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Thriving off the ghettos

By Raffique Shah

 Upon rereading my column last Sunday, I thought I had gone overboard in my effusive endorsement of the army’s direct intervention in the crime “hot spots” of east Port of Spain and neighbouring districts. I realised that I had written in anger, which is never a good idea. So I apologise to readers who might have been alarmed by what seemed to be a call to wipe out gun-toting criminals.

I am not saying that the troops should return to barracks, since the killings continue unabated. On their own or accompanied by police officers, the soldiers offer a measure of security to the law-abiding residents of those communities who have long lived in a virtual state of siege. I believe they should continue their patrols, serve as a deterrent, if nothing else, to murderous men who make people’s lives a living hell. 

While they do not have the powers of arrest that the police do, as citizens soldiers can apprehend persons engaging in illegal activities, or even better, pre-empt crime by their mere presence. They cannot lay charges against civilians, but trained and armed as they are, they serve as a potent anti-crime force.

Still, the soldiers’ intervention has not stopped the killings, and its continuance will be of little effect once the criminals have something to kill for—money from Government programmes, drug dollars, turf, respect and who knows what else.

There is nothing rational about the thought processes of such deviants. You listen to them demand dollars for doing nothing, justifying it by saying that the politicians are “eating ah food”, so why must they starve. Their apologists often blame poverty for them resorting to lives of crime. 

But you and I know thousands of poor people who survive on the edge, but who never resort to crime. If anything, such people are victims of a political and economic system that accepts poverty as a norm, that in a country that has the resources to satisfy everyone’s needs, though not their greed, to paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi.

Poverty can never be an excuse for slitting a pensioner’s throat to steal his or her pittance. By what warped logic do you justify robbing and killing the neighbourhood parlour keeper who is struggling to provide for his family? Or the hard-working taxi driver who barely makes ends meet?

No way will I ever accept such lame excuses for committing heinous crimes.

In my chequered life, I have encountered some evil men (and women!) who were as mindless as I imagine the bandits and murderers of today are. I refer to psychopaths like Mano Benjamin, the notorious “Beast of Biche” who was a criminal all his life. As a boy, I saw (and feared) mass murderer Boysie Singh dressed in a suit, holding a bible, preaching—before he killed Thelma Haynes and was hanged.

In prison, you meet criminals who, however well you treat them, whatever reforms you try, they commit dastardly crimes as soon as they taste freedom. One example was a harmless-looking child rapist who, on the very day he was released after serving five years, raped a boy. He was arrested. He escaped and committed several similar atrocities before he was recaptured, tried and jailed again.

How do you reform such a beast? 

Oh, there are success stories, too, but they are few. I know of two “most wanted” men who educated themselves while in prison and went on to lead productive, successful lives.

I sense that many of today’s criminals are irredeemable. I can’t say for sure since, for more than 20 years, I have not been near communities such as John John, Morvant and East Dry River where, when I was younger, I visited friends, limed, partied—and felt comfortable. Up until ten years ago, I used to hang out at the many panyards, unaccompanied.

I don’t know that anyone can do that today. Hell, even the mighty Despers had to flee its home theatre and practise for Panorama in Belmont over the past three years.

 Look, I have always advocated social and other “soft” interventions as a means of rescuing young criminals from the twilight zone from which they might otherwise never emerge alive. However, I sense that such approaches are frustrating exercises in futility.

Winston “Gypsy” Peters sang “Little Black Boy” back in 1997. Singing Sandra sang “Voices from the Ghetto” in 1999. The late Father Gerry Pantin founded Servol as far back as in 1970, prompted by the Black Power revolution. 

Others have followed—priests, cultural and sports activists, educators, social scientists and more.

I won’t say they have all failed. No. There are many success stories. Pantin’s Servol, for example, spread its wings into other depressed communities and saved many a youth from lives of crime. Pan music, sports, literacy programmes have rescued thousands.

But there is a core of criminals that cannot be saved—let us be brutally frank. Aided and abetted by ignorant parents, opportunistic politicians and the heartless Messrs Big of the underworld, they thrive off and in the ghettos.

It is they and their benefactors that the army, the police and the judicial system must target. 

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