Saturday Magazine
Mobsters, politicians and cops in unholy alliance

by Shamindra Ferdinando

The Nawagamuwa slaughter on Vesak day this year was the latest in a series of multiple killings involving politically-connected groups of gangsters since the July 16, 1997, slaying of several mobsters including Kalu Ajith.

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Kaduwela Wasantha
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Bullet-riddled bodies of Kaduwela Wasantha and friends (Picture by Jude Denzil Pathiraja)

Ajith, one of the most powerful gangsters of the day and four or five of his men were abducted from a brothel in the Maharagama area, forced to get into a vehicle and shot at point blank range before the vehicle was set on fire. The identity of those killers, who carried out Sri Lanka’s first Chicago-style slayings in Colombo where half a dozen mobsters perished, were known to police and politicians. It was a big incident and captured the front-page attention of national newspapers for several days. Although on and off double murders connected to the underworld had been reported over the years, half a dozen of people had not perished in a single incident.

But no determined bid was made to go after the group responsible for the multiple slayings. The PA which repeatedly vowed to wipe out the underworld (among other things) before coming into power in August, 1994 failed badly.

The underworld grew during the seven-year PA rule with some officers and men of the country’s premier VIP security unit - the Presidential Security Division (PSD) as well as some politicians playing hell with the law. All know of PSD’s Baddegena Sanjeeva and the way the man took advantage of the organisation while the senior officers looked the other way. They co-operated with the man who regularly used to visit Colombo casinos in the company of beautiful women to play baccarat, blackjack and roulette.

The PA’s rule also saw the birth of several powerful gangs in the Katunayake-Seeduwa areas where several people including the Deputy Chairman of the UNP controlled Katunayake-Seeduwa Urban Council K. Silvin J. Perera was shot dead along with two other UNPers on October 20, 1996. Katunayake gangs connected to politicians (from both sides) were involved in a series of killings. Forty three-year-old M. Titus Peiris, the main suspect in the October 20 slaying of Silvin accused of a series of violent incidents, was among the dead. Titus was gunned down on November 9, 1999.

This period also saw one of the groups allegedly linked to Nawala Nihal (some people call him Godfather), going high-tech by obtaining the services of a soldier to mount a claymore-type (directional bomb) mine attack targeting Weebadurachchige Asoka Upanitha Perera alias Pamankada Asoka when he was taken to the Gangodawila Magistrate’s court in July 2000. The device, hidden in a toy car and kept between the ceiling and the roof of the court, was detonated by remote control soon after Pamankada Asoka and the rest of the suspects were moved into the court under heavy guard. They were produced in court in connection with the previous year’s (in September) killing of six mobsters near Delkanda junction. Some believed that Pamankada Asoka was perhaps the only one who could have challenged Nawala Nihal at that time.

Luckily, there had been no similar attacks.

Despite having the legal backing to tackle the underworld, the police and their political masters failed to take advantage of the law to counter the threat posed by mobsters. Underworld figures continued to get bailed out despite Bail Act No 30 of 1997 which permits extended detention, on an application made by the Attorney General, a High Court or High Court established under Article 154P of the Constitution, for good and sufficient reasons that shall be recorded, order that a person who has not been convicted and sentenced by a court, be detained in custody for a period in excess of 12 months, according to the Bail Act. But for obvious reasons, police continued not to press for the remanding of criminals.

Mobsters were in the good books of politicians.

Kaduwela Wasantha was one of them. He was one of the mobsters identified with some PA politicians. It was no secret Wasantha was in and out of some key PA politicians’ homes. He was responsible for carrying out attacks on PA’s political opponents, including the JVP, before the two parties reached an agreement in late 2001 in an effort to cripple the UNP bid to topple the then government.

Atapattu Hewasam Liyanage Don Wasantha Dharmasiri alias Kaduwela Wasantha was perhaps one of the few along with Nawala Nihal who survived the deadly game of politics and ‘business’ for over a decade. Now Kaduwela Wasantha had been killed along with six other persons. All of them were shot through their heads. It was a kind of warning signal to Wasantha’s people.

Police will continue with their investigations until the next underworld-related killing takes place somewhere in Colombo. That will be the end of investigations into the Vesak day slayings.

As far as I remember, law enforcement authorities have not brought mobsters accused of high-profile killings before courts. Most of them had been killed as a result of rivalry among the gangs over prostitution, narcotics, protection rackets, political ‘work’, illicit liquor trade, casinos etc. Only a few had been killed in shoot-outs with the police over the years. But no determined bid has been made to put mobsters, at least the key operatives, behind bars. The reasons were obvious. Politicians, police and criminals were in the game together. In some cases, the judiciary and the Prisons Department also have to be blamed. Inquiries have revealed that mobsters get ‘five star’ treatment during their comfortable ‘stay’ in prisons with their families and associates having direct access to them. In some cases, persons serving long prison terms have been allowed to escape as a result of their successful negotiations with relevant authorities for their release.

Over the years, there were many gangs. Some of them, led by some of the most powerful and politically connected mobsters of the day, were wiped out in on and off clashes among rival gangs. The period before the May Day, 1993 assassination of President Ranasinghe Premadasa was dominated by Arambawalage Don Upali Ranjith alias Soththi Upali and Chintaka Nalin Perera alias Chintaka Amarasinghe. Although several others including Nawala Nihal were in the scene, Soththi Upali and Chintaka captured the front-page attention of national newspapers as their gangs clashed in Colombo and in the suburbs.

Their enmity continued. Many youth died in the process. But Soththi Upali had a clear advantage over the group led by Chintaka as the government of the day backed him. He was in and out of various powerful UNP politicians’ homes, and was made a reserve sub inspector at one time. He was later included in the UNP executive body by none other than late President Ranasinghe Premadasa.

Despite fighting a difficult battle, Chintaka’s gang succeeded in inflicting heavy damages on the Soththi Upali group. Two of his key henchmen Malu Nihal and Cheena were gunned down in broad daylight at Gothamipura in March 1993. Chintaka was identified as the gunman who allegedly had carried out the attack within Soththi Upali’s territory. Two others were wounded.

Malu Nihal and Cheena were among the persons who allegedly attacked cartoonist Jiffry Yoonoos in August 1992.

It was no secret Chintaka’s brother Dhammika played a pivotal role in their operations over the years and remains one of the most powerful leaders with access to some of the leading public figures whether they support the PA or the UNP. He was believed to be involved in some of the high-profile ‘incidents’ over the years.

However, after Premadasa was killed and crucial changes were made in the party administration, Soththi Upali’s luck changed. The then President D.B. Wijetunga ordered police to crackdown on the underworld. Soththi Upali was suddenly under pressure. Chintaka’s gang made a few abortive bids on his life. In one incident, gunmen stormed a Kollupitiya hotel frequented by Soththi Upali. They opened fire wounding a close associate of Soththi Upali. Soththi Upali never recovered from the setback suffered as a result of Premadasa’s assassination and was shot nine times by his old foes when he alighted from a bus at Bokundara junction on December 17, 1998. There was no need to go into details but police never cracked the case although they could have carried out a proper investigation.

Soththi Upali’s gunmen made an abortive bid to kill Nalin Chintaka inside the Negombo Magistrate Court in May, 1994.

Soththi Upali was one of the accused in the Lalith Athulathmudali assassination case. It was no secret some top lawyers including a PC represented him without charging fees.

Chintaka was killed a few years before Soththi Upali met with his death, allegedly in the hands of men working for Chintaka’s brother Dammika. But he could have died earlier. Kaduwela Wasantha was believed to have had ordered a hit on Soththi Upali. They made an abortive bid in late February 1998, at Borella. Attackers fired at a vehicle carrying Soththi Upali but succeeded only in killing one of his close associates Nandasiri Karunathilake alias Nandana, another accused in the Lalith Athulathmudali assassination case. At that time there was speculation that his political masters were aware of the planned hit on Soththi Upali, considered a threat to the PA during election time.

Christopher Barry and his girl friend were shot dead by police on September 8, 1998. Police said that Barry wanted in connection with a series of incidents, and was shot dead when he tried to flee after the police surrounded the mobster’s hide-out in the Ragama police area.

Mohammed Imithiyaz was killed on December 9, 1998.

Police successes against the underworld have been few and far between. But one of the most successful police operations was carried out against Kotte Sunil’s gang in May 2000. Police shot dead Kotte Sunil, undoubtedly one of the most dangerous mobsters on May 19 at Pitakotte, two weeks after a separate police party killed four of his lieutenants including two security forces deserters at Talwatte in the Kelaniya police area.

Janaka Priyankara Jayamanne alias Wellampitiye Sudu Mahattaya, another accused in the Lalith Athulathmudali assassination case was shot dead at his Kolonnawa home on April 30, 2000. His wife also died in a hail of bullets. The gunmen were described as men who were disguised as police officers.

Gamage Ariyapala was shot dead in March, 2000. Ariyapala who was pictured with President Chandrika Kumaratunga a few months ago when he accompanied UNP dissidents including Dr. Sarath Amunugama, was shot dead at Keselwatte. Ariyapala had been with UNP politicians. He had been pictured with Sirisena Cooray, Mrs Hema Premadasa and later joined the UNP dissidents who joined with the PA in late 1999. Sarath Amunugama, Jeevan Kumaratunga, and Bartha Lakshman were among the politicians who paid their last respects to Ariyapala. Sirisena Cooray had delivered the funeral oration.

W. K. Sunil Perera alias Gonawala Sunil was one of the first big-time mobsters to die. He was gunned down in July 1987 during the height of the JVP-inspired insurgency. He was an important man, important and influential enough to win a presidential pardon.

Over the years, mobsters have reached great heights. Gamage Ariyapala was just one good example. He was among the UNP dissidents invited to the Temple Trees in December 1999, months before his life was cut short by gunmen as he had done to others.