The Special Task Force (STF) is the commando unit of the Police and plays a very crucial role in the war against drugs. The STF had also played a very important part during the war against the LTTE. The specialized unit, which has also been accused of crimes committed during the war, is now looking to use modern technology in its operations against criminals, including extremist groups. The Commandant of the STF, Deputy Inspector General (DIG) Waruna Jayasundara in an interview with the revealed the future plans of the STF and also responded to some allegations raised against the commandos.
Following are excerpts of the interview: Q The STF operates under the Police Department, but why was there a need for the establishment of the STF?
The STF is the counter-terrorism and para-military outfit of the Sri Lanka Police. Way back in 1971, 37 police stations were attacked by the Southern insurgents. Therefore, the military was asked to come to take over the police stations and it was not good for a democratic country. Then there was a commission appointed under the leadership of Basnayake, known as the Basnayake Commission and one of the recommendations of this commission was to establish a specialized unit within the police Department. Then when it came to 1976 the Northern insurgency started and the first incident was where Velupillai Prabhakaran assassinated former Jaffna Mayor Alfred Duraiyappah in 1976. They started their movement under the name Tamil New Tigers. Then the police CID team that went to arrest Prabhakaran and the team were also arrested. A couple of banks were robbed and in the Northern Peninsula, the police stations, especially the Tamil police officers, were targeted by the LTTE. Then with the recommendation of the Subasinghe Commission, there was a requirement to have a specially trained police unit within the Police Department.
First, they started a unit called the ‘Special Striking Force’, which was later disbanded. Then in 1983, again the idea arose to hand pick exceptional police officers from within the Police to form the specialized unit within the Police Department. That’s how the Special Task Force emerged.
But, the credit should go to Ravi Jayewardena, son of former President J.R. Jayewardena and the STF was his brainchild of having a special team between the police and the military. So, we were privileged and honoured of his idea of getting this elite Special Task Force under the wings of the Sri Lanka Police. Hence, after a long and colourful 37 years, we are recognized as one of the most recognized para-military outfits in the South-East Asian region.
Q Back then, during the war, there were allegations against the STF as well, that certain elements or individuals within the STF were going beyond the instructions of the leadership and were involved in various other crimes and criminal activities. Were there in your view, rogue elements within the STF?
I don’t agree with this. Honestly speaking, we fought a war against terrorists. It was a long-running war and we fought against the second most lethal terrorist organization in the world, where they have carried out the highest number of suicide attacks, after Hamas. So, it was not a conventional war. We were fighting against a brutal terrorist outfit. Hence, in addition to the face-to-face combat, there was a fabricated war against us and our country accusing us of war crimes and especially targeting the leadership and the officers within the STF.
But, as a disciplined officer, I would say that anyone within my 8000 plus unit even now, including me, if I do something beyond my line of duty I should be accountable. So, I agree there were allegations that we killed five youth in Trincomalee. 12 of my officers were arrested and it was reported to the courts and the proceedings were going on, but this team was discharged of this allegation on the grounds that there was no involvement of the STF. It was the Diaspora media made those allegations and they especially targeted the security forces, including the STF. These media outfits such as the ‘Tamil Net’ and ‘Tamil Guardian’ always publish stuff against the armed forces and the STF. I am a lawyer by profession and anyone can make allegations but, it has to be proven and decided by a competent court.
Q But would you be willing to look at these allegations and perhaps investigate them?
Yes, of course. We are paid by the public and we are a recognized force of the Police and we are all are police officers. Hence, any allegation that is made, there is a system and a procedure we follow within the framework and the due process of the law will take over. Hence, anyone, irrespective of their rank and file, if there is an allegation, it will be taken up by the competent authorities.
Q Currently, there is a lot being reported on the war against drugs. Can you tell us about the STF’s operations against drug smuggling and is the network still active in Sri Lanka?
Sri Lanka is an island with a coastal area spanning over 1000km. There is a big fishing community and everyday hundreds of trawlers venture out to the deep waters in the mid sea. Since we are situated close to the Golden Triangle, the main drug supply routes coming from Afghanistan through the Iranian border, sent to the international waters which is picked up by local trawlers in international waters even sailing past the Maldives. Last November, we took into custody a trawler with 112kg of heroin. This vessel had gone to the Somalia waters too. So, just imagine the distance they go to get these drugs!
Q So, these trawlers go beyond the Sri Lankan maritime borders? But isn’t there a security barricade to prevent these fishing trawlers from going beyond our territory?
Yes, it’s there and the Sri Lanka Navy is doing a great job. Registration of these fishing vessels is mandatory, especially with the Fisheries Department and the Coast Guards. But, the point is that if you take a multi-day trawler which goes to the open seas to fish, it carried around 3000kg of fish sometimes. These smugglers could sometimes hide about 2-3kg of heroin in each fish and we can’t check every fish.
Ours is an island which has no landlocked borders. If there are landlocked borders we would be able to physically see that they have to take an air route to obtain the drugs. However, Sri Lanka is an island, no matter how much effort we put, when there are hundreds of boats are sailing in the narrow straits between India and Sri Lanka, so it’s difficult to track them all. For instance, Kerala Cannabis comes from Kerala in India similar to other drugs coming in through the open sea. Similarly, drugs are being smuggled in by couriers via air route where these drugs are smuggled by hiding them in various parts of the body. These happen through many airports. So these are the two ways that the drugs are smuggled into the country. Then when we talk about the organized crimes, that are with the involvement of the underworld, now with the leadership of the President and the other leaders, including the Secretary of Defence and the Minister in charge, there is a mechanism in place. Since I took over as the Commandant of the STF last June, there has been only a single shooting incident. This was in Panadura when the Police had apprehended a group of criminals. So, since last June there were no shooting incidents in either the Southern or Western Province. But, there were day-to-day crimes, but when you talk about organized crimes, it has become very minimal now because of the effective mechanism in place with the STF and the police. If you take the Western and Southern Province, when I took over, there were 12 organized crime groups in the Western Province and five from the Southern Province. We have identified these groups, but their operations are very minimal. The other main factor is that most of these crime group leaders are imprisoned. With the idea of the Defence Secretary, Gen. Kamal Gunaratne, most of the identified criminals are now held in Boossa, which is guarded and often searched by the STF. Around 50 main underworld gang leaders are inside. If you take even the main Angunakolapelessa Prison, the security is provided by us. Even in the three main prisons in Colombo, the search operations are done by the STF. As a result, the criminal activities of these organized criminal gangs are now at a very low level.
If you take the detections, recently we detected 4.5kg of hashish and 2kg of ICE (methamphetamine) which were sent from India. The drug lord was a Sri Lankan, operating from Tamil Nadu. We arrested one of his accomplices with these drugs. So, the Police Narcotics Bureau, the STF and the Navy are operating as one team fighting a common enemies; drugs and crimes. So, I can say that we are in a very comfortable position and we are confident of curtailing, especially organized crimes.
Q Is Sri Lanka a transit point for these drugs or is a destination?
It could be used as a transit point because being a key route with many international ships are sailing past, these drugs could be kept in Sri Lanka and be used as a transit point.
Q All this is done based on intelligence information. So do you work with the intelligence units of other countries as well to get information?
Yes we do.. As the STF unit however, we don’t deal directly with our foreign counterparts, but the SIS (State Intelligence Service) is dealing with them and the CID deals with the INTERPOL. Nevertheless, there exists a regional cooperation.
Q There are allegations that this big drug ring is linked to powerful politicians and bigwigs in Sri Lanka. Does your network get any information regarding such connections?
There are no hard or credible information. But, dealing with Narcotic is the most lucrative business in the world. If you go to Latin America you will find Cocaine very commonly and the similar situation at the US-Mexican border too. So, this problem is everywhere. If you take ICE for instance, it’s a lucrative business and it comes from the West African states, smuggled from Latin America. Cocaine from Latin America is distributed using countries like Sierra Leon and Ghana as transit points en route to Europe.
For instance, there are two corridors being used to smuggle drugs. One is Afghanistan, commonly known as the Northern corridor where it is a lucrative business. They take the land route towards Europe passing the former Soviet States.
The Southern route is of course the sea, where through the Iranian border they use the Iranian boats coming to the international waters and they smuggle to the South Asian region and to Africa, as well as the passing ships that sail towards the Eastern part of Asia and also Australia.
Q Once these drugs are seized, what happens to them?
It faces the due process of the law. For example, if we take heroin or cannabis into our custody, we have a period of 24 hours, but for drugs we can detain a suspect for up to seven days for investigations. Then automatically the seized drugs become a production and we immediately hand them over to the courts and it will be there in the custody of the courts. Then the court gives us the order to get the government analyst’s report and that is the competent authority to confirm what types of drugs they are.
Moreover, anyone who is in possession of over 2g of heroin he/she will get the death penalty. So obviously, when 1-2kg are found, the suspect would be arrested and he will be detained for a longer period and the case could only be taken up at the High Courts as the magisterial courts cannot take up these cases. We send the file to the Attorney General and they file the indictment on behalf of the state. Then the court proceedings would move forward against the culprits. On par with that, the court productions are in the court’s custody then after the conclusion of the case, the direction would be given that the entire consignment of the contraband be destroyed.
For example, a couple of years ago, we detected over 1000kg of Cocaine, where in a state sponsored programme, in front of the judicial officials, we burnt the drugs. The same happens with all the drugs. The Cannabis is burnt, some drugs such as Cocaine is taken to the Puttalam Cement Factory and liquefied at high temperature where it cannot be turned into drugs thereafter. I can confidently say that whatever is taken into custody by the police or the security forces, it goes through the due process.
But, if there is any malpractice of course, the persons who are responsible will be held accountable. Otherwise, there is a very clear cut and transparent system in our country and we have a very strong judicial system as well as the prosecution from the AG’s Department with the police doing the investigation and the prosecution.
Q With the prevailing Covid pandemic, has there been a drop in drug smuggling operations or is it continuing on the same scale?
Yes, there is a drop. Covid has affected the lives of many in every part of the world, even the criminals. I think that is because there is a restriction of movement. Even now the traffic flow is not what you would see normally. You don’t see even general human traffic. So, there is a visible drop in crimes. But, the thing is that heroin is an addiction and that is the issue. Irrespective of Covid, a person who is addicted to drugs will somehow need it. But there is a high tendency that it has affected drug trafficking.
Q In a world of technology, how is the STF embracing technology and trying to innovate?
The STF is a specialized unit, so to keep out rhythm going; we must keep up with modern technology. Even at the time the STF was formed in 1983, we were given the best technology and best equipment. In 1983, we were given the US made M16 rifles and South African-built Buffel armoured vehicles were brought down and we are still wearing the British SAS uniforms.
So, we got the best technology, best equipment as well as the best men. It doesn’t matter what the latest technology or the machines you get, what matters is the man behind the machine. Hence, we are very focused on the human resources as well as the technology.
After I took over the STF, I have gone back to the days of the 1980’s. I basically went back to the principles, but also added the latest technology. My teams have now finished the water-borne operations too.
The STF was trained by experts under the sponsorship of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the Sri Lanka Powerboat Association. I am going to get jet skis and motor boats to patrol the rivers and inland waterways. The Navy patrols the international waters. But, when it comes to domestic river-line operations, the police have to play a major role. We will be doing the waterway law enforcement. At the moment our presence is very marginal.
Since Sri Lanka is an island, where there are 33 major rivers flowing into the Indian Ocean, and ours is a land of lakes. But the police presence in waterways is very less. Hence, I am very grateful to our Minister Sarath Weerasekara, the IGP and the Defence Secretary because for the first time when I met the Minister, he asked me what I wanted. I told him that I wanted to enhance my waterborne operations. Then he introduced me to the Sri Lanka Powerboat Association which was very helpful.
Talking about drones, on the directives of the President, we started an operation from Nugegoda with the assistance of the Air Force to monitor the traffic movements. Galle Road, High Level Road, Low Level Road, Kandy Road and Negombo road, are the four areas where drones will be used. We are thankful to the Australian Government for donating five drones. With these drones and the existing ones, we have set up a drone squadron which will be assisting and managing the roadways together with the Traffic Police.
In addition to that, we will be using the drones for our small team operations. In fact, we are the pioneers in introducing the small team concept on par with the LRRP units of the Special Forces way back in the 1980’s. We also use these drones to monitor deforestation and to spot Cannabis cultivations.
Also in terms of urban warfare, we have reached the stage of tunnel warfare or urban warfare. There can be hostage situations and obviously we will deploy our SWAT teams. In such instances drones will be widely used in time to come as they can be sent to high-rise buildings or even tunnels. Also communication is going to play a huge role in the modern world. Therefore, latest communication interception and communication systems will be encrypted. Other than that, there will be latest IT based analyzing tools that analyze criminal data. The government has given me a Rs. 500 million subsidiary budget, so I am planning on enhancing the capacity of the intelligence, by getting the best analytical tools for the STF, I am also going to enhance the SWAT capacity by giving them the best equipment such as the night vision capacity and all the laser-guided weapons.
And to enhance the operation capacity, I am having 70 camps scattered in all the districts, so they need good vehicles including concealed motorbikes. The intelligence operation needs concealed equipment. So, it’s a battle of technology. Even in the case of extremism, they use technology and the social media platform. For instance, the Easter Sunday bombers used the Threema communication software for their communication. You use it but the data will be automatically deleted. WhatsApp and Viber data can be retrieved, but with Threema you won’t.
We are dealing with a common enemy who are well versed with the modern technology, those who are well educated, and have been exposed and have seen the world, but they are ready to die for the god they believe.
Q While technology is developing, we hear of people’s phones being tapped etc. So is there also a mechanism to ensure that privacy is protected?
This was an issue even in the US where people were complaining that their privacy has been violated by the US authorities. But, the most important thing is the national security of a country. Hence, we will need to compromise and make sacrifices. Human rights maybe important, but national security comes first. However, whatever the technology that we use is also monitored. Though I have the authority, I cannot misuse it. If I do, there will be repercussions.
Q Looking ahead to the next two years, what is your plan or vision for the STF?
The people in this country have great faith in the STF. Even the government has shown great faith in us, especially in countering the drug smuggling operations, organized crimes and illegal weapons. We have risen to that level. During the past four months, we have detected and recovered over 70 illegal weapons and 30 T56 guns. So we are accountable to the public and my priority is to ensure national security at all cost, and if there is any threat we will fight towards the end to protect the country. Further, we have to make the STF more professional. It is not the quantity but the quality. So the impact should be big. Therefore, we are in the process of recruiting the best men. I can’t be here forever, but when I leave, I want to ensure that the STF is in the best hands.
Next is technology and as I explained earlier, we need to ensure the STF has the best technology and small team operations. In order to protect the city, I also intend to enhance the capability of the SWAT teams. We also intend to enhance VIP security. We are using the Land Rover jeeps currently and we are looking at upgrading our vehicle fleet and armoury. We are also looking at acquiring new armoured vehicles for the STF. The STF will also engage in UN Peacekeeping operations in order for our men to get better exposure.
Another issue is accommodation. No matter what the target is, for the welfare of our men should be at a high standard. Hence, I have made a proposal for new premises as we have an issue with accommodation. So, I have selected a location in Ratmalana and I need Rs. 1.2 billion for that, but I am very committed to ensuring that my men are comfortable, irrespective of my targets or vision. Also with the help of the IGP we are also in the process of getting more allowances for the STF because we are a specialized unit. Therefore, everything of ours should be special and above the market level. That is the only way that I can get the youth to join the STF. So, those are in line with my future plans for the STF and I am confident that I will be able to leave the STF at a better place than when I took over last year.
The full video of the interview is on the Daily Mirror YouTube channel
Am very happy to hear STF Professionals who did their FEARLESS TOUGHEST TACTICAL OPERATIONS TO ENTIRE SRILANKANS TO SAFE GUARD OUR BEAUTIFUL SRILANKA THEY HAVE UNDERGONE TREMENDOUS OPERATIONS DEALING WITH DEADLIEST HARDCORE CRIMINALS IN N OUT WELL DONE STF ITS GREAT PLEASURE TO HAVE THESE PROFESSIONALS WITHIN OUR SYSTEMS WELL DONE BRILLIANT WORK
Mohan Thursday, 13 May 2021 08:07 AM
Stupid question from a peasant, the article say “recovered 70 illegal weapons and 30 T56)”. Does this mean the T56 was legally issued? If so from who was it “recovered and from whom ? Also blaming Tamil net and diaspora for discrediting STF , how about the bodies floating in Bolgoda lake during Chandrika regime and how about Sothi uplai being trained by STF at katukurunda base? I am not making false allegations I am quoting from public records. I may not be a lawyer however I am a tax payer.
Soysa Thursday, 13 May 2021 06:25 PM
Same talk we hear from Kim Jong Un!! Kill freedom of expression in the name of security.
Sivakumar (Jaffna Tamil ) Thursday, 13 May 2021 09:32 PM
DIG, The STF is much more a law abiding unit now
than it was in the 80s and 90s when it committed crimes against innocent Tamil civilians without
any care or concern. Secondly, if the drugs keep coming into Sri Lanka and it is increasingly being sold within Sri Lanka, then you are not making any progress towards eradication of the problem, we need hard results not just occasional drug raids and ambushes which are good only for newspaper headlines.
SL Thursday, 13 May 2021 11:46 PM
Happy to hear from the DIG Waruna J, a genuine, serious and trustworthy figure from the schooldays .Good luck with your ambitions on STF
Ranjan Saturday, 15 May 2021 10:31 AM
Now where the hell is Arjuna Mahendran? RW is enjoying and relaxing at home.
His suitcase will be opened only when the agents sponsor him to contest elections and media will play a new series drama.
What about Namal Kumara , Indian Agent and Prez
Prianka Nalin Seneviratne Sunday, 16 May 2021 04:56 AM
There would have been no need for an STF and the Tigers would have been squashed if JRJ acted on the Police recommendations in 1977. Instead, JRJ called the Police officers "anti Tamils". The present DIG should read the reports by the then DIG Northern Range. Why did the President's son tasked to set up a group specially trained in countering terrorism? First is JR wanted to get him off the booze and keep him occupied. Second, it allowed the regime to neutralize the perceived opposition. Ravi may have been a good matksman and a boozer, but never a strategist and should not be credited.
Ariyapala T. Hewage - AAL Sunday, 16 May 2021 07:01 AM
Well answered for the asked questions. People who love Sri Lanka as it is their living motherland ( not just borne country and live in Europe or Australia alike) really wanted to protect the country at any cost as DIG said correctly. The DIG's vision in protecting Sri Lankan natural resource is highly appreciated.
It is a basic principle in Human Resource Management , to have a high impact , the staff is to be well motivated by providing necessary and required resources with authority in making decisions.
It seems by his answers , as a Lawyer by Profession, the DIG has well acquired knowhow diversified with military science , Law and HRM.
Ariyapala T. Hewage - AAL
Badulla - Sri Lanka
Janaka Sunday, 16 May 2021 09:47 AM
Facebook said even they can't decrypt the Whatsapp conversation. So don't lie. But I'm with you on this. Be harsh on criminals. Few 'encounters' will solve the problem.
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