Despite concerted efforts by the government to tackle the issue, criminal activity remains a major topic of concern in Trinidad and Tobago. Incidents of violent crime have risen steadily over the past 20 years, with 101 murders in 1997, 395 in 2007 and 494 in 2017. Furthermore, in the first nine months of 2018 alone, 383 killings were reported.
The seizure of illegal firearms has yet to reverse the trend – 1026 such items were seized in 2017, a 32% increase on the 765 taken in 2016. A number of laws have been passed to expand the powers of law enforcement in dealing with the problem of gang-related violent crime, but this too has not resolved the challenge. This highlights that further policy is required in order to both effectively deal with the perpetrators and causes of crime.
New Police Powers
According to the Organised Crime and Intelligence Unit, there were approximately 2450 suspected gang members and 211 gangs operating in the country in 2017. In an effort to overcome this obstacle, Parliament and the presidency passed a new Anti-Gang Act in May 2018. The new law increases both the length of the prison sentences and the scope of crimes covered by anti-gang legislation, including offenses such as the ownership of a bulletproof vest. In addition, it expands the powers of police to enter dwellings and make arrests of individuals reasonably suspected of being involved in gang-related activities.
While these moves have been broadly welcomed and are expected to improve the domestic security situation, police authorities have been quick to highlight that the legislation in not a panacea. Speaking to local media in May 2018 Stephen Williams, the acting commissioner of the T&T police force, stated that the legislation provides “another tool in our tool kit so that we can go after gangs and members of gangs,” but stated that there is “no magic formula.” In particular, Williams highlighted the problem of corruption and criminality within the police force and political class as constituting a major bottleneck. “The officer who is a criminal is the one we should go after,” Williams told local media.
While the country has benefitted enormously from its geographical position as a centre for international trade links, this position has also produced negative externalities. The close proximity of T&T to Colombia and, particularly, Venezuela has rendered it an important loci in the trafficking of cocaine, functioning as a crucial bridge between South and North America in the trans-shipment of the illegal commodity. This situation has been worsened by recent economic and political instability in Venezuela, which have led to a breakdown in law and order in the neighbouring state. Moreover, this increase in the transit of the illicit substance has fuelled greater drug consumption within the country itself. Both these factors have contributed significantly to the rise in gang related violence.
The country’s small armed forces, the T&T Defence Force, along with the Coast Guard have sought to stymie the trade, in collaboration with the US and other regional powers. Nevertheless, ongoing issues of corruption and collusion with organised crime have so far hindered these efforts. For example, in May 2018 the authorities apprehended TT$34m ($5m) worth of cocaine at Trinidad’s Piarco International Airport. In this instance two airport officials were implicated in the crime.
Tough on the Causes
Increased powers and resources for the police and armed forces, coupled with efforts to tackle corruption, can be expected to improve security. Nevertheless, efforts will also be needed to tackle underlying factors that contribute to rising criminality. The government’s efforts to tackle youth unemployment through improved education and training can be expected to be central to longer-term efforts to overcome these challenges.