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A murderous connection

One question addressed by the report on the 1990 attempted coup was whether that event led to increased criminality in Trinidad and Tobago. Former parliamentarian Gloria Henry, in an interview in Tuesday’s Express, had expressed the hope that the report examined how the whole ethos of the country changed after 1990.

The commission of enquiry’s terms of reference included “any linkage between the events of July 1990 and contemporary criminal activity”. The commission’s answer to Ms Henry’s question is an equivocal “Yes”—equivocal because, as the commissioners noted, there had been no “scientific study on the issue”.

In the opinion of several people who testified before the commission of enquiry, however, the connection was clear. Former senior magistrate George Hislop said he observed a difference in criminals’ attitude in court after 1990; former National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) health minister Emanuel Hosein argued that, since Yasin Abu Bakr and the other insurgents were never jailed, criminals were emboldened; and businessman Gregory Aboud asserted the present state of lawlessness in T&T is connected to 1990.

But such subjective impressions are, at best, informed guesses about the state of mind of criminals, ordinary citizens and cause-and-effect. The most expert witness, criminologist Ramesh Deosaran, told the commission he was “reluctant to attribute the rise in crime to the events of 1990... I can’t say that the freeing of the JAM (Jamaat-al-Muslimeen) encouraged others to feel that they could get away with crime”.

Statistics provided by the Police Service to the commission of enquiry, in fact, showed the rate of serious crimes remained more or less steady after 1990, and had actually started to drop by 1997. The homicide rate hovered around 100 murders annually, save for a spike to 140 in 1994. But by 1998, murders had dropped to 97 and then to 93 in the following year. It was only in 2000 that the murder rate began an inexorable rise, going to 120 in that year and to 151 in 2001.

Former government minister in the NAR administration Joseph Toney, in his testimony to the enquiry, placed the blame for this squarely at the feet of the Patrick Manning regime. “The crime wave began under the PNM (People’s National Movement),” he said. “Abu Bakr invited ‘community leaders’ to meet with Prime Minister Manning. In truth and in fact, these ‘community leaders’ were really gang leaders.”

The commission did indeed conclude “the Unemployment Relief Programme (URP) became a breeding ground for criminals and the development of gangs”. In this context, it therefore seems if 1990 did, in fact, create the crime situation in T&T today, it is because politicians, in both the PNM and the UNC, have continued to woo the criminal elements spawned from that event.

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