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Bees in our bonnets over crime rate

June 15, 2003
By Raffique Shah

CRIME, in large measure, is confined to certain parts of Trinidad, be they the criminal acts or the nests from which the perpetrators operate. But because this is a relatively small country, a murder in Laventille or Maloney could trigger feelings of fear, oppression and insecurity among the wider population. So you live in Icacos or Guayaguayare and you hear of one or two men gunned down in Morvant, execution-style, and you immediately look over your shoulder to see if the strangers or suspicious looking characters nearby are murderers-in-waiting or bandits about to unleash terror right there and then. This is what crime thrives on—fear among the wider population, forcing law-abiding citizens to cower, to "live in jail" as we Trinis say, or to be in a permanent state of nervousness.

But statistics will show that in close to 90 per cent of communities in the country crime levels are no higher now than they were 15 or 50 years ago. In trying to determine just how much this fear of crime was perception more than reality, I undertook a personal exercise. When I visited friends or relatives or had chance encounters with people whom I had not seen for some time, I would steer the conversation into the crime zone. Invariably, they would respond by expressing fear at what was taking place in the country and disappointment and disgust at the seeming inaction on the parts of the Government and the police.

When, however, I asked, "What’s the crime situation like in your district?", after thoughtful pauses they would invariably answer: "Well, it’s not bad, you know. We have the usual ‘pipers’ stealing small items and an occasional burglary... but other than that crime is not a problem here." And so I went, deliberately so, from village to town, communities spread across the country, doing what social scientists would call an empirical survey. It was not textbook, I admit, in the sense that there was no scientific structure to what I did. But it gave me an overview of how communities survived in the midst of an environment that has seen serious crimes, especially murder, triple or quadruple, whatever.

The results would astonish most people who, guided by the news headlines in the mass media and cowered by the fear that high-crime instills, swear they, too, are under siege. Matters not that they have not been personally affected or that they know of no unusual criminal activities in their areas. I live in the Claxton Bay district. When I first came to the area, it was, like most such districts, almost crime-free. Then cane the cocaine-flux in the 1980s, and Claxton Bay being on the Gulf coast, and worse a fishing port, became infested with drug-related crimes. There were gangs and gangsters, dealers and pushers, gunrunners and hit men, and ever so often one would be awakened by the sounds of gunfire. It got so bad, there was a particular annual fete at a primary school that was hit by "hits" for around three consecutive years.

The bodies piled up—nowhere as high as today’s body count in East Port of Spain, but four, maybe six a year. The guns and cocaine flowed in through the mangrove. People knew those who were behind it but were afraid to talk since it was also believed that certain policemen were connected to the drug dealers and gunrunners. Then, almost as abruptly as it came, it simmered down following the "drug wars" of the 1980s and early 1990s. Put another way, the dealers, pushers and hit men "had it out", and when the dust cleared in a few years, so did the "bad boyz". Mostly, they got bullet-punched tickets to hell, and those who survived moved on elsewhere, either to hide from the past or to continue plying their death-dealing trade.

Today, Claxton Bay is a relatively quiet town. Oh, we have our drug pushers (petty, really, and no different to most other communities), the odd burglar or rapist, and occasionally one hears of a robbery. Murders are almost "zero rated", in the sense that but for a few crimes of passion, there are hardly "hits" as we knew them in the past. Because of what’s happening elsewhere in the country, people necessarily take precautions, not travelling late or leaving their homes unattended. But young people still attend clubs and fetes and churches at all hours, and hardly encounter any hostility.

And so it goes from town to village. In Montrose, which lies immediately east of Chaguanas, and includes several housing developments, from the upscale Lange Park to lower-income Edinburgh 500, there is no crime surge. Except for the few attempted or actual kidnappings and organised robberies in the commercial districts, crime is no worse today than it was 20 years ago. In Couva, the same holds true. Hell, even in the much-maligned Maloney, people saw how the community reacted when, last week, a taxi driver was hijacked, shot dead and his body dumped on a street. Community leaders condemned the murder and called for their district to remain crime-free, as they claimed it had been for some time.

I can go on and on pointing to towns, villages and even remote squatter settlements where the crime story is little different. Even as you read this, I suggest that you look inwards, not at the news headlines, but at what’s the actual state of your community, and judge for yourselves.

Which leads me to two aspects of the current crime wave that the authorities, and we as citizens, need to note and act upon. Firstly, since our daily dosage of murder comes from specific areas, or better still, from a very few "bad eggs" in such districts, why can’t the police zero in on those who are not just hurting their accomplices, but their communities and the country? Such elements should be "taken out" of our society, which is in the main peaceful and peace loving.

More importantly, though, is the challenge to preserve the peace that prevails in 90 per cent of the country. Already there are danger signs—unemployed youths, woeful parenting, and few recreational or sporting opportunities. We need to call halt to any further degeneration, to save the society from the hell-hole of mindless crimes. We are blessed with the wealth to upgrade education and skills and create opportunities for our youths. What we are missing is the will, the vision. And this latter cannot wait for "Vision 2020". It has to begin now with "Vision 2003". The lure of crime is ever-present much the way the Devil finds work for idle hands... and minds.