When politics fails, people die; Sunity Maharaj on trouble in Laventille

And so it has come to pass that today is the very tomorrow we had so feared yesterday.

In almost every sphere—the economy, education, agriculture, health, national security, transportation—we are living the logical outcome of over 50 years of policy failures.

Photo: The Laventille hills. (Copyright Power102fm)
Photo: The Laventille hills.
(Copyright Power102fm)

This is why the Prime Minister needs to rethink his response to the killing of teenaged schoolboys, De-neilson Smith and Mark Richards which, like a blow to the solar plexus, have violently disrupted the routine drip-drip of blood now imbedded into the rhythm of life in sweet T&T.

Indeed, the situation demanded that he step forward, take charge and act decisively.

Deploying the army in hot spot areas with a mandate to operate “within the laws of T&T” could be an effective first move although we await the meaning of his instruction that the Defence Force “operate in conditions determined by them.”

But to accuse reluctant witnesses of “unpatriotic” behaviour on par with the actions of those who had pulled the trigger is—to adopt a favoured term of his—“foolishness” bordering on irresponsibility.

The accusation must sting like salt to the wound of communities that have been paralysed into silence by the fear of criminals who, thanks to police and politician alike, are now so large and in charge that every life is at the randomness of their mercy.

Photo: Former Education Minister Tim Gopeesingh (right) greets a young resident in Success Laventille. (Copyright news.gov.tt)
Photo: Former Education Minister Tim Gopeesingh (right) greets a young resident in Success Laventille.
(Copyright news.gov.tt)

Thanks to years of multi-million dollar state contracts, private sector protection money, and unholy liaisons with the protective services, ordinary hustlers have been transformed into major league gang leaders with communities so entirely under their control that they only putatively belong to the republic of Trinidad and Tobago.

In the context of Thursday’s killings, it would be interesting to know which, if any, MP or councillor has dared to go up Picton Road, with or without security, to offer condolences to these families.

None of us who live outside of these areas might ever understand what it is like to grow up and exist with the 24/7 reality of being under the gun, either by direct threat or by accidental gunfire.

What must it be like for boys, in particular, who are under pressure to surrender to the power of the gang? Or for mothers fighting the street for the lives of their children?

On Facebook, a friend told of a mother who hides her boys indoors and transports them down the hill in her car trunk to school.

Photo: Murdered Laventille schoolboy De-neilson Smith.
Photo: Murdered Laventille schoolboy De-neilson Smith.

In such an environment, De-Neilson and Mark could’ve been killed as much for the threat posed by their school uniforms to ignorance powered by guns, or as messages to rivals written in blood.

Who knows?

Even if there are witnesses with the courageous instinct to be “patriotic” and report the killers, which officer could they trust? Indeed, which taxi would they take to the police station?

As in the case of Dudus and Trenchtown in Jamaica, our communities have developed into hotspots because weak and ineffective politicians have entered into dangerous alliances with community criminals in order to control the vote.

Strengthened by the political rewards of first, ghost gangs payments and later, multi-million dollar state contracts, gang leaders have become lucrative partners for certain police officers who are willing to supply services for everything from bodyguard, to informant, to legal gun for hire.

This is no overnight phenomenon but the rotten legacy of the flamboyant, media-savvy chief of the Police Flying Squad, Randolph Burroughs, whose actions were fully sanctioned by the post-1970 Williams administration.

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago soldiers on the move. (Copyright Baltimore Examiner)
Photo: Trinidad and Tobago soldiers on the move.
(Copyright Baltimore Examiner)

By the 1980s, the forces unleashed by the highly popular “Kojak” character were out of control leading to the crisis conditions described in the Scott Drug report of 1986.

Today’s bloody reality is an accumulation of all the policy failures to address and arrest the institutional breakdown and distrust.

Instead of stopping short at blaming the people of Laventille, the PM needs to dig deeper and contend with the forces that transformed Laventille/Morvant from the community of public servants and city labour that it was up until the early 1970s.

Even now, similar forces are at work elsewhere. In particular, he needs to explore the damage inflicted by government policy in response to the fear of Black Power activism and its implications for the PNM as a party grounded in Afro-Trinidad.

The people of Laventille have retreated into silence for the same reason that business people do not report blackmail threats and demands for protection money. Many have learned the hard and even fatal way not to trust government or the institutions of law and order.

Photo: Then Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley (second from left) and MP Donna Cox (centre) walk through Troumacaque, Laventille. (Copyright news.gov.tt)
Photo: Then Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley (second from left) and MP Donna Cox (centre) walk through Troumacaque, Laventille.
(Copyright news.gov.tt)

Having sought and accepted the responsibility, the onus for building trust is now on Dr Rowley and his government. The biggest mistake would be to under-estimate the complexity of the challenge and to believe that it begins and ends in the hot spots.

The first priority should be to engage, not berate, the communities.

As a first move, soldiers operating “within the law” will provide a reassuring presence, but it is intelligence work that will put criminals away and win the day, inch by inch, community by community.

There are many individuals, agencies and community organisers who have built powerful networks inside these areas, often at daily risk to their lives.

Many have earned the trust of people on different sides and would be vital allies in any strategy for defeating gang power.

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago soldiers on patrol. (Copyright Power102FM)
Photo: Trinidad and Tobago soldiers on patrol.
(Copyright Power102FM)

It will take a lot more than the police and army to free people from the psychology of fear and distrust which has created safe havens for the godfathers of crime.

About Sunity Maharaj

Sunity Maharaj
Sunity Maharaj is a journalist with 38 years of experience and the managing director of the Lloyd Best Institute of the West Indies. She is a former Trinidad Express editor in chief and TV6 head of news.

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  1. ..”Abandon all hope ye who enter here”..(Dante’s Inferno)..

  2. “When politics fails, people die”

    No shit.

  3. Another great article from miss maraj

  4. That has been a PNM Constituency for 50 years….50 YEARS! Yet it is underdeveloped. On what basis then do people in Laventille (and environs) vote? It may be deep tribalism, the ‘us against them’, and ‘doh matter how much we suffer, we not goin against.’ This political ideology has been translated into a social policy, ie, they are going to protect the criminals against the Police regardless.
    To say that they don’t trust the Police is a ‘cop out’. The excuse is weak, without merit. There are several ways to report criminals without ‘taking a taxi to the police station’ or speaking directly to an officer. There are anonymous ways that work. Yet, they harbour the criminals, they pass persons with firearms on their waists and with drugs on their person. They give them a bounce and feel good that the ‘shotta’ call them out because “thais meh boy.”

    The we versus them tribal mentality has them burying their children daily. What about the old lady who was gunned down last year at her apartment because she stood up to them, why didn’t someone ‘sell them out’. The community sees what’s going on and they protect the criminals by their silence. Sorry for the school boys who died – I really am, but their blood is on the community and well as their MPs. They all failed.

  5. Sunity is on point! she have identified the core issues that exist in the Laventille area for more than 20 years now…when police have to accommodate T & TEC/WASA to fix problems in those areas no one in authority or the National Security found that to be strange????!!!! Mr. Rowley have a big task of fixing Laventille …..so good luck to all those involved…in the meanwhile i myself will stay far away from the Hills!!!.

  6. …Politics will never end. Social, economic and judicial reform has been on the agenda since the colonial era. Meantime, the country is in a state of war. No exaggeration. Let the Army have them…

  7. So since my existence there has been political failure? The only thing that can curb the crime situation in “sweet T&T” is for the police service to be reformed as well as fix a broken judicial system. Until then, no matter what they (any gov’t) try, it will fail. Plain talk

    • Dont forget we need a working living breathing fire FIU, because at its heart the financiers of the drug trade are very same importers of the guns to hand out to their lieutenants. To crush the violence we need to freeze their financier’s assets and start locking up white collar criminals with no account as to how they acquired millions of dollars worth of property and assets. Lets go after the real criminals. Not their hirelings.

  8. is it politics or governance? Is this a macro issue only or a community problem?

  9. Removed eradicated and replace with exterminated. Just to clarify.

  10. On point. But the criminals once identified must be eradicated!

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