Trinidad & Tobago: Tracing the Possible Root of the Crime Problem

I wish to assert my conviction that the basic core of respect for law and order which has characterised us as a people continues to pervade throughout the whole community.

This is a quote taken from the address by the Honourable Prime Minister George Chambers on the 24th Anniversary of our independence, in 1986.

My, what a difference 3 decades have made.

Since the early 2000s, Trinidad & Tobago’s violent crime rate has been steadily on the rise. Whereas in the 1990s a murder was just about still front page news, and annual figures totalled somewhere in the vicinity of 100-odd, from the early 2000s onwards the rate began to approach and past 200, then 300, 400 and finally the 500 mark was eclipsed in 2009. Following that the rate has hit a plateau and hovered around 300-400. Trinidad & Tobago has routinely the dubious honour over the past few years of appearing in the world’s top 10 or 20 worst per capita homicide rates alongside countries like South Africa, Honduras and Mexico. A drop was noted in 2011 due to the state of emergency that had been called during that year.

At the time of writing, the murder toll for 2017 thus far in Trinidad stood at 142 in 97 days. Understandably, the people of Trinidad and Tobago are unhappy with the current crime status quo. The prevalence of violent crime in the country has surely desensitized many to it over the years; it has been noted that anger over murders reaches an ‘enough is enough’ type crescendo right after a horrific offence is committed, but invariably dies down as the nonchalant Trini population quickly resumes “jamming still”. That notwithstanding, many people are still up in arms, and understandably so.

A few weeks back I wrote a post entitled “What Good Old Days?”, in which I opined that those longing for the time when Trinidad & Tobago was a pristine socio-cultural paradise are woefully mistaken, as society has always been beset with its fair share of problems, and that the visibility of these problems has simply not always been as high as it has now come to be.

Be that is it may, there’s no denying that there are considerably more murders now than there were before., leading one to conclude that the country’s moral fibre has apparently been degraded. Many lament the change in overall attitude among the citizenry, which has seen civility and respect being replaced by selfish, individualistic attitudes and behaviour.

Given the gravity of the problem, many have called for the crime fighting tactics of yesteryear to be dusted off and brought back. A new version of Randolph Burroughs’ storied “flying squad” no nonsense has often been called for.

constrained societies

In 2010 academics noted that in many developing countries including in the Caribbean, there was a penchant for bolstering the power of the state, concurrently with “the tendency […] to constrain the ability of […] society to operate”, and that this “has also had an impact on human rights – including freedom of expression, association and assembly, and the right to dissent”.

The flying squad’s “shoot first, ask questions never” modus operandi would lamentably confirm the researchers’ astute observation.

I for one am not convinced that T&T needs a 21st century Burroughs – who would be like the current Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has boasted of having killed a man, says he would personally kill drug dealers, and has been widely accused of giving at least tacit approval to death squads known for illegally executing anyone suspected of even so much as petty crime. Anyone who wants Trinidad to go back to the “good” old days of Argentina’s Dirty War or the similar situation in Brazil, when those countries’ governments basically disappeared people for disagreeing with them or for committing any infraction the government disapproved of, or to the “good” old days of the Tonton Macoutes in Duvalier-era Haiti with their hardnosed approach that would make those calling for neo-Burroughs’ stand and applaud, and their litany of atrocities that would make the same people already standing people run away screaming, needs to have their head examined.

When exactly did Trinidad and Tobago society begin its descent into generalised criminality that has taken such proportions with time as to create worry in neighbouring Barbados and elsewhere as to the potential threat posed by specific subsets of our citizens? And whose doing was it? I dare say it began or at the very least intensified with the very person credited as the remedy to the problem, and was then made worse by people in positions of power over the years.

For some context, come with me, if you will, back in time to the “good old” colonial days.

To use a reference that one would reasonably have to be at least in ones 30s to get, I’m doing my best Sophia Petrillo impression and saying “Picture it, Trinidad”, like she would so often say “picture it, Sicily” during her flashback stories on the Golden Girls.

One historian explained that, given the authoritarian nature of colonial institutions and the antithesis of an example of democracy and accountability that they showed to the colonies over which they governed with what was in effect an iron fist – perhaps with the silk glove of some local legislature on – but an iron fist nonetheless, one could be forgiven for being surprised to see that what he called the sudden and belated “transplant” of democracy and accountability to the colonies upon their independence actually worked at all.

No doubt this is the kind of silk-gloved iron fist that would have led the venerable Dr Williams to declare state of emergency in the early 1970s and to keep it movin’ as a government even when opposition parties boycotted elections in that same decade. By this I don’t mean that anything was objectionable about calling an SOE in the context of Black Power upheaval, and it is true that an opposition party choosing to shun an election doesn’t create an imperative for the ruling party to demit office, but it is just interesting that calls for an end to the SOE fell on deaf ears for some time, and that the withdrawal of parties from elections wasn’t taken by Dr Williams as an indictment of his government. The wheel kept turning. From someone who came up directly under a system where the colonial government acted and the population could like it or lump it, it comes as no surprise that he would adopt a similar stance, knowingly or unknowingly.

So, we’ve established that accountability could have been lacking from pre-independence into independent T&T. Now to transpose that from political leaders to law enforcement. Burroughs’ the ultimate crime fighter was eventually undone by his alleged wrongdoing. He was suspected of being involved in the drug trade. Even though he was not found guilty, doubt was forever cast on his legacy and it was shown to be possible that the lawman was possibly himself on the wrong side of the laws he so zealously hunted down others for flouting.

The fact that someone in his very position could be seriously accused of being a major cog in the wheels of the criminal underworld, rather than a spoke in said wheel is a signal that the unaccountable people tasked with enforcing the law can and may very well ignore those same laws. If the citizenry sees this, who is to say that a feeling didn’t begin to germinate that if law enforcement could ignore laws then each civilian could do so as well? As unaccountability began to infest society, accountability on a personal and societal level began its downward spiral around then in the mid-80s.

Speaking of the mid-80s, interestingly, 1987 was the year in which the Burroughs case came to a head, and it was mere months before, in August 1986 that then outgoing Prime Minister George Chambers affirmed that the “basic core of respect for law and order which has characterised us as a people continues to pervade throughout the whole community”. No doubt the goings on surrounding Burroughs would have spurred the PM to explicitly give voice to the enduring respect for law and order that he perhaps sensed needed to be emphasized and spoken into reality like a mantra, because it soon stood to take a hit. Take a hit it certainly did.

 A well-disciplined person […] is disciplined because he is prepared to put up with small inconveniences to himself in order to observe the laws made for the good of all. (Dr Eric Williams)

In the 90s, when Abu Bakr et al got away with the crime of the century, “well-disciplined” people in the already eroded society must have taken one step further towards giving up accepting “inconveniences” by colouring inside the lines when others made no such effort and had no consequences to pay. For that matter, the good gentleman even refuses to appear at the commission of enquiry now.

The citizens of a well-disciplined community have respect for authority. They know, for example, that laws are made for the good of all and must be obeyed at all times. (Dr Eric Williams)

Later in the 90s and into the early 2000s, when it was revealed that then PM Basdeo Panday – the man who once said that money laundering and other financial crimes had to be vigorously fought (in a 1996 speech) – allegedly had over $1 million stashed in a foreign bank account, accountability was dead in the water in Trinidad & Tobago. “We must be mindful of the plight of the many in our society who have very little” and “we must work for fairness and for justice in our society”, said the former PM, all the while hiding money from the Integrity Commission and presiding over a government responsible for the fiasco that was the corruption associated with the Piarco airport construction works.

Panday was eventually cleared of the charges, but then again isn’t everyone? So too were Bakr and Burroughs.

Everybody’s favourite policeman-cum-reality TV star (or rather fallen star) Officer Alexander is now facing charges of assault, and the plot looks to be thickening with a for now still mysterious viral video by someone claiming to be a persecuted TT police officer fearing for his life and naming a purportedly corrupt Alexander as one of the people posing a threat to him. Let’s see how Alexander likely gets off too.

These examples may not explain the totality of the problem with which T&T is grappling but if they aren’t food for thought, nothing is.

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4 Comments

  1. What about the magistrates, the judges, the lawyers? This article is welll written and conveniently refers to quotes to make its points. Jagessar to name one, government ministers becoming billionaires and millionaires, I think the writer clearly demonstrates the problem with T&T society of not wanting to call a spade a spade. It has to do with class and race.

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    1. What do you mean by ‘conveniently’ using quotes? They aren’t invented and are used to give precise context. Many Trinis love articles that sling race-infused accusations left and right but this isn’t meant to be one of those sorts of posts. Sorry to disappoint you.

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  2. This is thoroughly accurate! I would also add immigration and predisposition to violence, into the mix. A cursory glance of available statistics suggests that crime, and especially violent crime, worsened at the same time as did mass immigration to Trinidad. Further, research of the issue reveals that 80% of the individuals prosecuted for violent crime over the past decade, are foreign-born, or have at least one parent who is foreign-born.

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