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Report: 2,484 gang members in Trinidad and Tobago

By Anna-Lisa Paul

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(TRINIDAD GUARDIAN) — More than a year af­ter the An­ti Gang Act 2018 was pro­claimed in­to law, not a sin­gle gang­ster has been con­vict­ed al­though po­lice have charged sev­er­al peo­ple.

It was a prob­lem laid bare by Com­mis­sion­er of Po­lice Gary Grif­fith when he re­vealed just two weeks ago that “over 50 shoot­ers, linked to var­i­ous gangs” are re­spon­si­ble for the “sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of homi­cides, via gang ac­tiv­i­ty.”

With the homi­cide count al­ready climb­ing past the 260-mark for the year, most­ly due to an up­surge in gang-re­lat­ed killings, for­mer Na­tion­al Se­cu­ri­ty Min­is­ter Carl Al­fon­so said some­one had to rise to the task.

“Some­body has to bell the cat and that some­body has to be the Min­is­ter of Na­tion­al Se­cu­ri­ty in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Com­mis­sion­er of Po­lice and the At­tor­ney Gen­er­al to get this thing sort­ed out,” he said. “It is not an easy task but it has to be done.”

Na­tion­al se­cu­ri­ty stake­hold­ers have laid the blame square­ly on the shoul­ders of law en­force­ment agen­cies who they say are stum­bling block to the leg­is­la­tion’s suc­cess. Politi­cians, in their opin­ion, have been cleared as de­ter­rents to the leg­is­la­tion’s ef­fec­tive­ness.

Crim­i­nol­o­gist Dau­rius Figueira said: “The leg­is­la­tion can go no fur­ther. If it is to go any fur­ther, it has to strip us of all our civ­il rights.”

The most re­cent gang killing, ac­cord­ing to in­ves­ti­ga­tors, oc­curred at Main­got Road, Tu­na­puna, one week ago when 32-year-old Kevin Fi­garo was shot dead in his bed at his First Trace home. His mur­der fol­lowed that of 34-year-old Chir­von Brown who was shot and killed one week be­fore.

De­scrib­ing the cur­rent leg­is­la­tion as “very very very harsh,” Figueira added: “The prob­lem is en­force­ment and a crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem which is in cri­sis.”

That view was shared by Head of the Crim­i­nol­o­gy Unit, UW, Dr Randy Seep­er­sad.

“What we some­times have here in Trinidad and To­ba­go is knee-jerk re­ac­tions where we have a law that al­lows us to do cer­tain things and we may have prob­a­ble cause for some breach of the law, and then we ar­rest some­body with­out think­ing down the road about how we are go­ing to trans­late this ar­rest in­to a con­vic­tion and this is where the law falls short,” he said.

“The law al­lows us to do cer­tain things, but with­out oth­er things that could bring the law to fruition it is just go­ing to fall short and we would not get the ben­e­fits of the law. With­out that, those laws would not re­al­ly mat­ter or make a dif­fer­ence.”

Po­lice Com­mis­sion­er Gary Grif­fith dis­agreed.

“The An­ti Gang leg­is­la­tion is prov­ing to be very ef­fec­tive in terms of pro­vid­ing a de­ter­rent to gangs,” he claimed.

How­ev­er, Figueira ar­gued: “The prob­lem is not the leg­is­la­tion but the way you go about build­ing the case.”

Cer­tain type of polic­ing need­ed

Re­fer­ring to gang ac­tiv­i­ty as or­gan­ised crime Figueira point­ed out: “The on­ly way you are go­ing to have suc­cess­ful cas­es is to have a spe­cif­ic type of polic­ing method­ol­o­gy.”

“You have to first pen­e­trate the gang. You have to have peo­ple will­ing to tes­ti­fy. You have to en­sure the safe­ty of wit­ness­es and the cas­es have to be fin­ished quick­ly. You can­not drag it out for years. It is a prob­lem of polic­ing and a prob­lem in re­spect of a crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem that has acute con­sti­pa­tion.”

Grif­fith coun­tered: “Imag­ine if you did not have such an Act. It means that a gang mem­ber can ac­tu­al­ly put out a full-page ad­ver­tise­ment invit­ing peo­ple to be­come gang mem­bers.”

He de­clared that this par­tic­u­lar leg­is­la­tion is not as straight-for­ward when it comes to la­belling some­one a gang mem­ber—as op­posed to when some­one is held with an il­le­gal weapon.

“It is a lot of ev­i­dence that has to be ac­cu­mu­lat­ed to en­sure the case is air-tight and that is not some­thing that is done overnight,” Grif­fith said

He added that with­out an­ti-gang leg­is­la­tion “gang mem­bers could have gone on the streets. They could have as­sem­bled. They could have been in spe­cif­ic lo­ca­tions. They could have been do­ing mas­sive re­cruit­ment.”

In polic­ing gangs and their mem­bers, Figueira said, time and re­sources must be de­vot­ed to the ef­fort.

“You have to dis­man­tle the op­er­a­tions of the clique by in­car­cer­at­ing the lead­er­ship. This is not a quick fix or an overnight thing. This is a lot of hard work and you have to in­fil­trate the gangs. At the lead­er­ship lev­el, the busi­ness of the play­ers is not in the streets. Every­body feels that the lit­tle young ones walk­ing around with the Glock in their waist are lead­ers but that is not the lead­er­ship as the lead­ers are very skilled at mask­ing their ac­tiv­i­ty,” he said.

Figueira raised a new con­cern: “Many peo­ple don’t un­der­stand there are play­ers in Trinidad and To­ba­go that are transna­tion­al so they don’t stick in a lit­tle place and hide there all day. Peo­ple feel that gang­land is these lit­tle shoot­ers that every­one sees on the road but that is not gang­land. Gang­land is de­fined by the play­ers and if you don’t un­der­stand how they op­er­ate, you could nev­er ar­rest gang­land.”

He was crit­i­cal of T&T’s crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem, say­ing: “We are not build­ing cas­es that stand scruti­ny in the courts of law.”

Figueira ex­plained: “Wit­ness­es are un­der as­sault as the max­im of death to in­former must be en­forced, hence the at­tacks on wit­ness­es.

The pas­sage of a case through the courts is way too slow which fa­cil­i­tates the as­saults on wit­ness­es.

“The prison sys­tem at present is not de­signed to grap­ple with a re­mand yard filled with mem­bers of gang­land await­ing tri­al for lengthy pe­ri­ods of time, which en­ables gang­land to launch re­peat­ed as­saults on the re­mand yard in or­der to con­trol it. Gang­land is now in con­trol of re­mand and they are run­ning their en­ter­pris­es from the re­mand yard.”

He said the is­sue was not the leg­is­la­tion but the knowl­edge base that in­formed the man­ner in which the po­lice went about build­ing cas­es.

“Not a sin­gle play­er of gang­land Trinidad and To­ba­go, from the decade of the 1990s to the present, was ever in­car­cer­at­ed for gang ac­tiv­i­ties,” he said. “Not a sin­gle gang from this pe­ri­od to the present was ever dis­man­tled.

“The re­al­i­ty is that the in­sti­tu­tions of the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem need to be rapid­ly re­formed and up­grad­ed to grap­ple with the 21st-cen­tu­ry re­al­i­ty on the ground, as they are at present con­sti­tut­ed to face 1960’s re­al­i­ty. This in­sti­tu­tion­al in­er­tia must now end to en­sure peace and se­cu­ri­ty for the cit­i­zens of Trinidad and To­ba­go in the 21st cen­tu­ry.”

COP has con­fi­dence in leg­is­la­tion

Re­veal­ing he was the one to rec­om­mend the in­tro­duc­tion of the An­ti Gang Bill back in 2006 as an ad­vi­sor un­der the Con­gress of the Peo­ple, Grif­fith said: “I am ful­ly aware of the val­ue and how it has worked.”

He said while there were very strin­gent an­ti-gang laws world­wide, T&T was not close to what had been im­ple­ment­ed in oth­er coun­tries, “Be­cause every time we try to im­pose laws to look af­ter the rights of law-abid­ing cit­i­zens, some­body would jump up to find a way to de­fend the rights of crim­i­nals and that has al­ways been our is­sue.”

Ac­cord­ing to Grif­fith: “Every time some­one finds a way to de­fend crim­i­nals, it can be used as a get-out-of-jail-free card.”

Not­ing that gang mem­bers were be­ing re­cruit­ed at younger ages now, he added: “Now you are now get­ting ear­ly teens as gang mem­bers and that’s why you are see­ing 14-year-olds bran­dish­ing firearms and be­ing re­cruit­ed by gangs.”

He said this was in­dica­tive of a very se­ri­ous so­cial is­sue where young peo­ple were be­ing eas­i­ly in­flu­enced and ma­nip­u­lat­ed.

Grif­fith de­clared that he was com­mit­ted to pre­vent­ing fur­ther pro­lif­er­a­tion of gangs and warned: “If we don’t nip this in the bud, in the next five years the num­ber of gang mem­bers could grow to ten times more be­cause you are get­ting tens of thou­sands of men and women in their ear­ly teens be­ing eas­i­ly in­flu­enced by gang mem­bers in com­mu­ni­ties.

“The cat­a­lyst to­wards re­duc­ing gang-re­lat­ed ac­tiv­i­ty will con­tin­ue to be one thing and that is, gangs must stop get­ting state con­tracts.”

The CoP said this prac­tice had been al­lowed to flour­ish un­der the last four po­lit­i­cal ad­min­is­tra­tions.

“This es­ca­lates the prob­lem be­cause it em­bold­ens them, gives them the op­por­tu­ni­ty to prof­it and they use this, not to help their com­mu­ni­ties but to pur­chase more firearms, get more il­le­gal drugs and hire more gang mem­bers,” he said.

Grif­fith de­scribed state con­tracts as the Achilles heel of the T&T Po­lice Ser­vice (TTPS) as they fought against crim­i­nal el­e­ments.

“The gangs are aware that we out-num­ber them, that we out-gun them, that we have bet­ter tac­ti­cal and nu­mer­i­cal su­pe­ri­or­i­ty over them, so they would not chal­lenge the TTPS head on. What they are do­ing is they are fight­ing their wars among them­selves and as Com­mis­sion­er of Po­lice I am bul­ly­ing my way in­to these wars to stop them from killing each oth­er.

“When the num­bers go up, it is not a case of one gang mem­ber killing an­oth­er. The sta­tis­tics hurt and dam­age the coun­try and puts fear in­to the eyes of law-abid­ing cit­i­zens.”

Ex­pert: Adopt Ja­maican mod­el

Herald­ing the suc­cess of a crime-fight­ing mod­el re­cent­ly in­sti­tut­ed in Ja­maica, Seep­erasad ex­plained: “What they do dif­fer­ent­ly is that they pros­e­cute gang mat­ters us­ing the an­ti-gang laws. Their an­ti-gang laws are sim­i­lar to ours but they do it in such a way that they have the req­ui­site in­tel­li­gence in­for­ma­tion and the le­gal sup­port, so that they build their case and they build the in­for­ma­tion first in such a way that it can stand up in court be­fore they go and ar­rest some­one and put the law in­to ef­fect.”

He said there had been a con­sis­tent de­cline in crimes in Ja­maica since 2009 as they were tack­ling the is­sue of gangs and gang ac­tiv­i­ty head-on in terms of sup­pres­sive and pre­ven­ta­tive ap­proach­es.

“Their gang sit­u­a­tion is ten times worse than ours and if they can pull it off, we can too,” Seep­er­sad said.

“It is not the leg­is­la­tors, they have done their job. It is the peo­ple who need to put the leg­is­la­tion to use.”

Seep­er­sad said the Ja­maican au­thor­i­ties had very strong­ly em­braced an all of gov­ern­ment and all of so­ci­ety ap­proach to deal­ing with crime.

“What hap­pens here is that even though our jus­tice sys­tem as well as oth­er sup­port­ing en­ti­ties, are get­ting clos­er and clos­er, we still work in si­los. We com­pete with each oth­er among the law en­force­ment agen­cies.

“When we have in­tel­li­gence in­for­ma­tion, we don’t share it be­cause the in­for­ma­tion is pow­er and every­body wants their lit­tle slice of the pie. It is a com­pe­ti­tion rather than co­op­er­a­tion,” he said.

In or­der to avoid this pit­fall, Seep­er­sad said, the Ja­maican gov­ern­ment had cre­at­ed a spe­cial com­mit­tee com­pris­ing Cab­i­net mem­bers who were tasked with serv­ing as a co­or­di­nat­ing en­ti­ty from which they cre­at­ed pro­to­cols and mech­a­nisms for the se­cu­ri­ty sec­tor.

“It is every­body now work­ing to­geth­er on the same page with the same goals in mind, as op­posed to com­pet­ing with each oth­er. If we can do that here, if we can work with the law fra­ter­ni­ty where we have le­gal pro­fes­sion­als help­ing us to build a case us­ing the ev­i­dence and we have oth­er en­ti­ties sup­ply­ing the rel­e­vant in­for­ma­tion in­stead of hid­ing it or hoard­ing it, and we put all of that to­geth­er and we build some­thing, we know we can prob­a­bly con­vict that per­son,” he said.

For­mer min­is­ter
con­cerned about gangs

Al­fon­so, who ex­pressed con­cern about gangs and gang ac­tiv­i­ty, said he was not en­vi­ous of Grif­fith and is con­fi­dent that once the ex­pe­ri­enced heads join forces they will come up with a so­lu­tion. How­ev­er, he said, it will not be an easy task.

“We have a lot of laws in place that are not en­forced. All of us know that,” Al­fon­so said as he urged cit­i­zens to pay par­tic­u­lar at­ten­tion to the chang­ing land­scape of gangs in this coun­try with the in­flux of mi­grants from Venezuela.

A few weeks ago, Guardian Me­dia re­vealed in­tel­li­gence re­ports in­di­cat­ing the pres­ence of Venezue­lan gangs in the coun­try.

Con­ced­ing no one per­son had the an­swer on how to solve the sit­u­a­tion, Al­fon­so called for greater co­op­er­a­tion among en­ti­ties.

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