaking up against the kind of Islamization that oppresses ethnic minorities and undermines individual human rights. One of Indonesia’s counterterrorism policies of the early 2000s (which have been widely heralded as very effective) has been to throw arrested terrorist group members into the same poorly-controlled general population prison facilities that are used to incarcerate the preman and other criminals. The consequence has been that the criminals and terrorists have been fraternizing and establishing conspiratorial relations.[19] During several recent terrorist attacks in Indonesia, the various terrorist groups have used ex-criminals and criminal gangs both for logistical support and conduct of actual terrorist operations – though the recent terrorist attacks have been highly unsuccessful from the perspective of the terrorist groups and generated minimal casualties and damage.

Overall, these crime-terror connections in Indonesia remain very low level and not very frequent: the salafi terrorist groups, organized crime, urban gangs, and the preman continue to be distinct nonstate actors, very differently connected to and differently antagonistic toward the Indonesian state. The big question is whether eventually, perhaps as a result of their interactions with the terrorist groups, the Indonesian criminal gangs will throw off the reins of their political overlords and strike out far more on their own, and perhaps far more violently, as the gangs do in Latin America, or whether the formal political system in Indonesia will manage to maintain the delicate balancing act of using the urban gangs and criminal groups for its own purposes, while keeping their power in check.



[1] “Gang Leaders Vow to Bury the Hatchet,” Jakarta Post, June 30, 2012.

[2] For details on the truce in El Salvador, see, for example, Linda Pressly, El Salvador Gang truce: Can MS-13 and 18th Street Keep the Peace? BBC News Magazine, November 21, 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-20402216.

[3] For the atmosphere in Rio, see, for example, Vanda Felbab-Brown, “President Obama's Visit to a Favela in Rio: Below the Surface Calm,” The Huffington Post, March 17, 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/vanda-felbabbrown/obama-brazil-favela_b_837371.html; and Vanda Felbab-Brown, “President Obama to Visit a Rio Favela: Surfing on Sewage,” Brookings Institution, March 17, 2011, http://www.brookings.edu/research/opinions/2011/03/17-obama-favelas-felbabbrown.

[4] See, for example, Luis Astorga, “El Tráfico de Fármacos Ilícitos en México: Organizaciones de traficantes, corrupción y violencia,” paper presented at a WOLA conference on Drogas y Democracia en Mexico: El Impacto de Narcotráfico y de las Políticas Antidrogas, Mexico City, June 21, 2005, cited in Laurie Freeman, “State of Siege: Drug-Related Violence and Corruption in Mexico: Unintended Consequences of the War on Drugs,” WOLA Special Report, June 2006; Peter Reuter and David Ronfeldt, “Quest for Integrity: The Mexican-US Drug Issues in the 1980s,” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, 34(3), Autumn 1992:102-103; and Vanda Felbab-Brown, “The Violent Drug Market in Mexico and Lessons from Colombia,” Foreign Policy at Brookings, Policy Paper No. 12, March 2009,

http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/Files/rc/papers/2009/03_mexico_drug_market_felbabbrown/03_mexico_drug_market_felbabbrown.pdf.

[5] See, for example, Enrique Desmond Arias, Drugs and Democracy in Rio de Janeiro: Trafficking, Social Networks, and Public Security (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006); Enrique Desmond Arias, ‘The structure of criminal organizations in Kingston, Jamaica and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.’ Presentation delivered at the conference on “Drug Trafficking, Violence, and Instability in Mexico, Colombia, and the Caribbean: Implications for US National Security,” at the Matthew B. Ridgeway Center for International Security Studies, University of Pittsburgh, October 30, 2009; and Enrique Desmond Arias and Corinne Davis Rodrigues, “The Myth of Personal Security: Criminal Gangs, Dispute Resolution, and Identity in Rio de Janeiro’s Favelas,” Latin American Politics and Society, 48(4), 2006: 53-81.

[6] Hasyim Widhiarto, “Former Street Thugs Revamp Jakarta’s Protection Racket,” Jakarta Post, November 1, 2010.

[7] Ibid.

[8] On how frequently nonstate actors, including criminal groups, provide such services in both Asia and Latin America and how they use the provision of such services to acquire political capital and legitimacy, see, for example, Vanda Felbab-Brown, “Human Security and Crime in Latin America: The Political Capital and Political Impact of Criminal Groups and Belligerents Involved in Illicit Economies,” FIU/WHEMSAC, September 2011; and Vanda Felbab-Brown, Shooting Up: Counterinsurgency and the War on Drugs (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, December 2009).

[9] Interviews with street vendors throughout Java and in western Sumatra, fall 2012.

[10] See, for example, Bayu Marhaenjati, Zaky Pawas, and Ardi Mandiri, “Gang Warfare in Jakarta’s Streets,” Jakarta Globe, April 14, 2012; A’an Suryan, “Concerted Efforts to Tame Motorcycle Gangs,” Jakarta Post, April 23, 2012.

[11] For a detailed study of Pemuda Pancasilla, see Loren Ryter, Youth, Gangs, and the State in Indonesia, Ph.D. thesis, University of Washington, 2002.

[12] David Brown and Ian Wilson, “Ethnicized Violence in Indonesia: The Betawi Brotherhood Forum,” Working Paper No. 145, Murdoch University Asia Research Center, July 2007, http://wwwarc.murdoch.edu.au/publications/wp/wp145.pdf.

[13] Native is a relative term. The term Betawi is applied to people who have lived in Jakarta for several centuries, and, in fact, the name comes from an old colonial name for Jakarta – Batavia. But centuries ago, many of those people were migrants from various parts of Indonesia’s archipelago and Southeast Asia themselves, and ended up mixing with migrants from other parts of the world, including Arab, Chinese, Indian, Portuguese, and Dutch migrants.

[14] “Betawi Big Boys Rule Jakarta Underworld,” Jakarta Post, August 28, 2009.

[15] Ian Wilson, “‘War against Thugs’ or a War against the Poor?” Jakarta Post, April 7, 2012.

[16] “From Petty Theft to Rioting, Gangs Are a Jakarta Plague,” Jakarta Globe, March 4, 2012.

[17] For seminal conceptualization of collective actions problems and group formation, see Mansur Olson, The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971).

[18] On how the design and implementation challenges of such comprehensive state approaches, see Vanda Felbab-Brown, “Conceptualizing Crime as Competition in State-Making and Designing an Effective Response,” NDU-ONDCP Conference on Illicit Trafficking Activities in the Western Hemisphere, Washington DC, May 21, 2010, http://www.brookings.edu/research/speeches/2010/05/21-illegal-economies-felbabbrown; and Vanda Felbab-Brown, “Bringing the State to the Slum: Confronting Organized Crime and Urban Violence in Latin America,” Brookings Latin America Initiative Paper Series, December 2011, http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/papers/2011/12/05%20latin%20america%20slums%20felbabbrown/1205_latin_america_slums_felbabbrown.

[19] International Crisis Group, “How Indonesian Extremists Regroup,” Asia Report No. 228, July 2012, http://www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/asia/south-east-asia/indonesia/228-how-indonesian-extremists-regroup.pdf.

SERIES: Foreign Policy Trip Reports | Number 48