Trinidad and Tobago now rivals Jamaica as the most violent country in the Caribbean, with the number of annual murders rising sharply from 98 to 550 over the last decade, with some areas in the Port of Spain police division being listed among the most dangerous in the world.
This is the finding of a new United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) draft report on Human Development and Citizen Security in the Caribbean, which noted, among other things, that the murder rate for Port of Spain was comparable to that of Baghdad.
The report also cites information stating that illegal guns are being rented for robbery and murder for as little as $100 an hour.
The report, which is expected to be released later this year, draws on the most comprehensive data on local gangs collected by the Crime and Problem Analysis (CAPA) branch of the Police Service and other detailed analyses, including a survey of 52 gang experts in all of the police districts nationwide and research conducted by Katz and Choate, among others.
An excerpt of the draft 2011 UNDP report which examines the nature and distribution of local gangs, obtained by the Sunday Express, pointed to evidence of some 95 gangs operating in Trinidad and Tobago, with a total membership of 1,269.
An analysis of the data, according to the draft UNDP report, found that the majority of criminal gangs were concentrated in three police divisions, specifically Port of Spain (which includes Belmont, Besson Street, St Clair, Woodbrook and St Barbs), Western (St James, Maraval, Carenage and Diego Martin) and Northern (which includes Arima, Arouca, Tunapuna, Cumuto, Maracas/St Joseph, Piarco, Malabar and Maloney.
Other areas with a notable gang presence include the Eastern division (which includes Sangre Grande, Mathura, Biche, Manzanilla, Mayaro, Matelot, Toco, Rio Claro and Valencia) and the North Eastern division (which includes Morvant, Barataria, San Juan, Santa Cruz, Maracas Bay and Blanchissuese).
Key findings of the report include:
• 26 per cent of local gangs place their "date of origin" prior to 2000, while the remaining groups trace their origin to after 2000.
• 83 per cent of gang members are of African origin, 13 per cent East Indian and four per cent of other ethnic backgrounds. All of the identified gangs are male-dominated and a high 87 per cent are comprised of adults.
• The majority of gangs, 86 per cent, have a group name, while 61 per cent refer to themselves as a gang, 26 per cent as a crew and 4.2 as a clip or unit.
• A large proportion, 88 per cent, claim turf while 75 per cent defend their turf.
• The vast majority, 85 per cent, do not have special symbols or identifying clothing; and almost without exception, illegal activity is accepted by all gang members.
• Two-thirds of the gangs have from six to 50 members, while 95 per cent are made up of Trinidad and Tobago citizens.
• The spatial distribution of crime in Trinidad and Tobago bears a striking similarity to the spatial distribution of gangs.
• An examination of gang-related murders for the period 2001 to 2010 shows that the largest proportion occurred in the Port of Spain division—42.6 per cent; followed by the North Eastern—18.8 per cent; Western—17.8 per cent; and Northern—15.9 per cent) divisions. These areas were also found to have a disproportionately large number of gangs.
The report drew upon the findings of the Besson Street Gang Intelligence History Project, which offered a rare insight into the nature and composition of gangs in Trinidad and Tobago. In this project, 368 gang members were interviewed, with data collected in 2005.
According to the report, the age distribution of the sample gives an indication of the typical age ranges of gang members. The majority of gang members were found to be young adults between the ages of 18 and 45.
More specifically, 26.1 per cent were between the ages of 18 and 21; 25.4 per cent between the ages of 22 and 25; and 33.7 per cent between the ages of 26 and 35. Only a small proportion of the sample—5.3 per cent—was 17 and younger at the time of the interview; whereas eight per cent of the sample was between the ages of 36 and 45; and 1.5 per cent of the sample was between the ages of 46 and 55.
Of the gang members surveyed, 51.4 per cent were previously arrested, with each member having an average of 2.09 arrests.
Arrest data indicate that gang members commit a larger number of crimes than persons who are not in gangs. Police data also show that gang members commit violent offences at three times the rate of people who are not in gangs.
Also, about 26 per cent of gang members were arrested for firearm-related offences, compared to 8.7 per cent of non-gang persons.
Similarly, 15.2 per cent of gang members were arrested for drug trafficking, compared to 3.2 per cent of non-gang members, according to the report which noted a similar over-representation in criminal offences for gang members for property offences, sex crimes and drug use/possession.
The draft report found that the largest proportion of gang-related murders for the period 2001 to 2010
took place in the Port of Spain police division.
Gang-related murders, according to the police data, account for 33 per cent of all murders in Trinidad and Tobago for the last decade.
"It may be the case that many more murders are committed by gang members, though the actual proportion is unknown," the report said, adding: "Given that murder motives are unknown for a large proportion of murders and given the low arrest and conviction rates for murders, it is plausible to assume that gang members may be responsible for at least some of the unsolved murders."
The report's experts found that two-thirds of local gangs are involved in fights with rival groups and that members not only use illegal drugs, but were heavily involved in organised fraud, robbery and other forms of armed violence.
It pointed to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and World Bank Report 2007, which found that illegal firearms had become so readily available that potential offenders could rent a gun for as little as $100 an hour.
The link between gangs and firearms was found to be a troubling one by researchers, who noted that firearm use has increased over time for a range of crimes, including murder, wounding with intent and shooting with intent. Data show that for the period 2002 to 2010, a total of 2,421 murders were committed with the use of firearms.
A total of 3,264 murders were committed for this period. The report found that firearms have become the weapon of choice for murders.
Prior to 2000, firearms were used in fewer than one third of all homicides nationally.
The report noted the negative impact of criminal gangs on society: high rates of crime and violence; reduction in work force and reduced productivity; increased burden on State institutions in the health and law enforcement and judicial sectors.
It drew upon the findings of an ECLAC report, which disclosed that the percentage of GDP spent on national security in this country has increased steadily, while welfare expenditure has remained relatively constant.
"The prevalence of gangs in some areas is also related to a decrease in investments in those areas and in reduced opportunities for employment," the report said, adding, "In neighbourhoods such as Laventille, there are no businesses except small shops owned and operated by local residents.
"An added consequence of gang presence in such neighbourhoods is the devaluation of property and land value."
It also leads to the migration of law-abiding citizens and law enforcement personnel to other communities, according to the report.
"This results in a concentration of persons who are either more accepting of gangs or a criminal lifestyle, as well as persons who have no other alternative but to live in such neighbourhoods. This implies that the social controls which may derive from law-abiding persons is continuously weakened in such neighbourhoods.
"Compounding this problem is the fact that there is a reduction or withdrawal of corporate sponsorship for community events or programmes in neighbourhoods with gangs," said the report, noting that "an even more troubling phenomenon is that communities may develop a bond with gangs and their leaders and especially in situations where gang leaders provide assistance to community members".
Research has indicated that criminal gangs may even provide a law enforcement function for some communities. Researcher Katz, examining data in Gonzales, found that gangs had instituted a community court which met weekly and in which community matters, including the disciplining of young males for transgressions against the community, were attended to.
"Indeed, one resident of Gonzales went as far as saying that gangs are the first ones to respond to crime, the police are incompetent, take too long and never finish the work." Residents expressed the view that gang leaders would take care of them.
The draft UNDP report, which presents detailed analyses of crime and approaches to crime-solving, said it may be extremely difficult to encourage residents to relinquish their association with and support for gangs in their area.
"In the case of Gonzales, if residents feel that gangs provide a necessary law enforcement function where the protective services have failed to do so, then similar bonds will develop between the community and gangs. This is an extremely difficult situation since it makes the eradication of gangs much more complicated," said the report.
It said a more long-term solution lies in eliminating the social conditions which encourage the formation of gangs, and which encourage youth to feel they have no alternatives but to gain membership.
"In the case of Trinidad and Tobago, being born into some communities automatically reduces one's life chances since this immediately comes with stigmatisation and labelling provided by the larger society.
"Social development initiatives should seek to encourage the integration of such communities with the wider society so that stereotypes may be broken. Ultimately, young males who feel alienated from mainstream society and the legitimate opportunities which it provides will turn to their communities and the illegitimate opportunities which are provided by gangs or other similar entities," said the report.