Trinidad Enlists Soldiers to Combat Drug-Related Wave of Violent Crime
By Dialogo April 01, 2013
Faced with growing drug-linked gang warfare and insufficient police on the streets, Trinidad and Tobago is turning to the military to help combat the country’s latest violent crime surge.
The Defense Bill, passed by the Lower House and due to be debated April 2, is strongly supported by the twin-island nation’s business community and by human rights associations.
Deploying members of the Trinidad and Tobago Defense Force (TTDF) to assist the police is nothing new, but this move is aimed at giving soldiers the right to arrest suspects during operations. When Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar declared a four-month-long limited state of emergency in 19 hotspots back in August 2011, she singled out Trinidad’s drug trade with South America as the major cause for execution-style killings.
“One of the causes for the spike in murders is ironically linked to the success by the police in the discovery of large drug hauls with values in excess of $20 million in just one raid,” she said in a statement at the time. “These large sums of money simply do not disappear from the drug trade without consequences and in some of the cases now occurring, this is the result.”
Homicide rate declines, but not fast enough With nearly 100 people killed so far this year, Trinidad’s steady decline in homicides — from a peak of 547 in 2008 to 383 last year — is hardly comforting to ordinary citizens.
“We need something to be done drastically. This can’t go on forever,” said Steve Maharaj, an elderly street vendor in Port of Spain. “I think the soldiers will help because when we had them out during the state of emergency, suddenly you saw a lull.”
Diana Mahabir-Wyatt, executive director of the Caribbean Centre for Human Rights, prefers to take a wait-and- approach to measure how effective putting arrest powers in the hands of soldiers will be. But she welcomed the decision to give soldiers crime-fighting arrest powers.
Even though the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS) has 6,000 officers, only about 2,000 actually work each day because the police union insists on only one eight-hour shift at a time.
“This gives you an idea of some of the problems the country has in managing the police and why they need to do turn to the regiment,” Mahabir-Wyatt said. “The Defence Force works as long as they are needed. It’s a different kind of discipline.”
Military arrest powers under discussion
The human rights activist said she’s encouraged by TTDF leadership’s declaration that soldiers will not be more aggressive to civilians than their police counterparts during crime-fighting. “I have personally spoken to the head of the military, and he doesn’t see any of the soldiers engaging in rogue acts [that would] violate the human rights of civilians.”
Mahabir-Wyatt said police and soldiers have conducted joint patrols over the years, and that the Defense Act amendment would gives TTDF members the muscle to arrest suspects alongside their civilian law-enforcement counterparts. “You cannot have a soldier walking around by herself or himself just deciding to arrest somebody without having a police officer present,” she added.
Ronald Marshall, a sociology professor at the University of the West Indies, said he doesn’t think TTDF soldiers would easily fall prey to corruption — a common problem throughout the Caribbean.
“There has to be a special experiment because the kind of respect they will have for the army is not the type of respect they will have for the police who are more socialized into certain types of behaviours and allegations of corruption,” he recently told Trinidad’s Newsday newspaper. “I think the image of a soldier is more strong, anti-crime and definitive in terms of social order than a police officer.”
TTDF: Bill gives soldiers same rights as police officers
Anand Ramlogan, the country’s attorney general, has explained that the legal amendment would insulate soldiers in executing civilian law enforcement.
“They will enjoy the same rights, privileges and immunities as police officers. They will have the same powers as police officers, including power to arrest, search, seize and to carry arms,” Ramlogan said in a press statement. He added that the government plans to train TTDF members in police practice and procedure, investigations, law and court process to ensure they are properly equipped to undertake their duties alongside police officers.
The local chapter of Transparency International has identified a string of unanswered questions having to do with checks and balances, possession and storage of evidence, and who the public can turn to for redress should soldiers commit infractions. “These actions however must be balanced with the need to safeguard the constitutional rights of citizens. Powers of arrest and seizure can easily be abused,” the organization stated.
While bickering continues about the decision to grant soldiers some police powers, the TTDF is staying above the fray and instead calling it “public policy.”
“This matter is not only relevant to the Defense Force, but is one which also affects public policy and in time more views would unfold which would fully shape that policy. There will be a healthy range of perspectives,” Col. Anthony Phillip-Spencer, TTDF’s commanding officer, told the Guardian newspaper.
If there’s one group that the Trinidadian government can turn to for unquestionable support, it is the business community. The Trinidad Chamber of Industry and Commerce says the move marks a major departure from traditional crime-fighting measures.
“We believe that giving soldiers the same powers, authorities, privileges and immunities as are given by law to members of the Police Service and others can potentially have a positive impact on the reduction of crime,” the chamber said in a statement, noting that past joint police-soldier patrols to maintain law and order have been effective.
The same thing has happened in our country, the Dominican Republic, where they've had to bring in servicemen to patrol the streets, but they're not on active duty, in other words, they're just at specific points in strategic areas. Yes, buddy, but Trinidad and Tobago has 60 points less criminality compared to our country in addition there is a lower % of poverty and inequality, and most obviously, they have a government that works and that is less corrupt.