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Raffique Shah


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Get real, get drastic

April 23, 2004
By Raffique Shah

UNLESS and until the Government and its law enforcement agencies can seize the massive number illegal of guns that are in the hands of criminals and would-be criminals, then we shall remain a country mired in the abyss of crime. The authorities will also need to stop the flow of more guns into the country.

Sadly, there is little hope of any government achieving these goals. The reason for that lies in simple geography. Trinidad and Tobago is mere miles off the coast of Venezuela where there's a virtual confluence of gun-runners, with all kinds of arms coming from Colombia and Brazil to join the arsenal-for-sale from "the mainland". This arms bazaar caters for the insatiable appetite for guns in drug-running countries like ours and Jamaica.

Let me frame this another way. If, by some miracle, all the illegal guns that are currently in the possession of mainly young men between the ages of 12 and 30 were to be turned in to the authorities (a miracle indeed!), how would this impact on armed robberies, murders and kidnappings? The drop in such crimes would be dramatic, almost precipitous.

Because those of us who were lucky, by today's standards, to have survived two-or-more generations of "old time criminals", know that while the criminal of yesteryear was also capable of hand-fighting and intimidating his victims with sheer muscle, the "bad boys" of today are nothing without their guns! Very few are physically fit, and fewer have the temerity to attack when they know the intended victims might beat them to pulp, if not to death.

This is not to over-simplify the crime wave that's sweeping through the country with no apparent abatement. Clearly, getting rid of guns will not in any way mean getting rid of poverty. And while poverty by itself is not a crime, it can drive many into criminal activities merely for survival.

There is a serious social side to crime that those who live high on the hog, or luxuriously on stolen taxpayers' money, refuse to see. They will never understand what it is like for a father to wake up on mornings knowing he has nothing to put into the mouths of his little ones, and not because he has an aversion to work or job-hunting. Or the plight, the tears, a mother mixing a brackish sugar-and-water concoction to give to her children, not knowing if they will get anything to eat that day, or for days to come.

Conditions as described above are what will lead little Junior to fall into the trap of "riding" with the neighbourhood gang where he will soon be promoted to a "gunman". Now, he not only has the power to force others to yield to him, but he could actually put some food in his siblings' mouths even as he gets his fill of food and Nike sneakers and Hilfiger jeans.

But this aspect of crime, of the social conditions that fuel the society's descent into Hell, has been addressed adequately by many activists and writers. I intend in this column to deal solely with guns that have become the figurative backbone of criminal activities in the country.

Flushing out guns that are already in the hands of undesirables could prove to be a task beyond the capability of our agencies of law and order as they are currently configured and equipped. If they must tackle it with purpose, they will need back-up from the laws applicable to illegal guns, and from the magistracy and judiciary.

A first step will be to make possession a non-bailable offence. This may seem harsh, but against a background of gun-related crimes like what we are facing necessarily means that people must be prepared to give up some fundamental rights in order to deal with the deadly problem.

If such a measure were in place, every crook would be aware that he could be "lost in jail" if he were caught with an illegal firearm. For in addition to the denial of bail, the penalty for possession should be extended to imprisonment for life.

By themselves, such measures would bring little relief to the citizenry: gunmen would simply be more careful where they stash their weapons and how they carry them. To flush guns out of enclaves where they remain secreted until they are to be used calls for more organised action on the part of the protective services.

Whatever happened to the good old "cordon-and-search" tactic that was widely used in my day in the military? It's a tedious method of unearthing illicit items, but when combined with modern detectors and trained dogs, it remains the best way of flushing out criminals and their arsenals.

To give people an idea of what this would mean, it will take a minimum of 1,000 soldiers and policemen to cordon off a small part of, say, Morvant or Laventille. They will need to be backed up by helicopters and a single such exercise could last for days. Residents of the district would have to virtually live under a state of siege for the entire period.

Multiply this by the number of districts in which it is believed there are the most guns and one gets an idea of the magnitude of such operations. Taxpayers must be prepared to meet the hefty bills for such "lockdowns", and to give up certain rights.

But it's the only way I know that one can possibly unearth some, not all, of the illegal guns that are the plague behind today's crime wave. Such exercise will have to be replicated in all the "hot spots", which could take a few months. And they will have to be combined with efficient roadblocks, not the show-me-you-permit crap we witness as the norm.

But even if the cordon-and-search or any similar exercise were to be implemented, what of the continuous flow of guns from the "Main"? That trade is so rampant, few people do not know where they can buy illegal guns.

Ideally, this country's coastal surveillance should be ironclad. Which will cost quite a huge sum of money. Sophisticated radar equipment should form a virtual shield around both islands. More than that, the monitoring equipment will be useless if we do not have the backups-swift, armed helicopters and fast patrol boats, drones that will constantly monitor known drop-off points, and men on the ground who will move in on gun-and-drug-runners at a moments' notice.

Any such initiative will require not just the will of the government, but sizeable expenditure of public funds and people's willingness to sacrifice some basic rights in order to benefit from a drop the crime rate.

To be continued