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Security & Strategic Review - August 2013 (ISSN 1741-4202)

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TRINIDAD & TOBAGO: Excited reactions belie decline in murder rate

The news on the security front in August could well have been that Trinidad & Tobago’s murder rate had fallen considerably in the first eight months of the year. Instead, what made headlines and triggered excited reactions by the authorities and the political opposition was an episode in eastern Port-of- Spain in which six lives were claimed in a single day.

According to a tally by the Trinidad Express, from January to mid-August there had been 236 murders countrywide, or 22% fewer than in the first eight months of 2012. Official figures show that the monthly average in the first seven months of this year was 16% lower than that of last year as a whole.

The country’s homicide rate per 100,000 inhabitants had previously fallen from a peak of 41 in 2008 (one of the highest in the hemisphere) to 26 in 2011. It then rose again to an estimated 32 in 2012, and the trend in the first eight months suggests that the level for this year as a whole will be closer to that of 2011, if not lower.

Trinidad & Tobago: homicide cases 2012-13

Month-by-month

2012

2013

January

38

July

26

January

35

February

23

August

40

February

46

March

29

September

26

March

19

April

34

October

25

April

19

May

42

November

23

May

33

June

37

December

34

June

29

 

Source: Trinidad & Tobago Police Service.

 

Caribbean Basin: homicide rates compared

Cases per 100,000, latest*

 

Honduras

91.6

Dominican Republic

25.0

El Salvador

70.2

St Vincent & Grenadines

22.92

Guatemala

41.51

Dominica

19.52

Jamaica

41.2

Panama

15.4

Belize

39.0

Nicaragua

12.6

St Kitts & Nevis

38.52

Grenada

11.52

Bahamas

36.6

Costa Rica

9.5

Barbados

31.02

Haiti

6.92

Trinidad & Tobago

26.1

Antigua & Barbuda

6.72

St Lucia

25.32

 

 

 

*2011, save where indicated. 12012. 22010. Shaded: population under 100,000.

 

Source: Alertamérica (OAS).

The improvement in Trinidad & Tobago’s situation is clear to see in the longer view. In its previous peak year of 2008, Trinidad & Tobago had the fifth-highest  homicide rate per 100,000 inhabitants in the Caribbean Basin (after Honduras, Jamaica, El Salvador and Guatemala) and the second-highest in the insular Caribbean (after Jamaica). Its rate in 2011 (the year before the latest spike) had descended to eighth-highest in the Caribbean Basin and fifth-highest in the insular Caribbean (after Jamaica, Belize, Bahamas and Barbados).

The mid-August reaction was prompted by a spate of six killings within 24 hours in eastern Port-of-Spain in the second week of the month. The authorities’ immediate response was two major police operations. The first —on 15 August in Laventille, Sea Lots, Beetham Gardens and Nelson and Duncan Streets — resulted in the arrest of 12 persons described as ‘major players’ in criminal gang activities. The second, three days later, saw the deployment of 300 police officers and 100 soldiers of the Trinidad & Tobago Defence Force (TTDF) in Duncan, Nelson and George Streets, where 90 people were arrested.

The killings were attributed to a turf war between gangs, and police sources said that the Criminal Gang and Intelligence Unit was contemplating applying the 2011 Anti-Gang Act against some of the detainees. This piece of legislation has not been much used since the partial state of emergency of August last year.

The mass roundup attracted strong criticism from the Law Association of Trinidad and Tobago (LATT). It said, ‘While the reports are conflicting as to the precise number of persons “detained”, it would appear that approximately 59 were released without charge and approximately 42 are still “detained” [...] We remind the police that this country is governed by the rule of law and it has been long established that the police have no right of detention or arrest unless they have reasonable suspicion of someone having committed an offence or an offence is being committed in the presence of the police.’

The second response came in the political arena, in the form of the first-ever meeting between Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar and opposition leader Keith Rowley — on 22 August — to work out a consensual approach to anticrime measures. Present were attorney general Anand Ramlogan, ministers Christlyn Moore (justice), Clifton DeCoteau (national diversity) and Prakash Ramadhar (legal affairs), and three opposition legislators: senators Fitzgerald Hinds and Terrence Deyalsingh, and Port of Spain South MP Marlene McDonald.

Among the results of the meeting was opposition agreement to the deployment of a new rapid-response unit (for which special reserve police officers have been undergoing training since June), the acquisition of 300 new police cars, reviews of the procedure for the selection of the police commissioner and the Anti-Gang Act and consideration of a partial abolition of jury trial for those charged with gun or drug offences.

In what appeared to go against the grain of this ‘consensual’ atmosphere, on 26 August attorney general Ramlogan was reported as proposing an amendment to the anti-gang legislation which would place on any suspected gang member the onus to prove they were not involved in gang or gang-related activity. Given the reaction of the LATT to the mass arrests earlier in the month, this is likely to arouse considerable opposition.

Commentators recalled the fate of the temporary ban which then security minister Jack Warner tried to impose last October on the release of crime statistics to ‘ensure that [they] are not sensationalised, thereby acting as a domino effect in certain hotspots.’ The acting police commissioner, Stephen Williams, refused to enforce it, saying that the security minister did not have the authority to impose any such ban.