Gangs Are the New Law in Urban Trinidad & Tobago
Recent incidents of intense violence in Trinidad & Tobago’s capital, Port-of-Spain, have drawn attention to the nation’s rampant gang problem. On September 11, the ruthless beheading of a man—reported by the police as a warning from gang members—exemplified a recent increase in the already significant brutality of gang activity in Port-of-Spain. There is now a trend towards this so-called “South American method of warfare,” in which beheadings and other extreme forms of violence are the norm in dealing with rival gangs and in which only 14.3 percent of Trinidad & Tobago’s youth is confident in its satisfaction with the police force.  Additionally, mid-August saw an incident in which six people were killed in a 24-hour period in a “turf war” that drew the level of attention and press focus usually reserved for gang activity in more developed countries. The gang activity in Caribbean nations has largely been ignored despite the fact that “gangs in Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago have become so ubiquitous that they represent a challenge to state sovereignty.”  The latter’s prime minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar of Trinidad & Tobago’s United National Congress party, met with opposition leader Dr. Keith Rowley to discuss how to address the situation, but this was an unusual occurrence, and the militant decision to simply amp up the police force is not likely to hinder Trinidad’s persistent gang presence. Violence is a serious problem in the islands, but targeting this alone will not make an effective reform. Gangs in Trinidad & Tobago, specifically in high-risk areas like the capital and Laventville, have become so institutionalized that they pose a threat to—and even control in some cases—the republic’s crucial infrastructures. Gangs in the Caribbean, namely in Trinidad and Jamaica, have a very unusual and ultimately far more dangerous effect on their surrounding areas. Regardless of their size, which is surprisingly disproportionate to the measure of their devastating impact, all forms of gangs in Trinidad are more pervasive than those to be found in developed nations and have now become societal institutions that go beyond social purposes, and are coming to resemble governments in and of themselves.
A Unique Organization
There are currently over 100 gangs in Trinidad & Tobago, a small nation consisting of two islands and a total population of just over 1,300,000.  One of the larger gangs, Jamaat al Muslimeen, is comprised of 600 members under just one unnamed boss.  The unusual thing about this kingpin, though, is that he is also the owner of a car dealership, a job which provides a more than adequate living by itself. The explanation for his involvement in a violent criminal organization seems to be that on top of the monetary incentives, gangs afford a level of power comparable to a career in politics, where “such groups can be the only source of effective justice and social services for the communities out of which they operate and as a result crime bosses themselves become a form of community leader.”  These ‘justice and social services’ reach surprising extents. 81 percent of gang members questioned in a survey done by Georgia State University’s International Criminal Justice Review reported that their gangs held regular meetings, as opposed to the significantly lower 50 percent of their U.S. counterparts, but the proceedings of these meetings are what really distinguish them.  Gang members who have advanced in rank discipline lower-tier members for breaking laws simply because their actions were unsanctioned, often addressing these indiscretions with murder as they would with members of a rival gang. Additionally, in the absence of an adequate legal system they outsource their justice in situations as trivial as parents disciplining their children. These (mostly) men are as educated as anyone else (61.9 percent finished high school, as opposed to 64.2 percent of non-gang members), get some of their income from legitimate sources, and help enforce community rules; thus, they are not common street gangs, but rather organized criminal institutions with important social functions.  The gangs of Trinidad & Tobago have infiltrated the official government and created an alternative administration—at least in urban centers—of violence and strict order, lacking any semblance of ethics or ability to address welfare.
Spoiling Social Welfare
The structure provided by the highly organized gangs may hint at a mafia-esque, white collar type of crime, tending to be detrimental mostly to business owners; however, the atypical style of Trinidad & Tobago’s gangs inflicts problems upon its society which are above and beyond popular conceptualizations of organized crime. The aforementioned boss has used his status as ‘community leader’ to authorize many shootings just this month over government contracts. Aside from their violent acts, the organizations take from the needy and control legitimate programs intended to help Trinidad & Tobago’s populace as a whole. The nation’s Unemployment Relief Program (URP) was created to provide assistance, in a productive way, to those who cannot make a living for themselves by “pay[ing] unemployed people to perform public service tasks like fixing sidewalks and drains,” but even this is believed to be under the control of street gangs and expropriated for crime funding, and “a number of homicides have been traced to URP-related conflicts.” 
Unemployment welfare is just one example of a larger trend, where competition for development contracts causes a spike in inter-gang violence. An article published by Stabroek News on August 21 quotes a source nonchalantly mentioning a shooting over one contract and competition for another to build a basketball court on Duncan Street, one of the more distressed areas of Port-of-Spain and the location of the six murders which spawned the recent official attention to gangs.  Any structure that gangs may afford to Trinidad & Tobago is overshadowed by the poisonous effects they inflict on legitimate institutions, as “the violence and intimidation that reigns in these urban areas [hamper] the development of democratic community organizations and, ultimately, the ability of the population to improve their living conditions and social advancement, despite the short-term benefits they might gain through cooperation.”  Whether or not there are positive externalities, gang culture has turned well-intentioned community programs into fuel for violent power battles between groups attempting to colonize urban centers.
Absence of a Legitimate Government
Almost as harmful as gang activity is the inability of Trinidad & Tobago’s government to effectively deal with it. Addressing Parliament’s opening session on August 3, Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar declared an objective to halt the country’s “increasing lawlessness.”  Opposition leader Dr. Keith Rowley, who met with the prime minister later that month to discuss the same issue, responded to Persad-Bissessar’s remarks with the statement that all Parliament could do was make laws, and that enforcement was where the breakdown in law and order happened. However, it is important to note that legislation passed by the government to fight local crime, such as the “Anti-Gang Act of 2011,” has proven to be ineffective. One provision of the law states that an individual owning a legally obtained bullet-proof vest may be sentenced to 15 years in prison if they “ought to know it may be used for the benefit of or at the direction of a gang”—an example of several decrees which are hyperbolic and unenforceable.  Anti-gang law is difficult for any government to manage because the target is hard to define, even more so when they are organizations ingrained in society.
The Anti-Gang Act ultimately hurts much more than it helps. It facilitates mass arrests and the escalation of violence, but not the conviction of large numbers of felons: after the mid-August shootings, police arrested over 100 people, 59 of which were immediately released with at least 42 remaining detained but not under arrest.  On top of this, enforcement is mainly being targeted at street violence, which invites police retaliation of the same form. The result is the current dismal levels of confidence in law enforcement among the nation’s populace.  These anti-law enforcement sentiments are warranted. In Beetham Gardens on September 4, police fatally shot Christopher Greaves, a 23-year-old Trinidadian civilian, an incident of police brutality which inspired city-wide riots as the population called for justice.  The police’s response, declaring the area a war zone and again using violence in the form of gunshots and tear gas, exemplifies the travesties of Trinidad & Tobago’s law enforcement and how it must be remedied. Corruption and counter-productive tactics are not new, and although Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar observed that lawlessness was increasing, it is a problem that had existed long before she took office in 2010.
BP, one of more than 20 oil and gas companies operating in Trinidad & Tobago, claims to have “shifted its focus from philanthropy to supporting long-term development…building capacity in local Non Governmental Organisations and Community Based Organisations through ongoing training, helping them to drive community improvement in their own areas.”  While the company has created 900 jobs in Port-of-Spain, programs such as BP’s, which in theory could be very beneficial to Trinidad & Tobago, may not be having the intended effect. Hopefully, they will contribute to the formation of the alternative institutions needed to undermine the nation’s systemic gang activity. A much more stringent screening process for government contracts and community programs, as well as the creation of alternative institutions for at-risk youth, may help further combat the gangs that plague much of Trinidad & Tobago. Anti-gang legislation is one of the Parliament’s main objectives for this legislative session. Whether comprehensive legislation will be passed anytime soon is debatable given the government’s shoddy record on the issue, best exemplified by the aforementioned 2011 anti-gang act. Moreover, the government also has to address other internal security-related issues, like police violence and excessive arrests, or choose to innovate on their past action. As it now stands, gangs have a stronger hold on the Trinidadian population than its government does.
Erika Johnson, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs
Please accept this article as a free contribution from COHA, but if re-posting, please afford authorial and institutional attribution. Exclusive rights can be negotiated.
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 Trinidad and Tobago Population Clock. Country Meters. Accessed September 23, 2013. http://countrymeters.info/en/Trinidad_and_Tobago/
 “Port of Spain gangs ‘colonising’ Trinidad…600 soldiers under boss” Stabroek News. August 21, 2013. Accessed September 23, 2013. http://www.stabroeknews.com/2013/news/regional/08/21/port-of-spain-gangs-colonising-trinidad600-soldiers-under-boss/
 Charles Parkinson. “Trinidad Gangs in Violent Dispute Over Govt Contracts” InSight Crime. August 21, 2013. Accessed September 24, 2013. http://www.insightcrime.org/news-briefs/trinidad-gang-leader-has-600-men-under-his-command
 Katz, Charles M., Maguire, Edward R., & Choate, David. A Cross-National Comparison of Gangs in the United States and Trinidad and Tobago. Georgia State University: International Criminal Justice Review, p. 10, 1-20, 2011.
 Ibid; “The gangs of Trinidad and Tobago” Trinidad and Tobago Newsday. March 18, 2013. Accessed September 13, 2013. http://www.newsday.co.tt/letters/0,175004.html
 Ibid, “Port of Spain gangs ‘colonising’ Trinidad…600 soldiers under boss”;
Maguire, E. R., King, W. R., Johnson, D., & Katz, C. M. Why homicide clearance rates decrease: Evidence from the Caribbean. Policing and Society, 2010.;
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 The University of the West Indies. St. Augustine: International Conference on Gangs, Violence and Government, November 3-4, 2011. Accessed September 23, 2013. http://sta.uwi.edu/conferences/11/gangviolence/
 Clint Chan Tack. “New war against gangs” Trinidad and Tobago Newsday. August 3, 2013. Accessed September 13, 2013. http://www.newsday.co.tt/news/0,181661.html
 Anti-Gang Act of 2011, Act No. 10 of 2011. First Session Tenth Parliament of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. Accessed September 23, 2013. http://www.ttparliament.org/legislations/a2011-10.pdf
 “Trinidad and Tobago: Excited reactions belie decline in murder rate” Latin News. September 4, 2013. Accessed September 11, 2013. http://www.latinnews.com/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=57574&uid=55646&acc=1&Itemid=6&cat_id=792587%20
 Maguire, E. R., Willis, J., Snipes, J., & Gantley, M. Spatial concentrations of violence in Trinidad and Tobago. Caribbean Journal of Criminology and Public Safety, 13, 48-92, 2008;
Katz, C. M., & Fox, A. M. Risk and protective factors associated with gang involved youth in a Caribbean nation: Analysis of the Trinidad and Tobago Youth Survey. Pan-American Journal of Public Health/Revista Panamerica de Salud Publica, 27, 187-202, 2010;
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 Rickie Ramdas. “Police shooting prompts violent protests in Trinidad.” Caribbean News Now. September 4, 2013. Accessed October 7, 2013. http://www.caribbeannewsnow.com/topstory-Police-shooting-prompts-violent-protests-in-Trinidad-17510.html
 “BP in Trinidad and Tobago.” BP.com. Accessed September 18, 2013. http://www.bp.com/en/global/corporate/about-bp/bp-worldwide/bp-in-trinidad-tobago.html