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Raffique Shah


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Time to touch the untouchables

April 30, 2004
By Raffique Shah

AT long last Prime Minister Patrick Manning decided to reveal that the Government has acquired sophisticated electronic detection equipment for use in its fight against crime. The PM indicated, too, that the security forces will soon be equipped with what are commonly called "attack helicopters", which I presume are surveillance aircraft that are also equipped with the hardware necessary to pursue and engage drug-and-gun-runners in the waters off our coastline. These, and the fast patrol boats he alluded too, are precisely the kinds of equipment I mentioned in last week's column as required for combating crime.

What the PM did not say was how long the radar equipment has been in this country lying idle, and why it has taken this long for Government to go on the market for the helicopters and fast-boats. The high-powered committee on crime he commissioned more than a year ago made a number of recommendations, few, if any, of which have been implemented. And therein lies one of the major problem in our fight against crime. Governments past and present have known for decades that Trinidad was always a haven for drug dealers trying to access the lucrative US and European markets. And wherever you have a billion-dollar business like cocaine shipment, arms necessarily form part of the deal.

That committee will have recognised this, and from what I know of the calibre of men who sat on it, they will have recognised this weakness in our defence system and made recommendations to plug those gaps. But because governments have so much on their plates, and because they have to keep the natives happy with "10 days" and CPEP , or focus on oil and gas and dollars in the coffers, issues like fighting crime are low on their agendas. I understand that we have had the radar equipment in the country for some time now, but there was no haste to train personnel to use it effectively or to activate it.

I remember back in 1990, a sophisticated telephone and radio communications monitoring device lay idle at a private company's compound. It was only when the attempted coup took place there was a rush to make it operational. Similarly, Basdeo Panday, who today leads a march against crime, was in government when a lucrative contract was awarded to a local firm to refurbish several Coast Guard boats. Little was achieved (I don't know if, or how much, the contractor was paid), and to this day at least one of the vessels lies virtually abandoned somewhere in Chaguaramas. Panday should also tell those who march with him the sordid history of the acquisition of the infamous Cherokee jeeps, and what happened to most of them before he demitted office.

Government after government has played games with crime (and, I should add, "footsie""with criminals) while ordinary citizens feel the heat or pay the ultimate price for their dereliction of duty. It's only when some mini-crisis strikes, meaning when some prominent, preferably wealthy, person falls victim to crime, that there's an outcry from all quarters. Then, too, government reacts. It seems to me that Manning chose to reveal his "heavy artillery" in the face of nationwide protests against crime and recent kidnapping and gruesome murder of young Ashmead Baksh.

But there is more to fighting the menaces we face than sophisticated arms and equipment. Wars are won-or lost-on the ground, as US President George Bush is now learning at the expense of the lives of hundreds of young Americans (the old always send the young into battle, they never go themselves!) and thousands of Iraqis. Earlier I referred to our "defence system". I deliberately used that term because we are indeed engulfed in a war. It's a war against an elite gang of criminals from Colombia and its neighbouring countries, as well as their agents here. And while the equipment the PM spoke of will definitely help in stemming the flow of cocaine and heroin through Trinidad and Tobago, the profits derived from this trade are so huge, the mob will definitely find other ways of keeping the "coke pipeline" flowing.

It might have been accidental that cocaine was recently found in diplomatic pouches leaving this country. But I am certain that this practice has gone on for a long time, possibly decades. Someone found it easy to bribe person or persons who have access to the pouches, and since our diplomatic personnel have long used this instrument to send "tambran balls" and "tooloom" for Tanty Merle, why not add a few kilos of cocaine? The explanation for that diplomatic shame lies in lax security at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and in the respectability that the real "coke dealers" have been accorded by governments.

You keep telling them that the hapless "fall guys" they manage to nail and jail for cocaine trafficking are the smallest players in the game. That no ordinary Joe can go to Colombia with, say, US$1,000 in his wallet, and ask Pablo for a kilo: he will be dead meat in a flash. One can only deal at that level with big bucks. Maybe Dole Chadee and Zimmern Beharry moved up the ladder since they were no fools, and they eventually dealt directly with the Colombians. But there are too many supposedly respectable, wealthy people out there whose hands are dirtier than Dole's. They are the real purveyors of drug-related crimes in this country. And they remain untouchable because they befriend politicians and public officials at the highest levels in government. They amass wealth in a manner that any fool can see through anyone, that is, but government and the rotten apples in the security forces.

Until the government is willing to take the fight to the scum of high society, we shall remain bogged down with having to deal with petty gang wars that result in multiple murders and kidnappings. I agree with the PM that many kidnappings and gangland-style executions are drug related. But what is he prepared to do about it? Aren't his intelligence agencies pointing him in a certain direction? Is he prepared to tread where others have feared to, in the upper echelons of society, and weed out the real criminals? How much longer are we going to bury our heads in latrine pits, looking at Laventille and Morvant and Barrackpore, when the real culprits live luxuriously in virtual fortresses?

So the radar and the helicopters will help. Even the "lockdowns" I suggested last week, will work some wonders. But the root causes of real crime will remain secreted in lodges and chambers and upscale restaurants.

(Conclusion next Sunday)

Part I