It is almost two years to the day that the Government caused a State of Emergency and attendant curfew to be imposed in T&T. The reason given for this was the apparently out of control crime spree said to be occurring at the time. Many will recall that over 300 young men were arrested and charged during this time under the Anti-Gang Act for being gang members or leaders. All but one were subsequently freed when the Director of Public Prosecutions discontinued the matters on the simple basis of lack of evidence.
In the last few weeks we have seen an upsurge in crime in the areas of Duncan and Nelson streets in Port of Spain and in Laventille. In fact in a 15-hour period last Wednesday five people were killed in these areas alone. Newspaper reports state that the police say the motive was “gang related”. What this actually means is anybody’s guess but it was also reported that the killings were as a result of a turf war between gangs in relation to the award of contracts for work by State agencies.
The police response through various officers was a promise of increased police presence in the areas. Minister Roodal Moonilal represented the Government’s reaction when he said that the crimes were “distressing” and the police have been asked to intensify their presence. DCP Richardson and Superintendent Mc Intyre called on residents from the areas to come forward and help the police to solve the murders. According to Mc Intyre, “The majority cannot continue to allow the minority to hold them at ransom like this.”
Both the police response and the reason given for the latest murder spree are nothing new. Has it not been known in the last several years, going right back to the PNM time in government, that the offers of State contracts, supposedly to alleviate gang warfare, actually lead to more violence when different factions fight for the spoils? Has this not been evident from the corruption that has pervaded what was supposed to be unemployment relief in the URP programmes? Going right back to the killing of Councillor Hansraj Sumairsingh during the 1990s this was self evident and nothing has changed because no government has had the cojones to shut down the programme and instead reward the law abiding citizens in meaningful ways. Instead we have had various substitutes of the same old thing in “Colour Me Orange” and the like: free handouts to temporarily quiet the violence.
In 2011 when the hundreds of men mainly from East Port of Spain and Laventille were arrested it was said with authority that they were members of various gangs. The authorities may have been correct in large measure — but where was the evidence? The Anti Gang Act had just been passed and there had been little attempt to document any information that could be brought before a court to substantiate that a person was a gang member or gang leader. It is now two years since the Act was passed and gang activity by all accounts, especially the police, has continued unabated. Are we in any better position to mount a charge against any person under the Act or bring home a prosecution?
Of the five killings referred to above two were 16-year-old cousins who lived in Duncan Street. A third was a 17-year-old schoolboy who was killed fixing a car. There is nothing to suggest that they were members of any gang. Another man was shot in his car at Quarry Street and a fifth person was found on the street bleeding from gunshot wounds. The last three killings were in Laventille. Each person was shot to death and it appears that the killings were done by at least two men. The relative location of the incidents, the fact that firearms (which are supposed to be regulated in this country) were used and the closeness of the events could lead to the conclusion that they were as a result of gang activity.
But where does that leave us? These killings on Wednesday occurred at a time when, following recent incidents where homeowners of government (HDC) apartments were dispossessed illegally and forcibly, there was already more visible police presence in the area. These gunmen clearly cared nothing for and had no fear of the police — another attribute of gang members since they find their strength in their own colleagues, other gangsters.
If the police are so confident the crimes are gang related, what is the next step? They surely do not expect the frightened law abiding residents to come forward — if in fact they saw anything and did not shut themselves up in their homes. So all this talk of helping the police will take us nowhere and no resolution can come from that quarter.
This kind of situation is what the Anti-Gang Act was designed to confront. The Act recognises that any evidence “reasonably tending to show or demonstrate the existence of or membership in a gang” could be admitted to prove gang membership. We have a Gang Unit in the Police Service. In the past two years since the Act was passed I would expect that they have been collecting evidence of this nature. If the police can blithely say these murders are “gang related” they must have information and evidence of such gangs and its members.
Is it not time that our Police Gang Unit activates itself and focus on controlling gangs in the country, in particular those in the outskirts of Port of Spain, by bringing them before the court? They might not be able to mount a case of murder or shooting but surely if they are aware that these activities are gang related they can root out the gangs? Now is the time.
• Dana Seetahal is a former