In Trinidad & Tobago, a violent start to the new year

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Trinidad and Tobago's struggle with crime has been well documented, and while much of the violence is attributed the drug trade and its ripple effects — including gang warfare and the proliferation of illegal weapons — the country also grapples with incidences of violent home invasions (some fatal), kidnapping and femicide.

Trinidad's first murder of 2024 was on New Year's Day — 41-year-old Adundi Telemaque, who relatives say was targeted because of his refusal to join a gang. There was also a fatal shooting in the twin island of Tobago. By January 2, three women had been slaughtered: 19-year-old Teneisha Jackie, who was killed in a drive-by shooting in a busy area of Port of Spain in the wee hours of January 2; and 43-year-old Calida Schamber and her 66-year-old mother Carmelita DeLeon, who were shot to death allegedly after Schamber's estranged partner, a solider, made good on threats to kill her. There had been police reports and a restraining order against him for some time. The couple's toddler son was in the house at the time of the shooting.

The second double murder of the year came just a day after, on January 3, at the Tunapuna Market, situated along Trinidad's east-west corridor — two men, Mikael Hernandez and Aaron Leander, were killed after several men got out of a car and started shooting at the group close to where Hernandez and Leander were hanging out. Three others were wounded, with one victim reportedly in critical condition. Police have said that the attack was drug-related. In yet another incident on January 3, a former prisoner who was reportedly trying to turn his life around was murdered. His sister pointed to poor parenting as one of the contributing factors to the upsurge in crime.

While the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS) reported a five percent decrease in homicides — 576 in 2023 as compared to 605 in 2022 — citizens remain concerned for their safety and distressed about the levels of domestic violence in the country.

Calling the situation “intractable,” in October 2023, Prime Minister Keith Rowley said, “Notwithstanding the persistent efforts of the various state machinery, the selection of violence as a way of life, the love affair and glamorization of firearms and the wanton disregard for human life in Trinidad and Tobago has now gone beyond concerning to the ridiculous.”

He added that the state would “redouble all efforts to curtail these violent outbursts, […] hunt down and disarm the perpetrators and [make] operational adjustments so that the state security services can act with dispatch.” His statement attracted some criticism, with an Express newspaper editorial noting that “the Government and all the protective services will never reduce crime unless they tackle the root causes.”

In statements on Christmas Day and New Year's Eve, the prime minister suggested citizens needed to better adhere to one of the national watchwords — tolerance — in order to curb crime, and that the “brazenness” of criminals was rooted in the belief that they have nothing to fear from the judicial system. He encouraged citizens to report any illegal activities they witnessed to the police. However, most people live in small communities where everyone knows one another, and many fear being victimised if they report wrongdoing. There is also very little confidence in the police service, especially among residents of impoverished and marginalised communities.

The prime minister faced criticism once again, with opposition Member of Parliament Dinesh Rambally saying, “By stating that the best gift a shooter can get is the silence of who he is, Rowley is shamelessly now blaming the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago for failing to do the work of his own National Security Council. The mention of ‘Tolerance’ [in] Rowley’s Christmas message is particularly out of touch when our citizens are being subjected to mindless violence and frequent murders.”

Prior to New Year's Eve, senior police superintendent Richard Smith of the TTPS’ North Central Division beseeched the public not to fire guns at the stroke of midnight, which he says has become somewhat of a trend. Many WhatsApp users shared the story, accompanied by comments suggesting that the request underscored the degree to which the police do not have command over the crime situation.

Meanwhile, people continue to lament, and authorities continue to grapple with getting the situation under control. In 2023, Trinidad and Tobago ranked 12th in a list of the world's most dangerous countries, by murder rate per 100,000 inhabitants.

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