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Raffique Shah


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Crime and punishment T&T style

By Raffique Shah
Jul 25, 2019

Oozing from the barrels of blood that flowed from the bullet-ridden corpses of last week’s 24 murder victims and almost as many who suffered serious to critical gunshot wounds were several important lessons that we may choose to ignore, to our peril. Violent crimes have spiralled out of control, and most people are inured to the blood and gore that once shocked us. Now, spectators calmly record the macabre murders on their smart-phone cameras, video-clips to be uploaded on the Intrernet. Some achieve viral videos ratings, providing entertainment for huge audiences on social media.

Life itself has little expectancy. Death is devalued to fleeting seconds captured on digital devices. What savages we have become, people of Trinidad and Tobago.

In the midst of the mayhem that we measure only by a body-count that is ticking faster than the national debt-clock, we easily forget that the new and wildly popular Commissioner of Police, Gary Griffith was hailed by the public as a superhero who would send the criminals scurrying to safety, denying them opportunities to wage war among themselves and to prey upon law-abiding citizens. Mark you, the man himself stopped short of self-promotion as a savior dispatched from heaven to deliver us from evil.

But his reticence did nothing to stem the avalanche of go-get-them Gary calypsos and portrayals during the Carnival season. There were expectations that the staccato chants of automatic gunfire that had all but replaced Reggae as nightly block-music would fade, or better still, the instruments of death be handed over to the forces of law and order.

That did not happen. If anything, armaments in possession of the criminals seem to have become more sophisticated, deadlier. What is more ominous, in my view, is that ammunition available for these illegal weapons seems to be limitless. As I listened to a recording of gunfire in Laventille a few nights ago, it sounded more intense than an infantry battalion conducting war exercises-and that entailed the use of blank bullets (no projectiles, hence cheaper).

Not surprisingly, this brazen declaration of war against the entire society by criminals in our midst, has provoked outrage from the media, business organisations, political parties that are not in power (an important distinction), and the general citizenry whose lives and routines have been disrupted.

If the criminals would restrict their murderous activities to the slums in which they live and die, in other words if they just killed each other and the collateral damage was confined to poor-but-decent people who just happen to reside in such communities, the national outrage might well have been muted.

But the fact that they have taken their gunfights outside their corrals, to city-streets and suburban business and residential districts where they are not just battling and murdering each other, but they are striking commercial enterprises and invading residences, killing anyone who stands in their way, has triggered alarm and panic in the upper echelons of society.

It did not have to escalate to this level to grab attention had we acted when illegal guns first surfaced in the hands of criminals decades ago.

The police, had its ranks not been polluted by crooked cops who, for a bottle of rum in the old days, or more recently a few thousand dollars, allowed criminals free rein, could have prevented this descent into hell. In many instances the police know who the criminals are, even who committed what crimes. But they fail miserably when it comes to gathering evidence that will stand scrutiny in court.

The politicians, who have historically courted criminal elements as necessary "muscle" for their campaigns and control of votes in certain communities, are even more culpable than the police for the crime spiral. From adopting a partisan position towards legislation that could serve as a deterrent to, say, possession of illegal firearms, to the naked politicising of crime, they come across more as accessories to law-breaking than as lawmakers.

Ultimately, though, families, friends and communities must bear responsibility for breeding, nurturing and protecting criminals. I should clarify that I am not here pinpointing the ghettoes where the triggermen are primarily from. We often forget, conveniently, that wealthy families that live in walled mansions bred some of the most dastardly criminals during the 1980s when the cocaine trade and addiction to the drug took hold of this society.

During that era, such people had the millions of dollars required to trade with the Escobars. While T&T was never a huge consumer of cocaine, it was a strategic location for transshipment of the drug from Colombia to North America and Europe. Such big dealers, some of whom today pose as pillars of the society and look down on the gunmen of Laventille, were pioneers of the very crime wave they are most vocal about today. Indeed, some of the most heinous murders and mutilations of victims were committed under their watch.

We always knew illegal forearms and drugs were not imported by ghetto criminals who were mere tools of the trade. Today however, those pawns have grown in stature and are making life hell for their communities and the wider society.

In order to stem the current crime wave, we necessarily need to focus on those lesser mortals, by first apprehending them, then punishing them by putting them in prison, maybe for the rest of their natural lives.

We however, face a complex and sluggish judicial system that takes forever to deliver justice, even if the police were to deliver on their detection rate.

So even as the spike in murders triggers national outrage that command front-page editorials, panel discussions on electronic media and forums at many academic institutions, crime and punishment T&T style will frustrate the law-abiding citizens to the point where surrendering to the bloodletting may seem an easier option.

This, sadly, is our reality.

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