Not Condemning: The tragedy of Laventille, Desperadoes, crime and bandits

Trinidad and Tobago has always been dreadful at organising anything but Carnival. Nowadays, we can’t even organise that properly. And it is killing us, in some ways, literally.

The example of Desperadoes and the Laventille Hill is instructive.

Photo: United States Ambassador and ex-Sargeant Major John L Estrada, proud product of Laventille.

Laventille has been problematic but it has produced some of the most talented and competent sons and daughters of our soil (including a US ambassador to Trinidad). It was the crucible, the historians agree, out of which came the steelband and it has also provided leadership and creativity to the steelband movement for many years.

As a result, Laventille’s leading band, Desperadoes, multiple winners of the annual Panorama competition, have had their supporters come in droves from far and wide to listen to their band on The Hill.

Even when the prevailing culture spawned some unsettling fear of going up The Hill, we were always comforted by the knowledge that the community had our backs. Then something happened. I cannot say precisely where it came from but something happened.

Maybe it was the passing of, as David Rudder dubbed him in 1986, “the Man with the Hammer.” Maybe it was the 1990 event which represented, as Rudder would style it five years after “Hammer,” “the night of the day when the prophets died.” Maybe it was something else or all of these things put together that caused things to go steadily downhill.

And what began as petty robberies escalated to full-scale attacks on visitors to the area. Things got even worse when gun-toting bandits one evening ran through a practice session of the band. That was when someone made the decision that the safer option for the band was to practise elsewhere.

The full social consequences of that move are yet to be analysed and measured. For decades, the young people of the area had seen men and women hard at work in the panyard, striving for excellence, mastering their craft. However, I see as the first consequence of the decision the absence of positive role models consistently before the eyes of the young men and women of the area.

Photo: A hooded thug shows off his weapons. How much influence do personalities like these exercise over today’s young people?

They are no more. Those salutary models having been replaced by the often much more attractive—or at least high-profile—images and examples of mainly young men intent on getting rich or dying trying, what can we expect to produce? Gold out of straw?

At the heart of low achievement, arguably, lies the issue of indiscipline. And indiscipline might be the product, well, a product of not seeing the value of the work you are doing.

The aggression and violence which removed Despers from Laventille is both a criminal and a social problem, for which there is no single, one-size-fits-all solution. But no lasting solution can avoid systematically addressing the root evils, which are the omnipresence of low self-esteem and the easy availability of the perceived panaceas of drugs and guns.

From captain to cook, the level of indiscipline which pervades our society is unbelievable. And it does not help for there to be a growing sense that there is perhaps an inability, at least a reluctance, to bring wrong-doers to justice. By definition, wrongdoers do not do the right thing. But they may not do the wrong thing if they feel that there is a price to be paid—preferably a high price—for so doing. And that is the message that the authorities must send. Consistently. Even at the cost of unpopularity.

It simply cannot be allowed to continue; we have to stop merely talking and take action. The public, young and old, must see those seemingly sacred cows who have sinned being taken to the butcher’s shop. Not because we have it in for anyone but simply because it is the right thing to do.

Photo: Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley gestures on the election campaign platform. Who? Me? Not I!
(Courtesy Caribbean News Service)

Just as it is the right thing for Despers soon to return to their home overlooking Port-of-Spain to once again bring hope and vision to a community which is now in the wilderness.

Just as it is a tragedy that the children of Despers have chased them off The Hill with their guns and bullets and forced them to go from pillar to post in order to find a spot to practise for Carnival.

Just as it is a tragedy that we allow it to continue.

Just as it is a tragedy that our elected politicians with the power to do something about it are doing little more than collectively wringing their hands as young and old are gunned down in the streets. (Ah! A ray of light! The Opposition Leader has recently proposed that they re-open talks on the anti-gang legislation and Government has agreed.)

Just as it is only when Despers finally return home to The Hill to create their music and lift hearts and spirits that we can feel confident that the country may have turned the corner on crime.

Until then, it’s as simple as ABCD, I shall remain tragically sceptical about all the claims of winning the war against the army of bandits, criminals and desperadoes…

Not condemning, just commenting.

Photo: The Desperadoes Steel Orchestra, still the pride of Laventille, performs at the annual Panorama competition.
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  1. Most of the current members of the band are not from laventille, so I guess they had no choice, pity Desperadoes is now classified as a town band.

  2. I guess they have new role models now ? In with the new

  3. I find the comment by TT Patriots about the treatment of Laventille, Beetham and Sealots people by the PNM to be very insulting to the PNM and especially to the founder of the PNM Dr Eric Williams. It’s also most insulting to every Trinidadian who has looked objectively at the history of these places over the last half century, and probably suffered at the hands of the people who live there.

    It is a matter of record that the PNM has gone overboard in pouring resources of all types to the tune of billions of dollars to help their faithful followers in Laventille and Beetham in particular. When the PNM assumed government in 1956 these places were the worst kinds of dumps imaginable, with the most deprived and depressed people probably in the whole country. Their housing was junk, remember the name Shanty Town for Beetham. PNM gave them decent housing, free housing for which most of them didn’t even pay rent. They had few jobs, and many were digging in the La Basse for food and recyclables, and the PNM gave them jobs and money in DEWD and other parts of the public service. They did not have pipe borne water, they did not have decent roads, they did not have electricity, they did not have decent sewage, they did not have schools, and yes PNM give them all that too! They didn’t have community development, they didn’t have cultural development, they didn’t have sporting development, them fellers and ladies didn’t have nutten I tell you. PNM tried, they really tried to help Laventille and Beetham (no longer shanty town) and it cost plenty money. And PNM is still giving them plenty, and yes it costing heavy dollars too! The people of the area responded by being fiercely loyal to the PNM through thick and thin. They know a good deal when they see one, and they know full well that the PNM never spent that kind of money and resources to once depressed and poor Indian areas like Debe/Penal, Rio Claro, Cedros, Couva, Bamboo Village and the like. Notice I say once depressed and poor Indian areas, because those areas have developed nicely without any significant help from PNM governments that have ruled Trinidad for most of the last half century.

    Now that we have dispensed with the crap about poor treatment by the PNM, let’s look at why Laventille and Beetham have not developed well in comparison to Indian communities of similar poverty and depression in the fifties? Laventille and Beetham areas are full of crime and drugs and gun violence we would all agree. Some areas like Gonzales, and Never Dirty and Beetham itself are no go areas for alcohol and food delivery trucks and I have no hesitation in saying you will not get me going there either. Schools they have but the pass rate is low and the dropout rate high, the youth unemployment high, teenage pregnancy and fatherless children also high, local business places very low. If your car shuts down on the Beetham you are sure to be robbed, and all the time motorists are being robbed on the Priority in certain areas, but nowhere else along the Priority. Laventille and Beetham people have a bad rep and they deserve it, because they have not made use of the resources thrown at them and uplifted themselves. Remember how Chaguanas was a crap heap in the fifties? How you like it now? Why isn’t it still a crap heap?

    Shakespeare said it right. The fault is not in your stars, but in yourselves. Laventille and Beetham people largely thought their only obligation for the PNM gifts was to vote PNM. They forget that Dr Williams was telling them about discipline, production and tolerance and the future is in your bookbags, meaning they had to better themselves, improve themselves, stop being Laventille and Shanty Town people! But they didn’t listen. They didn’t take the education, they didn’t improve their social and family behaviour, they didn’t begin to discipline themselves, save and plan for the future, sacrifice for the family, avoid crime and alcohol and drugs, open up businesses, cool down on the partying and living for today you know it yadah yadah… PNM move out some of them Laventille people and give them nice house in Curepe and Couva and Penal but they couldn’t remove the Laventille out of these people and now they are pests and problems for the Indian people in those areas. Tell me ah lie!

    The fault for the continued depression and degradation of places like Laventille and Beetham lies with the people themselves who live there, not with the PNM. Let me add that not 100% of the people there are problems. Some have improved themselves and moved out to better places and better lives, but not a large amount.

    So what is the solution for Laventille, Beetham, Sealots and such areas? Throwing more money, more jobs, more houses, even more police at them is not the answer. Tried and failed. The old Alcoholics Anonymous 12 step program may be a hint. First you recognize that you have a problem in yourself, stop blaming others for your state, and seek help. You start by changing your poor lifestyle, following a progressive program to improve yourself, avoid company that drags you back to old ways, hang out with people who reinforce your new program, and take a serious vow never to relapse. You take it one day at a time, and yes boy, it’s painful but it’s only through that pain that you gain. Look at the example of people all around who have improved themselves, and enriched themselves, and are living in million dollar houses with their families, and say I want to be like them fellers down in Debe/Penal (now Millionaire’s Row!) and I will make any sacrifice to get there!

    Now for the kicker. Do you think you can get plenty Laventille, Beetham and Sealots people to take the Self Improvement Road? Didn’t think so. Me neither. I wasn’t born yesterday. If Eric Williams whom they worshipped couldn’t get them to move their rusty backsides, why would they listen to you and me?

  4. #8 laventille road three houses away from despers learn pan football kite flying etc know all the short cuts Rudolph Charles thunderbolt Williams Sam gungadin diny speaker robbie Bradley laventille best view of the city home always. BUT like despers chose to leave. Sad

  5. Everybody “up de Hill” made a living. Boiled and roasted corn, drinks in a bucket or cooler, corn soup, nuts and snacks , everything was sold by the residents. The “children of the corn ” happened and all fell apart.

  6. The article states that role models were always evident. Why haven’t the youth emulated those role models

  7. “Up d hill” was THE home of Love and Culture…… there was never a loving place like Laventille in T&T…

  8. It is really unfortunate that the band HAD to leave their home. Good article

  9. I remember d days going up d hill to listen. Gone now

  10. Great read. I love the conclusion.

  11. What if the community does not want to be enriched? Have you ever been chased out of Laventille? What possesses normal individuals to behave like this? That’s not normal behaviour. My suggestion may be divisive but if there is another way I would happily see it (and help it ) be implemented. Meanwhile children are suffering for lack of positive role models and the country suffers as a result. Sometimes people don’t want to be saved from themselves…then what do you do but save the ones who want to be saved? It’s not fair to them to have to live like that.

  12. I don’t think popularity is what drives any particular action against crime. Mediocrity seems to be the most consistent element. Police would rather park in one spot on the highway waiting for speeding drivers (who are usually warned ahead of time) than patrol the highway to charge all who engage in reckless driving. Had they bothered to attempt to save the practice sessions in Laventille by beefing up patrols, this could have been a different article. What exactly did police try to do to help protect and serve the people of the nation or children of Laventille from the scourge that grew there? I would like to know.

  13. The approach you are suggesting is very divisive. The “Despers Problem” is indicative of similar problems across the country. We have to find solutions which enrich and improve all communities.

    • Very well said, Dennise Demming. The issue of Laventille and other parts of east POS is a complex story but a complexity that revolves around what I call a self-regenerating cycle of neglect, manipulation, and betrayed promises. The the way Ms Sankar wrote it’s as if “negative forces” that want Laventille to be only a place of negativity only reside in Laventille itself. In fact many of them reside outside but through their influence and status in society, ensure that places like East POS remain in cycles of dependence and violence. Even Fr Harvey said on more than one occasion that he is convinced that all this is deliberate and that there are people in high offices who want it to be like this as it suits their purposes. Dr Daurius Figueira says the exact same thing. All this is not new but can be traced quite easily to the conditions created in the 19th century that David Trotman examined in his gripping and disturbing book on crime in Trinidad in the 19th century.

      That people are being chased out now is not surprising; Rubadiri Victor as well as the late Hal Greaves and Earl Lovelace point out in separate interviews of the many, many times people of Laventille made attempts to deal with their own situation (I mean, the view up there is breathtaking; I’ve been there many times); how they identified spaces that were considered neutral and sought to build structures so that the various factions could meet and play, resolve conflicts and start community building ventures. Each and every time they identified such places and approached the relevant political figures, promises were made and then betrayed by having other structures built on those places, often shutting the residents out save for a minute few who would get small jobs there for cosmetic purposes. Over and over this has been done and finally the people got fed up and are now making their frustrations and disgust clear.

      Mind you this is not only the case in Laventille eh; I read an article (Community Development by Vaps) by Susan Craig in TAPIA’s journal. It was written back in 1971 and even then the observation was made, based on a self-help project in Erin initiated by the then government, that that very government did not want for it to truly succeed as it would have led to the eventual decline of centralised (governmental) control. I used this in a paper I recently wrote examining the rise of the conditions that lead youths to join gangs and ISIS because to this day Erin is one of the fishing villages that is a major entry point for the guns that are used in Laventille and other so-called “hot-spots)

      This is the kind of analysis I wish would be coming from UWI academics, and leave the divisive, reactionary statements like what I saw above to people like me who have no degree. I don’t know why even now I still have high expectations of people who attended and work in a university, particularly a university of the WEST INDIES, which would suggest an institution that has made it a point to examine in exhausting detail the unique social dynamics that made countries in the Caribbean what they are today. When I see what is written in response to this article, it made me reflect on how the West Indiana section of UWI library is usually a ghost town. Almost every single thing I said is based on information found in that section. How sad.

    • A Corey Gilkes I applaud your thesis on the Laventille issue and I am sorry I don’t spend enough time in WI section of the library. I wish I could. I don’t buy the conspiracy theory. Sorry. If enough Laventillians want to take back their neighbourhood, they can do it. Not everything requires what you suggest has been offered and not delivered to the people. Maybe I am a naive optimist but I believe people can achieve what they want if they really want it. The people who are chasing innocent victims out of Laventille, what do they want? Who put the weapons in their hands and a gin to their head to force them to be that way? Let’s blame every politician that ever made a promise they didn’t deliver that is so very productive.

    • Antoinette Sankar since you don’t buy the conspiracy theory, as you reductively call it, to what do you attribute the rise in criminal activity? And just so you know, my ‘conspiracy theory’ is not based on academic research in West Indiana or any library for that matter. I don’t joke about having been on the hill, I used to go to a dojo on Picton Road back in the early 90s and I began frequenting the hill from that time onward. I see the same conditions in “train line” Marabella and in Icacos or La Rufin, Moruga — all the areas where the drugs come in….sometimes for police officers.

      We are both in agreement though that if enough Laventiliians wish to take back their neighbourhood, they can do it. Keep in mind though that *one* of the reasons this is not being done has to do with the fact that they will be taking it back from some of the people who provides what little infrastructure there is. The gang leaders often really are the community leaders unfortunately and they provide what the proper authorities do not. I don’t know if you’ve seen a youth in the prime of his life catch a pelican, kill it and clean it to eat because he and his friends had no money for chicken, but I have seen that with my own eyes in Sea Lots on the jetty behind the fish market. There’s a lot more going on here than just lazy youths who eh want to wuk and just get a handout. So I’m curious, to what do you see as the cause of this country’s gang activity?

  14. Seems no one in that place wanted positive energy and role models. Or they didn’t want it enough to fight for it. Or they were outnumbered by the negative forces only wanting that place to be a place of negativity and violence. Very sad. I can’t imagine wanting to stay there in a situation like that. The government should rescue those who want to leave and by that I mean relocate them somewhere less idk… fraught with community violence or whatever. The rest can fight amongst and destroy themselves.

  15. Absolutely brilliant piece of social commentary. Well said.

  16. Was never too friendly a place to me during my time in Trinidad. Wonder why?

  17. Despers gave the area meaning.Without them ,it’s just a killing zone.

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