I am at a loss to understand why every government we have had for the last 15 years believes that it is incumbent on them to meet with so-called community leaders, gang leaders by a another name. The latest is the admission by the Minister of National Security that a representative of his Ministry had been sent to meet with gang leaders in Laventille, at the their request. Minister Jack Warner is reported as saying that if their "demands" were within the law they would be met.
If a situation could amount to an oxymoron this one clearly does. The Anti-Gang Act which is still law in Trinidad and Tobago provides at section 5 (2) : "A person who is a gang leader commits an offence and is liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for twenty-five years." The law also states that any person who is a member of a gang commits an offence and is liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for ten years. Are representatives of the Government therefore consorting with criminals, persons who by their very status are committing an offence under the very legislation passed under the stewardship of this Government?
In the past when politicians met with gang leaders it was always on the premise that they were coming to some "peace accord". Although this had little impact in the long run, the fact is that being a "gang leader" or a "gang member" was not itself a crime. Now it is, as the Government appeared to recognise one short year ago when hundreds were arrested during the State of Emergency for simply having the status of gang member/gang leader. Of course in the ensuing prosecutions no one admitted to being a gang member and, without the necessary proof otherwise, the charges fell down.
Now however we are told that a representative of the Ministry of National Security has had a meeting with "gang leaders" at their request. Did they acknowledge then that they were in fact gang leaders? What a difference a year makes. One year before, the authorities were locking them up and they were denying the status; now members of the same Ministry are meeting with them on the apparent accepted basis that they are gang leaders and are breaching the law.
There seems to be no resort to political spin this time to explain the meeting with persons who would clearly be criminals. Ironically in the past, when it was not an offence to be a gang member, political spin was employed time and again by both political parties in T&T to explain their relationships with organised crime figures. Recognition that such persons have supported the government of the day have been almost coy. During the UNC time in government between 1995-2001 there is no doubt that these relationships existed and the prosecution of deceased former minister Dhanraj Singh revealed some evidence of this. When the PNM assumed office, instead of eschewing the relationships they clearly embraced such persons and the infamous "gang leaders" conference hosted by then minister Roger Boynes at Crowne Plaza was indicative of this. There was also much parading of various "peace accords" signed by the "community leaders" many of whom would die at the end of a bullet in a year or two.
In return for the promised peace there is no doubt that these persons were given various "small" contracts of a million or so each by the government of the day. Indeed the police officer brother of one slain gang leader stated in a press interview a couple of years ago that his brother died as a result of quarrels resulting from the grant of such contracts.
In November 2011 our Prime Minister, when announcing the creation of the "Colour Me Orange" initiative, specifically said that the Government would not be meeting with or engaging the services if so-called community leaders in the implementation of its $300 million programme. That programme was said to be for the purpose of creating jobs in the "hotspot" areas and touted as employing 2,000 youths over a three-month period. The youths were to carry out the rehabilitation and refurbishment of HDC rental communities and address the backlog of repairs in their rental properties.
Could someone tell us whether this was in fact ever done or did this programme devolve, like some say URP and CEPEP have, into another type of handout to criminal elements? We don't know and there is very little reported on the outcome of the first initiative to provide any optimism as to its success. In June this year Minister of Labour Errol McLeod is reported to have said in Parliament that the Colour Me Orange programme was merely "a stopgap measure" which the Government was "not happy" about. McLeod said, "You think we are happy here about Colour Me Orange? We are not happy about that. But that is a stopgap measure that we must implement, if we did not want people to be crying every day."
This is in effect a clear admission that the Colour Me Orange programme was not designed for sustainable employment but was simply like all the others an expensive stopgap measure to provide handouts in the crime "hotspot" areas. Now that it has failed this Government is going the way of its predecessors of seeking to embrace gangsters. The difference is that now that very status has been criminalised. They therefore do not even have the façade of legitimacy in this latest endeavour. Has any thought been given to the implications of this factor by this Government?
• Dana S Seetahal is a former