Latin America & Caribbean

How Trinidad is tackling its crime crisis

Trinidad Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar on 24 November
Image caption Trinidad PM Kamla Persad-Bissessar: Expected a backlash from criminals

As the light fades, the engines of Trinidad and Tobago coastguard vessel TTS Teak come to life.

The fast patrol boat and its coastguard crew are about to start their nightly patrol of the territorial waters off the west coast of Trinidad.

The country's location just 11km (seven miles) off the South American coast makes it an ideal staging post in the shipment of cocaine to the US and European markets.

According to the US Drug Enforcement Administration, some 3% of cocaine entering the US comes from sea routes.

The Caribbean Sea has declined as a smuggling route but the concern is that it will regain its importance as efforts continue to target trafficking via Mexico.

And that is why Washington is renewing its focus on the region.

Murder spike

The US has spent $139m (£89m) since 2010 to train regional security forces. The US Coastguard is providing boats and equipment to some of the smaller Caribbean islands and improving the screening of containers bound for the US.

"As we've seen, weapons trafficking and other types of illicit trafficking have a huge negative impact on the people of all our countries, so we have to do our best to stop them," says David Wolf, the deputy head of mission at the US embassy in Port of Spain.

That impact came to fore in August when there were 11 murders in 48 hours, killings the authorities blamed on a drug gang turf war.

In response, the government imposed a state of emergency that gave the army forces the same powers as the police. All were allowed to search and arrest without a warrant.

An overnight curfew was imposed on Port of Spain and surrounding areas, and also on the other urban centres considered crime "hotspots".

The restrictions were lifted after several weeks, but military checkpoints and searches are still in place.

Since the clampdown, the government says cocaine and marijuana with a street value of about $250m has been seized.

"The criminal elements had a thriving business; they were practically running this country and the government was sitting back," says Gary Griffith, national security adviser to Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar.

"They're upset that we've messed up their business, their trade, their industry, and they plan to retaliate."

Scepticism

On 25 November, Mrs Persad-Bissessar said the security forces had uncovered a plot to assassinate her and several government ministers.

The nature of the threat was not made clear but Mrs Persad-Bissessar said the security forces had "thwarted what is an evil, devious act of treason".

News of the alleged plot was met with some scepticism, including by callers to i95, one of the most popular radio stations in the country.

Presenter Dale Enoch says he understands why people may feel the reported plot is just a pretext.

"There's a widespread belief that the government may just be paving the way for an extension of the state of emergency," he said.

Business leaders initially supported the curfew and the state of emergency, as the fallout from crime was estimated to add between 20% to 50% to costs, says Catherine Kumar from the Trinidad and Tobago Chamber of Commerce.

But not any more.

"We aren't seeing the benefits, it's time now for us to get back to business as usual," she says.

Luxury lifestyles

According to the government, there have been 305 murders so far this year, down on 443 at the same time last year.

The security crackdown had taken 173 weapons off the streets, and 13,000 rounds of ammunition have been seized.

But some feel the crime measures are not tackling the heart of the problem.

Image caption Trinidad's waters need constant surveillance

"Big men don't get caught, little men always get caught; that's what they do, they put up the little man, the little man gets put forward and the people who are funding the drugs never get caught," a taxi driver who lives in one of the crime "hotspots" said.

Mr Griffith says that going after illicit funds will be the next stage of the fight against the traffickers.

"When you look into their bank accounts or salary they have £500 but yet they have luxury cars and boats," he says.

Local people are convinced that big business, like in much of the world, is involved in the drugs trade.

"When you hear of TT$1.5bn of drugs being taken off the road, it's not the small man, they can't afford it. So it doesn't make us feel good that there are members of the business community who are involved," says Ms Kumar.

Given the scale of the crime, the prime minister has insisted that the drug traffickers still pose a threat to Trinidad and Tobago.

She has also indicated the state of emergency is not likely to continue beyond 5 December, according to local media.

But the longer the measure continues, the more polarising it becomes between those who believe that restrictions on civil liberties are a price worth paying to reduce crime and others who believe that the measures have gone far enough already.

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