A gangster's paradise

How can we prevent gang violence in the world's most violent city?
Dorn Townsend Robert Muggah
2 December 2009

Although Trinidad and Tobago is experiencing an economic boom, efforts to ensure safety and security for its citizens are widely considered a bust. Last year Port-of-Spain, the capital, assumed the unwanted distinction of the Western hemisphere's most murderous city. Blocks away from the downtown core, gangs fight it out over status and control of drug-dealing corners. Police may try to contain gun violence, but there’s still at least one murder and dozens more injuries a day.

International and domestic resources are routinely funnelled into the city's police force in order to strengthen its capacities, presence and response. Likewise, assistance is being provided by the US and others to skill-up the justice sector's ability to carry-out investigations, forensics and anti-gang campaigns. While facing allegations of corruption, special police units tasked with fighting gang violence seem to be functioning. Social programmes too have been increased, aimed at the presumed causes of gang violence, like poverty and unemployment.
While Trinidadians welcome all of this increased protection and attention, few of these efforts seem to be making much of a dent on gang violence. For every gang leader killed, another is ready to step into the breach to control his predecessor's territory. Likewise, investments in welfare projects seldom generate lasting returns.

The gang violence consuming this oil-rich Caribbean nation leaves most outsiders bewildered. On the one hand, efforts to overcome chronic insecurity have yielded comparatively modest dividends. On the other, these bloody turf wars are waged over the control of small (if densely populated) and ethnically homogeneous neighbourhoods. Unlike in South and Central America or even neighbouring Jamaica, control over drug routes does not appear to be a prime mover.

This conundrum was the focus of a high profile government-supported conference in Port-of-Spain last May. A slew of detectives, senior police officers, lawyers, judges, journalists, social activists and social scientists gathered to think through the problems. They pointed to persistent weaknesses in the criminal justice system, the slow pace of prosecutions, inadequate witness protection and inadmissible evidence as root causes.

One thorny issue deftly avoided by conference participants was the role of the Trinidadian government itself in complicating the crisis. In what amounts to one of the country's worst-kept secrets, federal and municipal authorities appear to be supporting anti-gang units and social welfare initiatives while simultaneously channelling cash to some of the country’s most notorious gangsters.

Over the past few decades, public funding has flowed into 'make-work' projects in low-income inner city and peri-urban slums. Some gang members, legitimized by the Prime Minister’s office as 'community leaders', openly bid on contracts intended to repair potholes, restore buildings and improve dilapidated public services.

The relationship is symbiotic. The government effectively buys the support of Afro-Trinidadian gangs and in return these groups intimidate and cajole voters into supporting the leading People's National Movement (PNM) party. In the country's polarized parliament, divided as it is along ethnic lines between those of African and Indian descent, turning just a handful of electoral districts facilitates the ruling authorities grip on power.

All of this amounts to an ugly paradox. While the government treasury supplies funds to the gangs, the police force is reduced to investigating what gangs do with the money, whether dealing in drugs, purchasing small arms and ammunition, or kidnapping and ransoming citizens. In the meantime, the turnover of gang leaders persists at a bloody pace since higher-ups are routinely gunned-down by rivals.

This complex arrangement may also explain why security services have yet to mount a sustained intervention into these neighborhoods to root out gangs. Aggressive counter-insurgency operations -- where the army and police make arrests in “hot spots” where drugs and guns proliferate and seek to break the authority of local thugs -- have not been attempted. Indeed, the experience of other cities facing sustained gang problems suggest this may not be the answer either.

As ugly as this state of affairs may seem, it is hardly unusual. Throughout Central and South America, cities beset by gang violence are undercut by a policy contradiction including a cocktail of government handouts coupled with muscular police actions.

In Rio de Janeiro's estimated 700 slums or favelas, municipal authorities have regularly enlisted 'neighbourhood associations' made up of narco-traffickers to run everything from postal services to waste disposal. Policy makers openly acknowledge that these groups straddle both sides of the law. They know that these associations are beholden not just to powerful gangs but also to a higher-order constellation of power and patronage.

Despite efforts by Rio’s policy makers to challenge the status quo by introducing oversight mechanisms or checks and balances, they are fighting a losing battle. Though some of the public allocations trickle through to support local services, the lion’s share is quickly devoured by the favelas’ political bosses, narco-traffickers and militia groups.

There are no magic bullets for resolving gang violence in lower and middle-income cities like Port-of-Spain and Rio de Janeiro. At the very least, federal and municipal authorities would be wise to resist the temptation to rely solely on aggressive crack-downs to arrest gang activities. Rather, governments might consider auditing and publicizing the gangs’ performance in order to formalize what are currently informal contractual relationships. Gangs would be deterred from inflating their workloads while citizens might hold local authorities and gangs better accountable.
Unless the Trinidadian government is prepared to modernize anti-gang legislation, rethink its policies of public support to gang leaders and confront the political machinery that sustains an unequal status quo, gang-related violence will fester. If they do not act soon, the capital will surely remain a gangster's paradise.

This article is based on a forthcoming Small Arms Survey report: No Other Life: Gangs, Guns and Governance in Trinidad and Tobago, available at www.smallarmssurvey.org in December 2009.

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