Trinidad’s Dirty Little Secret

COMING MONDAY, JULY 12: “Otto Reich: A Career in Disservice”

• Port-of-Spain, the “cultural capital of the Caribbean,” appears to be importing a dangerous kidnapping culture from neighboring countries such as Colombia and Venezuela.

• Trinidad Prime Minister Patrick Manning and his administration consider restructuring the national police force in an attempt to curb the spike in abductions and murders.

• Will Manning be as indecisive on fighting crime as he has been on standing up for a strong CARICOM position against the ousting of Aristide?

• Tauntingly, Guyana President Bharrat Jagdeo touts his country’s relatively low kidnapping rate in comparison to Trinidad’s, in an effort to trump the neighboring island in the eyes of the international community.

• The indiscriminate and violent nature of the kidnappings has overwhelmed an inexperienced, if not unqualified local police force.

• Tourism dollars and the University of the West Indies’ Trinidad campus ability to draw its enrollment from a sufficiently ample applicant pool may be threatened.

• High unemployment and “easy” money lure newcomers to the kidnapping industry and encourage neophyte kidnappers to scope out new prospects.

• Kidnapping-for-ransom reportedly on the rise in a number of South American countries.

• Tougher legislation and better police training could help Trinidad stamp out its now alarming kidnapping problem and bring on better days.

Is “Trini” Culture Under Siege?
Trinidad, a country of 1.3 million people, along with its capital, Port-of-Spain, has been dubbed the “cultural capital of the Caribbean.” The island, which sits at the bottom of the chain of Leeward and Windward islands, northeast of Venezuela and Guyana, is renowned for the robust exporting of its culture and its manifestations, namely calypso, Carnival and steel pan – the only acoustic musical instrument invented in the 20th century that is still widely used. These exports have migrated along with the “Trini” diaspora to places such as Florida, New York and Toronto, and across the ocean to Notting Hill, London, and other English enclaves. However, in recent times, the aggressive marketer seems to have fallen prey to a particularly notorious import from neighboring Central and South America: ransom kidnapping.

Heads Might Roll
2001 saw fewer than 10 abductions on the island. There were 29 kidnappings in 2002. According to a Trinidad Guardian report that cites a police source in the Anti-Kidnapping Squad, there were 51 kidnappings-for-ransom in 2003 out of a grand total of 142 kidnappings. The amount of ransoms paid in 2003 was $3,498,600 (Trinidad and Tobago – TT Dollars) out of a total of TT$95,170,000 that had been demanded by kidnappers. The estimable Trinidad Guardian also says that there have been 14 ransom kidnappings reported out of 95 kidnappings so far this year. The ransoms paid thus far in 2004 have amounted to TT$225,600 out of a total of TT$41,970,000 that had been demanded. So far this year, the police have charged 18 people and solved five cases. Last year, they charged 51 people and solved 15 cases. Several Trinidadians have also been charged with faking their own disappearances to pry funds out of their deeply concerned families or insurance companies, according to local authorities. The police force is not only concerned about the spike in these types of crime, but also about the repercussions of its failure at enforcement. If the much talked about police overhaul is ever implemented, heads might roll.

Talk Is Cheap, But Damage Control Isn’t
Prime Minister Patrick Manning and opposition leader Basdeo Panday conferred on more than one occasion in the last week of June to fine-tune legislation (three bills) that would shake up the national police force. The bills’ allocation of more power in the hands of the government and, specifically, the police commissioner (by doing away with an independent commission that presently oversees the police force) was debated in Parliament on June 29. A gargantuan advertising blitz (in true “Trini” style), amounting to Trinidadian $1.9 million, ushered in the debate. However, the proposed police reform bills, which needed a two-thirds majority vote to pass, did not make it through the House of Representatives. The political opposition felt that the bills would have vested too much power in the hands of the prime minister, who would have been given unbridled control over the appointment of a police commissioner.

In fact there is every indication that Prime Minister Manning will falter in his professed determination to balance full acknowledgement of constitutional rights with firm governance in the fight against crime. This approach was not exhibited in Manning’s seeming indifference to the fate of fellow CARICOM member, Haiti, and his lack of support for CARICOM’s view of interim Prime Minister Latortue as a non-authentic figure and an extra-constitutional imposition on the Haitian people. The interim prime minister has been a great disappointment to those who wished well for Haiti. It is now being said of Manning that when it came to Aristide, he could not stand the heat he was getting from Washington. In contrast to the courageous stand that Jamaica and St. Vincent took on Haiti, Manning turned out to be a lapdog for Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Meanwhile, the Guyanese media, which has had little to crow about amid a floundering economy and financial scandals, had a field day in mid-June when President Bharrat Jagdeo boastfully announced to a gathering of the country’s diaspora in Atlanta, Georgia that Jamaica’s crime rate was perhaps 10 times higher than that of Guyana. He also stated that Trinidad and Tobago (its sister island) suffered a whopping 70 times more kidnappings than Guyana, a country with a population of about 730,000 people.

Indiscriminate Kidnappings Baffle Police
These ransom kidnappings are gripping well-off Trinidadians with fear, so much so that some residents are resorting to hiring armed escorts like their wealthy Guyanese counterparts. Young or old, male or female, Black or Indian (Trinidad’s predominant races), local or foreign – the kidnappers do not discriminate, and no one seems to be automatically immune. Dominic Kalipersad, The Trinidad Guardian’s distinguished editor-in-chief, told COHA that wealthy people no longer seem to be the only targets. “There are people there – bandits or just sheer criminals – who are so desperate for access to cash that they may be targeting people who are perceived to have money or anyone whom they can grab to get some cash. So the targets no longer seem to be only the top business class,” he said. On June 6, armed men abducted 71-year-old gas station owner Alvin Nunes, the oldest kidnapping victim in Trinidad’s history, at his place of business. This event was staged a day after kidnappers released the island’s youngest abductee, a three-year-old girl with asthma, who had been taken from her pre-school. The kidnappers did not demand a ransom in the Nunes case, whereas those involved in the toddler’s case did, which went unpaid. Police detained five possible suspects in connection with the girl’s abduction, but no one was charged. Four men have been charged with the kidnapping of Nunes, who was found unharmed in a house two days after he had been sequestered. Currently, police are searching for ten-year-old Vijay Persad, who was abducted on June 20 outside his parents’ grocery store. The kidnappers have demanded $500,000 for the boy’s safe return to his family.

Is a Brain Drain Exodus Far Behind?
The abductions are not only bound to impact Trinidad’s prosperous tourism industry, but also its thriving universities, most notably the prestigious University of the West Indies (UWI), which also has campuses in Barbados and Jamaica. Many parents throughout the Caribbean, as well as elsewhere, who used to send their children to study at the Trinidad UWI campus (the only UWI campus with a Faculty of Engineering) might think twice, opting to have them transfer to a more secure UWI campus in the Caribbean or instead to a North American or other foreign institution. This exodus would surely accelerate the brain drain, particularly in engineering, a field that is already under-pursued among Leeward and Windward island students.

Fast Cash in the Caribbean
Police officials are scratching their heads because there seems to be no set pattern to the kidnappings. This suggests that many organized gangs are engaging in what was previously a relatively safe method to come upon some fast cash. This trend has already been affecting the rest of the Caribbean for some time, with the practice likely to accelerate in the near future. Between January 2002 and the end of March 2003, six people were abducted and later released in the Dominican Republic; fifteen suspects were subsequently arrested. During the 13 months leading up to March 30, 2003, 15 ransom kidnappings were reported in Guyana. Startlingly, in St. Lucia, a small island of 160,000 – north of Grenada and Trinidad and Tobago and to the west of Barbados – what is believed to be the first kidnapping case in the country’s history was reported in late June. Two men abducted six-year-old Fredericka Fredericks from her school grounds in the capital of Castries and forced her into a vehicle. According to the police, the family of the girl, who was later rescued, apparently knew the men. This is common in kidnapping cases, especially when they occur on an island.

High unemployment figures in some Caribbean countries might explain the spike in lucrative ransom kidnappings. The unemployment rate in Trinidad was 10.4 percent in 2002. In the Dominican Republic, it was 15.5 percent in 2003. The CIA World Fact Book somewhat understated its unemployment estimate for Guyana in 2000, which was 9.1 percent, whereas its 1997 estimate for St. Lucia was 16.5 percent, compared to 4.5 percent in St. Kitts and Nevis (pop. 45,000).

Ironically, if poverty and unemployment are triggering the rise in abductions, then kidnappers throughout the Caribbean are substantively lowering their hope of making easy money by resorting to abductions, because wealthy islanders’ incomes usually heavily depend on tourism for revenue. If the rise in abductions causes tourists to decide not to book their flights to Caribbean destinations, then the local population soon enough will start to feel the widening effects of a declining tourism industry. This, in turn, would exacerbate both unemployment and poverty.

“Monkey See, Monkey Do?”
Influenced by neighboring nations like Venezuela and Colombia, Trinidad finds itself mimicking kidnapping crimes for quick money, animating the popular Caribbean expression “Monkey see, monkey do.” According to figures released by the Buenos Aires’ Ministry for Security in June 2004, kidnappings in Argentina have increased more than fivefold in the last two years. There were 46 reported cases in 2001 and 306 by 2003. According to BBC News World Edition, the net payment to Argentine kidnappers was 3.32 million pesos ($1.15 million), in a country that defaulted on almost $88 billion of debt. In Venezuela, officials reported in June 2004 that kidnappings rose 150 percent in the last four years. An average of 50 people were abducted in Venezuela during 1999, which rose to 150 people between 2002 and 2003, the former commissioner of police, Iván Simonóvis, informed Notimex news agency. Surprisingly though, as of May 2004, Colombia, which has consistently had the world’s highest kidnapping rate, saw abduction figures fall to their lowest since 1996. Nevertheless, 317 kidnappings were reported in the first three months of 2004 and an estimated 5,000 people purportedly are still being held hostage in the country, according to a report published this month in The Scotsman.

Tougher Laws, Better Policing Needed
Whatever the explanation for Trinidad’s surge in kidnappings, it is clear that law enforcement agencies must be better prepared to handle these difficult challenges in the future. Certainly, police forces need to be better trained in investigative techniques to effectively deal with kidnappings and the apprehension of perpetrators. Reformers argue that more severe legislation needs to be enacted to more severely punish these criminals and discourage further kidnappings. But this is not enough; many of the kidnappers come from impoverished backgrounds and have few viable alternatives to turn to. Officials must also mandate better instruction of the police negotiators who arrange for the release of the victims. A model may be provided by Argentina, where President Néstor Kirchner has introduced a bold new plan to reform the country’s inept police force by axing 107 top-ranking federal police officers in the wake of a rash of crime and public dissatisfaction with police performance.