Security After Emergency
By Dialogo April 01, 2012
Violent crime in Trinidad and Tobago led to the declaration of a state of emergency
in August 2011. Drugs and arms trafficking needed to be halted, and the Government asked
Soldiers to join with police in the effort. Post-emergency, the Caribbean nation is adopting
best practices to strengthen citizen confidence and set in motion a new security plan.
Father Reginald Hezekiah was sitting in his office behind the St. Charles Roman
Catholic Church on Eastern Main Road when he heard gunshots ring out. “Pow! Pow!” he later
recalled, his soft voice contrasting sharply with the deafening sound that had echoed in the
garage behind him. He didn’t know what to do. Murders had been taking place all around
Tunapuna, a relatively safe community on the outskirts of Port of Spain, the capital of
Trinidad and Tobago. Father Hezekiah scaled the steps to the second floor of his home where
he could see beyond his peach-colored church to the street. Lying there alone was a
construction worker, bleeding. Co-workers had fled, and neighbors had barricaded themselves
in their homes. Father Hezekiah stepped outside.
When he reached the man, he was unconscious. Father Hezekiah knelt, and placing his
hand upon the man’s forehead, he began to pray. Blood spread over the man’s pants. More
blood streamed onto the street until an ambulance arrived. The man would survive, Father
Hezekiah learned later.
Trinidad was in a state of emergency (SoE) when the shooting took place, but a
curfew did not prevent this shooting in broad daylight on that October morning. The country
was ravaged by an average of 45 murders a month in 2011. Even though violent crime had
decreased from 2010, the high homicide rate was unsettling to citizens. A string of 11
murders in four days in August 2011 triggered the government to declare the SoE in the
Caribbean nation of 1.3 million.
This allowed the government to boost the police force by nearly 70 percent, from
6,146 to 10,316, by drawing on personnel from the Armed Forces. The Armed Forces were also
allowed to conduct warrantless searches and arrests. The murder rate dropped from 46 cases
during the prior month to an average of 18 during the four-month SoE, and serious crimes
fell by 50 percent, according to police statistics. Arms and drug seizures also increased
In the months since, the government used lessons learned during the SoE as part of
a long-term strategy to prevent drugs and arms from entering the country and reduce related
gang violence. However, when the SoE was lifted December 5, most of an estimated 450
detained gang members were released due to lack of evidence. In the first 23 days of 2012,
there were 31 murders. For all of the successes of the SoE, the tool was not a panacea. Yet,
Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar highlighted a major feat of the SoE that laid the
groundwork for changes to come: “Public confidence in the ability of our protective services
is beginning to return.”
A Regional Challenge
“There’s always been that concern by persons that say that the military should not
be used in the streets,” said retired Defence Force Captain Gary Griffith, national security
advisor to the prime minister. “I beg to differ.” Capt. Griffith, a 16-year veteran who
spent six months with the United Nations peacekeeping efforts in Haiti, stressed the benefit
of joint operations between the police and Armed Forces. “The military is there to act as
that support element to ensure that democracy is maintained,” he said. A valuable peacetime
role for the Armed Forces, Capt. Griffith said, is participating in joint operations,
training together with other security professionals, and forming part of a new
communications hub that would allow all units to work hand in hand with each other.
As part of “21st century law enforcement,” the government is ramping up its use of
empirical testing and data to study criminal patterns. It is also seeking the latest
intelligence gathering technology and it is closing loopholes in the criminal justice system
to provide security forces with more legal tools. Learning from missteps made during the
SoE, the police are being trained on the intricacies of the new gang law.
Gregory Aboud is president of the Downtown Owners and Merchants Association. His
stores, filled with brightly colored textiles,
draw visitors from Trinidad’s African and Indian immigrant populations. “The state
of emergency is very disruptive to the country, very disruptive to the economy and very
disruptive to the social well-being and social life of our citizens,” he said. Society
cannot tolerate the use of the SoE as a long-term solution, Aboud said. He also related the
problems of poverty and lawlessness that Trinidad and Tobago is facing to those in Jamaica,
where the murder rate in 2011 was three times that of Trinidad and Tobago and a state of
emergency was also declared in January 2011.
Francis Forbes, former commissioner of police in Jamaica, is the interim executive
director of the Caribbean Community Implementation Agency for Crime and Security (CARICOM
IMPACS), an organization that acts as a think tank and regional coordinating group. He
agreed that the problems the nation is facing as a transshipment point for South American
drugs are shared by other Caribbean nations where firearms are used to protect drug
shipments, then are left behind for gangs to use in turf battles. “The proliferation of arms
and ammunition is wreaking havoc currently in the region, and when it is combined with the
trafficking of drugs, it is again a recipe for disaster that we are taking head-on now,” he
The Caribbean Basin Security Initiative and other funding sources helped CARICOM
IMPACS get 10,000 guns off Caribbean streets in the last five years. “It is our view that
the same people who are trafficking drugs are the same people trafficking persons and
trafficking guns and ammunition,” Forbes said, adding that his organization was also
encouraging member states to rely more on forensic sciences to solve crimes. With regional
security strategies still a work in progress, the task of fighting gang violence and keeping
drugs off the streets of Trinidad still is the responsibility of local police.
Catching the “Big Fish”
The North Eastern Division of Trinidad’s police service is headquartered at the
Morvant Police Station. Once a crime “hot spot,” Morvant has seen violent crime diminished
drastically, and the police unit prides itself in having one of the highest conviction rates
in the country.
The North Eastern Division’s Task Force office at the Morvant Police Station
consists of five desks crowded in a room packed with tall, overflowing filing cabinets. Cpl.
Darryl La Pierre stressed strong leadership and ties to the community as the path to one of
the most respected police forces on the island. As a recent night patrol demonstrated,
challenges remain. During the patrol, two Nissan Navara SUV patrol cars roamed the streets,
the officers keenly aware of their surroundings in the evening rush hour. As one car drove
west along the Eastern Main Road in San Juan, Constable Jason Sandy, who was driving,
spotted a suspicious transaction in the shadows just beyond the bright lights of the Mount
Lambert gas station.
By the time officers could spin the car around and pull into the station, the man
making the purchase had fled, but the seller was walking along Maloney Street. Officers
approached. After a search, officers found a large wad of cash and razor blades with a
powdery residue. The seller denied he had been selling cocaine, but could not explain the
razors or large sum of cash. The police did not have enough evidence to charge him with a
crime, but they could develop a relationship.
“He might tell us something or tell something in the future,” said Sergeant
Cornelius Samuel. “Most informants are criminals themselves or members of the community who
are fed up with criminals. It’s a long-term investment.” A few days earlier, in the Southern
Division, similar intelligence from an informant led to a bust. Four arrests were made and
more than 4 kilograms of marijuana were seized, along with firearms. Senior Superintendent
Deodath Dulalchan said increased interactions with community members during the SoE not only
helped citizens to increase their trust in the police, it helped police to understand what
citizens expect of them. “They were able to see results,” said Superintendent Dulalchan of
the community. “They themselves appreciated the fact that they need to work closer with the
Intelligence is the key ingredient to fighting crime, according to Trinidad and
Tobago Police Commissioner Dwayne Gibbs. In his opinion, the SoE heightened intelligence
gathering that has contributed to improved safety and security after the SoE was lifted.
Still, citizens feel the “big fish” are getting away.
Sgt. Samuel believes there are big fish in Trinidad bankrolling drug trafficking.
He hopes new legislation will bolster financial crime investigations and that closing more
cases will put pressure on traffickers. Until then, police in the North Eastern Division
know their tools are sometimes limited but they believe in the work they do. “It really
takes some effort, resources and courage,” said Sgt. Samuel. “Overall, we have some
dedicated officers who are still fighting the good fight.”