Exorcising Mr Big

By Theodore Lewis

The crime we have been seeing in the country during the last decade is different from what we have seen historically. What is different now is that crime is externally propelled through the Caribbean Basin drug trade that saw 13 per cent of the cocaine bound for the US this year pass through the region. That is the hypothesis and the reality that must drive our crime- fighting. To fight crime which has an external locus, we get nowhere merely by organising basketball tournaments, or by holding  family picnics in the Savannah. To fight crime we must first name the culprit. And the culprit is the Caribbean Basin drug trade.  

In their time, the PNM seemed powerless in stopping crime. And the reason was their blindness to its source. Patrick Manning resorted to mystery here. The culprit was a “Mr Big”, a sort of mythical figure. A modern-day lagahoo. 

The People’s Partnership offered us “Colombians” in the city as the impetus for the 2011 state of emergency. That was closer to the mark. If we held the thought and extended it to the larger cocaine trade of which Colombia lies near to the hub, we would have arrived at the source of our crime problems. 

Because the Partnership does not have a unified stance on crime it falls to successive national security ministers to have varying plans. Each has to start from scratch. Before Mr Griffith gets going, we should point him to context. Or he would be yet another failed Minister of National Security, because he spent his time chasing effects where he should instead be eradicating causes. And by “causes” here I do not mean yet  another round of scholarship where blame is assigned to single parent homes or black poverty. I mean instead blaming the drug trade, and then taking pointed steps to keep it away from our shores.

There is much evidence that crime in the Caribbean is driven by a drug trade, the structure of which is that the supply comes from South America, and the demand from the United States. The drugs must get from the south to the north, and the Caribbean is along the way. The primary means of transportation are boats, in the first instance—the trip from South America to the Dominican Republic, then by other means, such as shipping containers or human mules, the destination being Miami.  

The Dominican Republic is viewed as the hub of narco-trafficking in the Caribbean, with an increase of 800 per cent in cocaine traffic in the past two years. During 2013 it is estimated that 27 metric tons of cocaine intended for North America passed through that country.  

Like the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico is a major trans-shipment hub. An economist from  the University of Puerto Rico estimated that drug trafficking activities account for 20 per cent of Puerto Rico’s GDP. Crime is up in that country, and guns are involved in half of all criminal activities. 

We must add Belize to the set of countries in the region that have become way stations in the regional drug trade. A report on Belize notes that in 2011 the country was for the first time added to the US list of major drug transit or major illicit drug-producing countries. As in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, the drug cartels pay their  local contacts in drugs and guns. 

Trinidad and Tobago falls naturally into this spiral of narco-trafficking Caribbean countries. Our local people who are in the employ of cartels are also paid in drugs and guns, and they too are involved in gun crimes.

We are extremely vulnerable to all that goes with this traffic, because we are unsophisticated where the surveillance and interdiction of drugs is concerned. A blimp in the air over Laventille does not show you a fast boat heading for Chacachacare, or Toco, or Cedros, or Couva, or Pt Lisas, or Pt Galeota, or Maracas at midnight, or even at midday. Like Belize, The Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico, our coastline is porous and there for the taking. But these other countries have taken drastic steps towards upgrading interdiction. We need eyes in the skies over all of our waters on a 24-hour basis— a system that can account for every vessel in our waters at any particular time.

 Lately several local operators have been found to have redesigned their vessels so they could transport large amounts of diesel fuel.  The authorities are yet to make the crucial leap of asking where do the sales take place, for what purpose, and who are the buyers of illicit diesel on the sea. They are failing to connect illegal diesel hoarding on boats to the drug trade.

The focus of crime has to be primarily on drug interdiction on our beaches, coastal waters, and the recreational yachting communities that have sprung up here. It is the drug trade that draws young African  brothers  into gangs, and to early deaths. 

And this is where I disagree completely with Minister Gary Griffith when he says that the defence forces should not be precepted to join in police work. Mr Griffith argues, out of some textbook, that the role of the defence forces is to guard against external threats. Mr Griffith must understand that the Caribbean Basin drug trade is tantamount to a war on the region. Our police and defence forces must work together in common purpose to help us win this war. 

To agree that we are in this war, and to see its connection with brothers dying on urban streets, Laventille alleys and in drains across the hill, is to have exorcised Mr Big.

• Theodore Lewis is emeritus professor, University of Minnesota.

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