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Over 2,000 people murdered by gangs in Trinidad and Tobago; country has 2,458 gang members

By Joel Julien

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(TRINIDAD GUARDIAN) — Gangs are re­spon­si­ble for the mur­ders of at least 2,100 peo­ple in this coun­try ac­cord­ing to sta­tis­tics from the Trinidad and To­ba­go Po­lice Ser­vice (TTPS).

Last year alone, there were 179 mur­ders cat­e­gorised as gang-re­lat­ed. And the gang killings have con­tin­ued this year.

Apart from the killings, gangs have al­so been re­spon­si­ble for nu­mer­ous wound­ings, shoot­ings, rob­beries and oth­er vi­o­lent crimes.

More than 4,600 gang-re­lat­ed guns have al­so been seized since 2010.

Gangs are a prob­lem. And ac­cord­ing to the sta­tis­tics, it’s a grow­ing one.

In 2006, there were 95 gangs with 1,269 mem­bers op­er­at­ing in T&T. Ten years lat­er in 2016, that fig­ure rose to 172 gangs with 2,358 mem­bers.

While two gangs in par­tic­u­lar, “Ras­ta City” and “Mus­lim,” are the most eas­i­ly iden­ti­fi­able in terms of names there are more than 200 now op­er­at­ing in the coun­try. Ac­cord­ing to the most re­cent fig­ures, there are 211 gangs op­er­at­ing in T&T with 2,458 mem­bers. These gangs are lit­tered through­out Trinidad and To­ba­go.

So what ex­act­ly is a gang?

Ac­cord­ing to the An­ti-Gang Act 2018, a gang is “a com­bi­na­tion of two or more per­sons, whether for­mal­ly or in­for­mal­ly or­gan­ised, who en­gage in gang-re­lat­ed ac­tiv­i­ty.”

There are 46 of­fences list­ed as gang-re­lat­ed ac­tiv­i­ties ac­cord­ing to the First Sched­ule of the An­ti-Gang Act in­clud­ing ex­tor­tion, rape and sex­u­al groom­ing.

The An­ti-Gang Act was as­sent­ed to on May 15 last year. It is de­scribed as “an Act to make pro­vi­sion for the main­te­nance of pub­lic safe­ty and or­der through dis­cour­ag­ing mem­ber­ship of crim­i­nal gangs and the sup­pres­sion of crim­i­nal gang ac­tiv­i­ty and for oth­er re­lat­ed mat­ters.”

Where did T&T gang ac­tiv­i­ty be­gin?

A 2010 study done by Charles Katz and David Choate for the Ari­zona State Uni­ver­si­ty Cen­tre for Vi­o­lence Pre­ven­tion and Com­mu­ni­ty Safe­ty, School of Crim­i­nol­o­gy and Crim­i­nal Jus­tice, ti­tled Di­ag­nos­ing Trinidad and To­ba­go’s Gang Prob­lem, tried to an­swer just where gang ac­tiv­i­ty be­gan in this coun­try.

“Of the gangs in Trinidad and To­ba­go, 26 per cent trace their date of ori­gin pri­or to 2000, while the re­main­der orig­i­nat­ed af­ter 2000,” the study said.

“Gangs in Trinidad and To­ba­go are typ­i­cal­ly small­er than gangs in Latin Amer­i­ca and the Unit­ed States and typ­i­cal­ly do not have link­ages with gangs in oth­er parts of the re­gion or in oth­er coun­tries.

“This con­trasts with some of the larg­er gangs in Latin Amer­i­ca, which have con­nec­tions to oth­er gangs with­in their re­gion and in the Unit­ed States,” it stat­ed.

The year 2000 is a sig­nif­i­cant year be­cause it was the first year gang-re­lat­ed mur­ders en­tered the TTPS’ sta­tis­tics. In that year four gang-re­lat­ed mur­ders were record­ed. It was one of on­ly two years when the fig­ure was in sin­gle dig­its. Eight years lat­er in 2008, more than half the mur­ders that year were gang-re­lat­ed. There were 278 gang-re­lat­ed mur­ders that year.

The ma­jor­i­ty of gang mem­bers are said to be young adult males 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 were be­tween 22 and 25, and 33.7 per cent were be­tween 26 and 35.

On­ly a small pro­por­tion (5.3 per cent) of the mem­bers in the sam­ple were 17 or younger at the time of the in­ter­view, where­as 8 per cent were be­tween the ages of 36 and 45, and 1.5 per cent were be­tween the ages of 46 and 55,” the Katz and Choate study stat­ed.

What is the lure of gangs?

To an­swer this, crim­i­nol­o­gist Prof Ramesh De­osaran be­lieves we need to go back 50 years when “gangs were for crick­et, foot­ball, lim­ing and a lit­tle delin­quen­cy like steal­ing man­goes to­geth­er.”

“But what hap­pened over the years is one, you had a com­mu­ni­ty in­fra­struc­ture break­down, that is the whole ques­tion of recre­ation­al fa­cil­i­ties, the ques­tion of peer group ac­tiv­i­ties like Boys Scouts and then you had the ex­pan­sion of the sec­ondary school sys­tem where quan­ti­ty was more im­por­tant than the qual­i­ty lead­ing to a num­ber of fast-ris­ing dropouts,” De­osaran told the Sun­day Guardian.

“Young peo­ple be­ing mar­gin­alised, and the young males re­al­ly lost their pres­ence in the coun­try, you have a sharp class di­vi­sion where the well to do keep on be­ing well to do and those work­ing-class homes and work­ing-class com­mu­ni­ties have been falling by the way­side, so now we are reap­ing all the dele­te­ri­ous con­se­quences off of our fal­ter­ing ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem, com­mu­ni­ty in­fra­struc­ture break down and parental break down too.”

He added, “And the at­trac­tive­ness now for young peo­ple are out­side these in­sti­tu­tions. The at­trac­tion is now on the cor­ner lim­ing with drugs, guns com­ing in which re­in­force the gang cul­ture, so now we have an ex­plo­sion of gang­ster­ism and even though you lock up some of them or they shoot one an­oth­er, there is a long suc­ces­sion line be­hind where the sup­ply side for gang­ster­ism and vi­o­lence is quite sta­t­ic, it is al­ways there and you have to find out now more deeply, apart from pun­ish­ing and sen­tenc­ing and so on you have to find out where is the sup­ply side.”

Renée Cum­mings, a New York-based Trinida­di­an-born crim­i­nol­o­gist and crim­i­nal psy­chol­o­gist who spe­cialis­es in vi­o­lence pre­ven­tion and homi­cide re­duc­tion and pro­vides law en­force­ment and vi­o­lence pre­ven­tion train­ing in­ter­na­tion­al­ly, agreed.

“Gangs are shaped by so­cial, eco­nom­ic and po­lit­i­cal cur­rents. Gangs al­so de­vel­op in re­la­tion to the eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ment of a com­mu­ni­ty. Com­mu­ni­ties lay­ered with ad­verse so­cial con­di­tions cre­ate the con­text for gang pro­lif­er­a­tion be­cause there’s a volatile com­bi­na­tion of mul­ti­ple lev­els of mar­gin­al­i­sa­tion and a col­lec­tive dis­po­si­tion of fa­tal­ism, ni­hilism and in­ter­gen­er­a­tional crim­i­nal­i­ty,” Cum­mings said.

“We must al­so ex­am­ine the labour mar­ket and how un­em­ploy­ment cor­re­lates with par­tic­i­pa­tion in gang ac­tiv­i­ty. Crim­i­nal­i­ty is very flex­i­ble and many young men and women move in and out of gang ac­tiv­i­ty as a way to sup­ple­ment their in­come in an econ­o­my that may not be pro­vid­ing many op­tions. Eco­nom­ic dis­place­ment of­ten pro­vides the hu­man re­sources gangs re­quire. Every­body is try­ing to get paid,” she said.

She said the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem al­so played a role in the prob­lem.

“The ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem re­mains un­re­spon­sive to the needs of many boys and young men and con­tin­ues to pro­duce many who are un­suc­cess­ful in con­ven­tion­al so­ci­ety; sup­ply­ing a steady flow of tal­ent to gang­land. The ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem must em­brace in­no­v­a­tive learn­ing method­olo­gies and un­der­stand the im­pact ad­verse child­hood ex­pe­ri­ences and ear­ly ex­po­sure to vi­o­lence can have on aca­d­e­mics, so­cial­i­sa­tion and chil­dren’s life out­comes,” Cum­mings said.

De­osaran said State-fund­ed make-work pro­grammes such as the Com­mu­ni­ty-Based En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion and En­hance­ment Pro­gramme (CEPEP) and the Un­em­ploy­ment Re­lief Pro­gramme (URP) helped fos­ter “gang­ster­ism and com­mu­ni­ty ri­val­ry.”

Cum­mings said it is al­so “im­pos­si­ble to erad­i­cate gangs.”

“It is im­pos­si­ble to erad­i­cate gangs, but it is cer­tain­ly pos­si­ble to re­duce gang vi­o­lence us­ing a com­pre­hen­sive strat­e­gy of pre­ven­tion, in­ter­ven­tion and sup­pres­sion tac­tics. In Trinidad and To­ba­go, there’s been an over-re­liance on re­ac­tive polic­ing and sup­pres­sion tac­tics which have con­sis­tent­ly de­liv­ered lim­it­ed re­sults. Short-sight­ed get tough on crime poli­cies ac­tu­al­ly make gangs be­come more or­gan­ised and more vi­o­lent,” Cum­mings said.

“De­vot­ing more at­ten­tion and re­sources to the in­ves­ti­ga­tion and pros­e­cu­tion would send a clear mes­sage that gang vi­o­lence will not be tol­er­at­ed.”

De­osaran said the State needs to find a way to make gangs less at­trac­tive and im­prove the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem.

“A young man now go­ing in­to a gang finds that hav­ing a gun is more im­por­tant than five pass­es, so the au­thor­i­ties have to de­mys­ti­fy that con­nec­tion be­cause the priv­i­leges and fame that these gang mem­bers and the lead­ers get are in di­rect com­pe­ti­tion to what the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem of­fers. So un­less you break that con­nec­tion you will al­ways have a fes­ter­ing of gangs, vi­o­lent gangs with drugs and guns all over the place,” De­osaran said.

“His­tor­i­cal­ly, gangs have al­ways had a pow­er­ful mar­ket­ing strat­e­gy to build its mem­ber­ship; dig­i­tal me­dia has now ex­tend­ed the reach of the gang. The so­lu­tion lies in un­der­stand­ing the ecol­o­gy of vi­o­lence and the in­ter-sec­tion­al­i­ty of mar­gin­al­i­sa­tion and in­equal­i­ty. Al­so, there are too many dys­func­tion­al spaces where the po­lice, the com­mu­ni­ty and the gov­ern­ment don’t work well to­geth­er and it makes it dif­fi­cult to ef­fec­tive­ly re­spond to vi­o­lence and de­liv­er da­ta-dri­ven vi­o­lence pre­ven­tion strate­gies,” said Cum­mings.

“Gang vi­o­lence is more than a law en­force­ment is­sue, it is al­so a pub­lic health prob­lem. While the po­lice must re­duce the avail­abil­i­ty of guns on the streets, gov­ern­ment poli­cies must de­crease the num­ber of mar­gin­alised young males.

“Polic­ing should al­so be com­mu­ni­ty-sen­si­tive, com­mu­ni­ty-fo­cused and com­mu­ni­ty-friend­ly. We al­so need to fo­cus on build­ing a strong ju­ve­nile jus­tice sys­tem, de­sign­ing ev­i­dence-based delin­quen­cy pre­ven­tion pro­grammes, tru­an­cy re­duc­tion ini­tia­tives and find­ing cre­ative ways to en­gage boys who are drop­ping out of the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem.”

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