Spotlight: A Conversation With Our Leaders

Caribbean Commitment against Illicit Networks

Trinidad and Tobago works closely with its regional partners to build and maintain networks to counter the effects of transregional transnational threat networks.
Geraldine Cook/Diálogo | 9 January 2018

Commodore Hayden Pritchard, chief of Defence Staff, Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force, affirms that regional commitment is needed to build strong networks against international criminal organizations. (Photo: Geraldine Cook/Diálogo)

Commodore Hayden Pritchard, chief of Defence Staff, Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force (TTDF), is focused on maintaining the rule of law in the face of gang activity, potential youth recruitment for terrorism, and youth delinquency. As a Caribbean regional partner, Commodore Pritchard is working to build networks against criminal activities.

Commodore Pritchard participated at the 16th annual Caribbean Nations Security Conference (CANSEC), held in Georgetown, Guyana on December 6-7, 2017. CANSEC participants discussed regional actions to counter transregional transnational threat networks (T3N). Commodore Pritchard spoke with Diálogo about his participation in CANSEC, the security concern his country faces, and the importance of building networks as the key to reverse the effect of illegal networks in the Caribbean region.

Diálogo: What is the importance of Trinidad and Tobago’s participation in CANSEC?

Commodore Hayden Pritchard, chief of Defence Staff of Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force: As a regional partner it’s about doing what you can to contribute to our network – the network of the willing, the network that consists of institutions that are interested in maintaining our way of life, our security, our stability, our development. To do that, CANSEC is a platform to share information and strategies in order to ensure that we are secure and safe.

Diálogo: What is the biggest security concern in Trinidad and Tobago?

Commodore Pritchard: The biggest concern is maintaining the rule of law in the face of gang activity, radicalization of youth, youth delinquency, and the convergence of these issues putting a strain on law and order.

Diálogo: Why is gang activity in Trinidad and Tobago a security threat?

Commodore Pritchard: Gang activity is not isolated to Trinidad and Tobago. It’s a regional and global problem. There’s a nexus between gang activities and finding conduits for youth energy, youth development, the economics of each country, the social media, and globalization in general. Based on the space in which young people live today, gang activity appears to be one of the regular outcomes in most countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, so Trinidad’s experience is not unique.

Diálogo: Are these gangs related to drug trafficking?

Commodore Pritchard: Gangs have to fund their activities, they are anti-state and have no respect for the law. Gangs in Trinidad and Tobago are involved in whatever is required to generate profit, and that includes narcotics trafficking and other forms of illegal trafficking.

Diálogo: Is Trinidad and Tobago an international transshipment route for moving drugs in the region?

Commodore Pritchard: Traditional intelligence suggests that Trinidad and Tobago, because of its location at the northeastern tip of the South American mainland, makes it a strategic location in terms of transshipment.

Diálogo: How does Trinidad and Tobago work with neighboring countries to defeat criminal networks?

Commodore Pritchard: There are a number of initiatives that we are working on in the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), including a counter-terrorism strategy, which is currently in review. In order to defeat the illicit networks, Trinidad and Tobago has larger partners across the globe within areas of operational training, intelligence training, infrastructure development, and capacity building –for both the military and the police. We are also interested in participating in different programs such as the Container Control Program under the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the Treaty of San José, and other bilateral arrangements with the United States, Great Britain, and other nations.

Diálogo: Are you concerned about potential youth recruitment for terrorism?

Commodore Pritchard: Absolutely. Trinidad and Tobago has the unique challenge of –as a small state– documented citizens who have gone to participate in terrorist activities. Although we do not have terrorism, we have the element of returning terrorist fighters. There is always a concern if you have returning foreign terrorist fighters, you can have huge radicalization, and when you put the two together, you can have an emergent terrorist threat. So far we’ve managed the situation reasonably, but yes, I am concerned that if we don’t manage the situation properly, it can escalate into something much worse.

Diálogo: What kind of progress has Trinidad and Tobago made in order to stop the youth from going into the lines of criminal activities?

Commodore Pritchard: The government of Trinidad and Tobago has traditionally focused on youth. TTDF in particular has a number of youth programs. One of them is a program at the Military-Led Academic Training Academy –MiLAT–, which focuses on delinquent youth and youth with conflict, focusing on conflict resolution. We also have the Civilian Conservation Corps Program. Both programs are geared towards exposing young people who may not have had the opportunity before to other options in life far from crime and violence. Those programs are going quite well.

Diálogo: How do these programs work?

Commodore Pritchard: MiLAT is a residential program that selects a number of people who apply –either by their parents or they’re recommended– and the military works with these individuals for a period of two years to ensure the practice of discipline and self-control, but also focuses on specific objectives. They are then prepared for academic exams, and the success rate is quite high.

The Civilian Conservation Corps’ Program introduces young people at a lower level to issues of national service, and they are trained in topics like developing certain basic skills but also national issues like environmental protection. This is a six-month rotational program.

Diálogo: Have these programs reduced youth criminality?

Commodore Pritchard: The success rate of the participants in terms of not returning into negative habits and behavior is quite high. A correlation between the program and national crime statistics has not been done, but based on the tracer studies on the individuals who go through the program, the success rate is extremely high in terms of their conduct and the instances of not being arrested or being involved with law enforcement.

Diálogo: How does TTDF protect its borders?

Commodore Pritchard: Trinidad and Tobago has invested a lot in its border security. It has an integrated border security concept based on integration of customs, immigration, TTDF—of which the Coast Guard has the primary role—, and the Police, in addition to security agencies of the ports themselves. TTDF also has a larger role in terms of maritime, air and radar surveillance to secure our borders. Further, Trinidad and Tobago collaborates with its regional and international partners with regard to information and intelligence sharing towards more secure borders.

Diálogo: You have been in this position since August 2017. How has your perspective changed since you assumed command?

Commodore Pritchard: After a few months in office, I am now convinced even more than I was before that it takes a network to defeat a network. It’s impossible for a small state like Trinidad and Tobago to deal with the capability of transnational networks and their capacity on its own. So, the greatest realization I’ve come upon is the need for the agencies within Trinidad and Tobago to network and be as committed as our adversaries, but also, for the agencies outside of Trinidad and Tobago to have a more coherent approach to how we network and share resources.

Diálogo: You mentioned that one of the main challenges in terms of networking is capacity-building and implementation. Can you please delve on that?

Commodore Pritchard: A network is as good as its participants, or its elements that make up the networks. This idea comes from the perspective of a government institution. If a government dictates policy and the government network has to carry out the policy, the government network must first have the capacity to do that, and if they don’t have the capacity, then they can’t implement the intent of the law or the policy.

Diálogo: What needs to happen to break that challenge?

Commodore Pritchard: Networks build capacity, but capacity builds networks; it’s an integrative process that is cyclical in nature. What has to happen is greater partnership, sharing of resources, communication, and these build capacity.

Diálogo: Does Trinidad and Tobago build capacity and share information with the United States?

Commodore Pritchard: Yes. The United States partners in different ways with its colleagues in the region. Trinidad and Tobago is a partner in terms of being an avid supporter of regional security and collaboration. We have selected projects such as building networks through information sharing and improving capacity that are supported by the United States.

Diálogo: What needs to happen in the region to be able to defeat international threat networks?

Commodore Pritchard: Defeat, is a difficult term. The networks that we fight against are made up of many elements, including terror and criminal connections. Before we start thinking in terms of defeat, we should first think in terms of response to these networks. It’s not a conventional war, it’s a fluid war. Network wars tend to be a bit more strategic and indeterminate. We need to do more work in building our networks to counter networks that are well entrenched, very agile, and many times elude us in pursuit of their objectives.

Diálogo: What is your message for CANSEC participants who talk about CARICOM, the Caribbean region, and partnering to have better security for their citizens?

Commodore Pritchard: We need to focus on empowering the institutions that we have, like CARICOM IMPACS (Implementing Agency for Crime and Security). We have to be more prone to sharing information, experiences, and practicing together outside of annual exercises; it is just developing a culture of one for all and all for one.

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