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
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
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
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
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."
FAIR USE NOTICE. This document contains copyrighted material whose use has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. India Resource Center is making this article available in our efforts to advance the understanding of corporate accountability, human rights, labor rights, social and environmental justice issues. We believe that this constitutes a 'fair use' of the copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Law. If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use,' you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.