Britons in Goa: Death, Drugs and Extortion: the Ashes of a Paradise Lost

Once a backpacker's dream, Goa has become the stuff of nightmares

By Andrew Buncombe in Anjuna
March 9, 2008

From his vantage point on a cushion in Anjuna's German Bakery and Café, Thomas Keller smiled nostalgically as he recalled first coming to Goa more than three decades ago. "It was 1974," said the wiry 53-year-old from Denmark. "[Then] it was serious hard-core hippies. Now everybody can come and go."

And that may be the problem for Goa. When people like Mr Keller first arrived, they came overland, down the hippy trail that wound from Turkey through Iran and Afghanistan to this tiny former Portuguese enclave on India's western coast. They were few enough in number to blend in among the coastal villages, and if they were in a blissed-out haze on marijuana or hash a lot of the time, nobody minded too much.

Talking to Mr Keller in the organic café decorated with streamers and lanterns and with a deep, slow electronic soundtrack pumping from the speakers, it is easy to believe that Goa is still the same. But as some foreigners find out to their cost, it is not immune to the changes the rest of the world has seen ­ mass air travel, harder drugs.

Young Westerners can no longer set out in clapped-out trucks or buses across countries such as Iran or Afghanistan, and when they land here in their charter flights, they discover that the influx of euros, pounds and dollars has polluted the dream that drew them here in the first place.

The secret of Goa got out a long time ago. Over the years the hippies have been joined by backpackers, gap-year students, techno addicts and now the two-week package tourists who congregate around the resort of Calangute. There is more commercialism, higher prices and a spate of hotel building in previous unspoilt areas. There has also been a large influx of Russians, who are said to be increasingly involved in the drug scene. The police are said to be unwilling or unable to crack down on much of the illegality that has resulted. Among the beach bars, I was openly offered everything from cannabis to cocaine, ecstasy and ketamine. "There are more drugs here than in other parts of India, but that is why the tourists come," said the dealer.

All this has been brought into sharp focus by the death of a 15-year-old Briton, Scarlett Keeling, whose naked body was found on the edge of the ocean three weeks ago. Accidental drowning, said the police; rape and murder, said her mother, Fiona MacKeown, who successfully campaigned for a second post-mortem which began on Friday. She said it had already identified more than 50 bruises on her daughter's body.

Scarlett, who was brought to India with six of her eight siblings, was too young to be among the gap-year students whose deaths in far-flung places always make the headlines back home. But in Goa the British victims are often somewhat older, people who seem to come here because they want to taste the dream of youthful freedom before it is too late. People such as Michael Harvey, a 34-year-old from Manchester who was found dead last week in a guest house north of Anjuna, possibly from a drug overdose.

The Indian authorities argue that Goa remains safe. According to the most recent figures, 40 Britons died from natural and unnatural causes in Goa in 2007, and a further 10 have died so far this year. But that is because so many British people pass through this tiny corner of the country, which attracts two million tourists a year. In 2006 a total of 111 Britons died in the India, but more than twice that number, 224, died in Thailand, which is visited by half the number of Britons each year.

The problem is that Goa's laid-back image seems to make people think nothing bad can ever happen here, and when it does, their shock and outrage are all the greater. Three women tourists eating lunch at one of the beach shack bars that line the ocean all said they believed Goa was as safe as anywhere else, but suggested that people often failed to take basic safety precautions when on holiday.

"You have to be aware," said Sarah Hale, from Brighton, who is travelling in India for six months. "I would not walk alone at night here, but I don't think I would anywhere."

But not everyone appears to be so careful. Careless behaviour ranges from the ubiquitous riding of motor scooters without shoes or helmets to the level of intoxication ­ fuelled by both drinks and drugs - encountered among the tourists. "Goa is very safe for visitors," the state's tourism minister, Francisco Pacheco, said after Scarlett's death. "This was an isolated incident. But people have to understand she was 15, and they left her behind when they went off. You have to blame the mother as well."

Certainly it seems that Mrs MacKeown, who lives on a smallholding that has neither mains electricity or running water, was lulled into a sense of complacency. At the time of her daughter's death, she was out of the state, visiting another hippy resort to the south. She left Scarlett in the care of a local guide, Julio, for whom the 15-year-old worked part-time, handing out leaflets, and his aunt. Mrs MacKeown said she believed her daughter was just friends with Julio, but having read her diary since her death she now knows the couple were having a sexual relationship. "I know that people are criticising me for that, but I tried to make Scarlett come with us," she said. "We had fights about it."

It appears the teenager was well known in some of the beach bars, and there is talk, too, that she was mixed up with the drugs scene ­ something her mother denies. There are also reports that she may have been the subject of competition between two or more young men. Police say they have spoken to two dozen people as part of the inquiry into the death of Scarlett, who was last seen alive leaving Luis' bar at around 2am in the company of one or more men.

The bar owner, Luis Coutinho, denies all knowledge of the incident, while one of the barmen, Samson da Souza ­ said to have been seen with Scarlett that night ­ failed to respond to inquiries when reporters visited his house.

The family say they received word from one potential witness, a British tourist, who said he saw Scarlett being assaulted behind Luis' bar at around 4am, but was too scared to come forward and has disappeared. One man who contacted the British High Commission in Delhi refused to go back to Goa to say what he had seen, saying he did not trust the police, who have been accused of corruption, both petty and major, inefficiency and a reluctance to investigate anything that might spoil Goa's idyllic image.

It is alleged that police routinely pull over tourists on their motorbikes and demand on-the-spot fines. Those caught with a small amount of drugs are asked for money or sexual favours to make the problem go away. Last week a press photographer was asked to pay a 600 rupee (£7.50) "environmental fine" for allegedly over-revving the engine of his motorbike. The matter was quickly dropped once a press card was produced.

More serious corruption is alleged as a result of the drugs trade and the once notorious rave and "trance" scene that was finally suppressed a few years ago by the imposition of curfews. "The police used to take money from the party organisers, but when they were closed down they started taking money from the shopkeepers instead," said one Goan, whose family runs a store in Anjuna. "Until that point, nobody realised that the police had been taking bribes."

Nor is Mrs MacKeown the first person to criticise the Goan police in the aftermath of a serious incident. Amanda Bennett's brother Stephen, 40, from Cheltenham, disappeared on a train between Goa and Mumbai in December 2006 and was subsequently found hanging from a mango tree. She has accused the police here of smearing his name and repeatedly refusing her request to initiate a criminal investigation.

Much of the friction appears to be the result of the desire of the Indian authorities to attract a different kind of tourist, and impatience or worse with the counter-culture types who persist in coming.

"The backpackers still come here, but it has become more expensive," said Mike Rudd, a British writer who first visited Goa in the 1980s, sitting poolside at an Anjuna hotel. "The Goan government has made clear they do not want backpackers, but people with money."

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