After campaigning in 2008 on the slogan “aneh Dhivehi Raajje”, meaning another Maldives, the disastrous failure of the coalition that followed resulted in the MDP’s 2013 slogan being simply “ehburun” (with one round) – which would require over 50 per cent of the vote to avoid a run-off. Campaigning for the same old Maldives was the PPM’s Yameen, whose posters often featured a celestial Maumoon motif, promoting dheen, gaum and, most importantly, zuvaanun – the youth.

The Maldives’ rapid growth had created a demographic bulge that, by 2013, meant 15 per cent of the eligible voters were first-timers, too young to recall the worst excesses of dictatorship but now old enough to vote it back in. Before any ballots were cast, the election had become a rare opportunity for underemployed young people to get paid: spraying graffiti, pasting posters, attending rallies and hanging flags in streets awash with campaign cash. But the value of certain sections of the “youth” was about far more than electioneering, for the emergence of multi-party democracy had coincided with the rise of multi-gang Malé.

The gang culture had originated from the heroin boom of the 90s, with harsh jails hardening groups of young men into a cadre of career criminals. They were excluded from regular employment and became increasingly desensitised to violence. These rivalries first turned deadly in around 2007, setting up the perpetual motion of murder I’d already witnessed. Although the ramshackle chaos of the capital epitomised poor planning, if some sadistic chef were to perfect the recipe for a thriving gang subculture, it would look a lot like Malé.

Take a large youth population (then, almost 50 per cent aged under 25), move into a densely packed urban environment (Malé grew by 180 per cent between 1995 and 2014), add huge levels of youth unemployment (estimates varied between 25 and 40 per cent), family breakdown (the Maldives traditionally has very high divorce rates) and season with widespread illicit drug use (estimated at one in 20 young people). Place in a well-greased criminal justice system at 30°C and serve with fresh and fractious politics. The result was a stew of up to 30 gangs – ranging from 50 to 400 members each – dealing in drugs, political violence and revenge, as detailed in a groundbreaking 2012 report by psychologist Dr Aishath Ali Naaz.

Dr Naaz’s research confirmed, and quantified, the close relations between businessmen, politicians and gangs: MVR 20,000 ($1,310) to break a shop window, MVR 25,000 ($1,620) to cut the state television’s cable, millions to carry out a contract killing. Often, however, the gangs were just paid in drugs and alcohol, with the report making clear – without naming names – that many leaders’ idea of helping the zuvaanun involved exploitation of this vulnerable demographic in order to help themselves. It highlighted a codependent relationship between gangs and politicians in which money and legal protection were exchanged for participation in protests, suppressing political opponents and diverting media attention.

“More often than not the gang is willing to receive money to carry out violent crimes on behalf of politicians or business people,” read the report, which noted the alarm of young gang members now fearing a culture in which the value of life had lost all meaning. For her efforts to tell the stories of the Maldives’ lost boys, Dr Naaz received violent threats and was told her tongue would be cut out, eventually forcing her to hire a bodyguard. “The gang members who participated had no issues,” she later explained. “I cannot say who exactly wanted to harm me, but not the boys. They are the ones who warned me to stay safe.”

The rank and file of the gangs, or those labelled as being in them – “the boys” – are often those I’d come to know as paateys. Their dress code, comprising plaid shirts, low-slung jeans and luscious long hair, is like a tropical hybrid of Ice Cube, Milli Vanilli and Megadeth. While I’d originally assumed this derogatory term came from the word “party”, I was later told it derived from “partner”, for these gangs were stepping in to provide a sense of identity, protection, income and status where a disoriented or disinterested society was failing. In this way, they had become islands in the social storm for youngsters cast adrift in Malé.

The names of the largest ones – Kuda Henveiru, Masodi, and Buru – were as familiar as the politicians alleged to patronise them, contributing to an atmosphere of fear and lawlessness. Those in authority, who had struggled to cope with the initial drugs problem, seemed unable, or unwilling, to tackle this frightening new phenomenon. After half a century at the head of the country’s development, the shipping magnate AU Maniku had, in his 2010 memoir, expressed concern about a youth without direction, exposed to modern temptations and in need of a leadership with integrity: “... a quality,” he said, “that is almost absent in the Maldives.”

Dr Naaz’s report had underscored that the symbiosis between politicians and gangs was already undermining young people’s faith in democracy, and many believed Abdulla Yameen’s big play for “the youth” was a thinly disguised courtship of the powerful groups controlling the streets. “The upcoming presidential elections are headed to unfold against a context of uncertainty, crises of political legitimacy and unprecedented levels of political polarisation,” explained the NGO Transparency Maldives in its pre-election assessment. The ominous report noted the importance of inclusiveness, freedom and fairness, though it forgot to mention fanditha: the sorcerous blend of Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim superstitions for which the islands had once been infamous.

For, after all the electoral premonitions, the first big international story to emerge was the discovery of a cursed coconut near a polling station on the island of Guraidhoo, just south of Malé. Soon enough, we were getting reports of scribbled surah, black magic dolls and mass faintings across the islands, prompting another trip with Zee into the atolls. As I’d already seen, folk magic still held an important place in the psyche of many Maldivians, particularly out in the islands. But even as most urbane city dwellers dismissed old superstitions, friends and colleagues would often talk about the time a jinn tried to suffocate them, of a relative who’d been possessed, someone who’d given them the evil eye, or fears of taking babies out at sunset when malicious spirits roam. Modern developments had certainly not stopped islanders falling back on more traditional fixes for life, love and quarrelling, and with politics finding its way into all of the above, campaign magic was inevitable.

“[Black magic] happens every time there is an election,” argued one agitated lady in Guraidhoo, where we spent time with the island’s new fanditha patrol. Its leader claimed that the magic was to “change people’s hearts about their votes.” This time, Zee’s excellent article would be called “Busting Black Magic”. The global media – with their eyes already trained on the election – soon picked up the story, although the confiscated kihah (very young coconut) came out sounding more like a Malé gangster. “A coconut has been detained by Maldivian police on suspicion of vote-rigging in a key presidential election … described as ‘young’,” wrote the Guardian. “A magician summoned by police established that the coconut was innocent.” It was funny stuff, although many in Malé huffed that such (Minivan-sourced) stories made the country look silly. As the serious business of voting arrived, they needn’t have worried about the coconuts.

Excerpted with permission from Descent into Paradise: A Journalist’s Memoir of the Untold Maldives, Daniel Bosley, Macmillan.