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Really, no need to batten down

June 08, 2003
By Raffique Shah

THERE are evil forces in the country who have all but prescribed our daily dosage of deaths-by-murder, and the police as well as members of the National Security Council know who these dark agents of death are. Why the authorities have not moved aggressively to deal with them remains a mystery. While the perception is that the entire country is under siege by criminals, statistics will show that serious crimes like murders, violent robberies and kidnappings are confined to specific districts, or emanate from those places, not the whole country. Without casting aspersions at the many decent people who live in such communities, the reality is that well over 75 per cent of murders take place in Laventille and the surrounding districts.

Indeed, if an analysis were done with respect to serious crimes committed anywhere in the country, it may well reveal that most of the perpetrators come from these crime-dens. For more than a year these elements have reduced the hills of Laventille and Morvant to killing fields, to districts dominated by so-called "dons" who fashion their operations after American-type gangs that terrorise numerous communities there. Because Trinidad and Tobago is a mere "black speck" in this wider crime-horizon, the daily crime fare seems to be closing in on all of us, oppressing us, strangling us.

This latter feeling is more perception than reality, but I'll return to that shortly. If the perpetrators come from a few districts and some dubious "communes", it's difficult to understand why the forces of law and order have not been able to bring them to heel. Or put them to sleep, as we would diseased animals, very quietly. The areas under scrutiny are not the easiest for the police and army to operate in. But clever deployment of undercover agents, backed up by strike forces that could swoop down on targeted areas in minutes, could go a long way to eliminating the mindless, heartless criminals.

I wrote some time ago that it appeared that the police were afraid of these well-armed criminals, and that may be part of the problem. But there is a converse side to this. Besieged citizens are crying out for "Burroughs-type operations" to eliminate the criminals, which effectively translates into officially sanctioned murder by the police. During Randolph Burroughs's heyday, when his "Flying Squad" was a law unto itself, answerable to no one, criminals were cut down like ninepins. But many innocent people also fell victims to that "death squad", and many more were "framed" and charged and went on to serve time in jail for crimes they knew nothing about.

We therefore need to be careful when we call for draconian measures to be used in the fight against these villains. Already, with a little more than a handful of policemen and soldiers deployed between Sea Lots and Morvant, we are hearing loud cries of "brutality" and "harassment" from some residents of these districts. A police party recently raided "Pipers Alley" (officially Jeffers Lane in St James), a street infested with petty cocaine pushers and drug addicts. For close to an hour, kicks, rifle butts and other forms of body blows were dished out to all in the area. No one was arrested. And as far away as in Toco, residents claimed the police gunned down a man cold blood.

In yet another curious twist to this battle against crime, UNC parliamentarians are opposing an amended Anti-Kidnapping Bill. They claim, among other things, that the legislation proposes a denial of bail to those accused of kidnapping for ransom. Citing several instances in which existing laws have been used to effectively prosecute kidnappers, they see no need to put people's freedom at stake in the fight against kidnappings. But in another breath, these same MPs would assail the Government for "doing nothing about kidnappings". Really, they must make up their minds as to what they really want and not politicise the issue.

As a short-term solution, the police and army ought to be able to swiftly eliminate or put behind bars those who are responsible for the many seemingly related murders that have become a daily occurrence in and around Port of Spain. But any such "quick fix" response to crimes in specially targeted districts will definitely draw cries of police brutality since our policemen and soldiers are trained only to maim or kill, not to win hearts and minds. But the latter is critical not just in winning over law- abiding citizens, but to putting in place "eyes and ears" that would make any resurgence of runaway crime in such districts very difficult after it is brought under control.

Most of all, though, citizens need to see the police take action against the brazen leaders of criminal gangs. There is a perception that the authorities are cuddling instead of jailing these anti-social elements. Worse, some people believe that the Government is actually giving preferential treatment to such characters when it comes to jobs and programmes that fall under its jurisdiction. And for unexplained reasons the Government is making little effort to disprove this notion. I pointed out in a previous column on this topic that one gets the impression that politicians feel they must have gangsters, under whatever guise they come, on their side. That means using them during elections' campaigns and doling out cushy jobs to them after elections.

If Prime Minister Patrick Manning, in his capacity as chairman of the NSC, does not deal with crime and the perception that he is "coddling" criminals, then the electorate will deal with him. Basdeo Panday has already become irrelevant to the politics of the day for failing to deal with runaway corruption during his stewardship. Now Manning faces a similarly bleak political future should he continue treating crime with kid gloves, and worse, for appearing to be consorting with known criminals.

For all the criminal activities that dominate the media headlines, though, most communities in the country remain crime-free. From districts in Port of Spain through the East-West Corridor, down in central Trinidad and through most of the south, people live in relative peace. Oh, we can't escape the perils of "pipers" striking, not anywhere in this cocaine-cursed country. But in most communities there are hardly any murders or robberies or rapes or kidnappings. We need to study these areas, see what is required to make them even safer, and prevent them from becoming crime-infested. The view that we all have to batten down our houses after dark is misleading. Crime in this country is not as overpowering as it's made out to be. And this I intend to address in my next column.