Trinidad and Tobago – November 19th, 2011: How criminal organizations have influenced safety on this island nation

(Image obtained from JyotiCommunications, 2011)

On August 22, 2011, the president of Trinidad and Tobago, George Richards, and Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissassar announced that a nationwide State of Emergency would take effect the following day. While such events are not new amongst the island nations of the Caribbean, the cause of this emergency may be a new one for the tiny nation. Indeed, states of emergency occur frequently throughout the region as storms and hurricanes smash the tiny pieces of paradise that are scattered throughout the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. However, this declaration represented something more sinister and, in many ways, something far more serious than all but the mightiest of storms.

With 550 murders in 2009, (giving it a standard homicide rate of 55 murders per 100,000), Trinidad and Tobago was already one of the most violent countries in the Caribbean; yet, even in a country where murders in the poorer urban slums have become accepted and commonplace, such violence rarely touched the pristine beaches or crucial money-making tourist centres of the small island group. However, this trend appears to be changing for the worse. 2010 was another landmark year for crime in the country, posting a 13-year high in all violent crimes, and 2011 appears to be another record-setter. Yet while it is possible to blame such statistics on worsening social conditions, such as a growing unemployment rate, these analyses may miss the disturbing undertones that appear to be at the heart of Trinidad and Tobago’s growing issue with violence. The islands, like most islands of the Caribbean, have always posted high crime and unemployment rates, so what has caused this dramatic spike in violent crime? The answer undoubtedly rests with the infiltration and growing influence of South and Central American criminal organizations on the island group.

Trinidad and Tobago lie literally just a few kilometres off of the Venezuelan coast. This location makes the islands a prime piece of real estate for transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) that operate on the South American mainland and wish to ship their drugs to domestic consumer markets in North America and, primarily, the growing European cocaine market. According to many criminal researchers, since the 1970s Venezuela has been the major transhipment point for Colombian cocaine bound for Europe, a market which has only grown since the 1980s as interdiction efforts by the United States shut down Colombian narcotics pipelines in the Caribbean, thus making Europe a much more attractive point of sale. Italian and Sicilian organized crime families have longstanding political and economic ties to Venezuela, which is considered a home away from home for many of these groups, including the Caruana-Cuntrera drug smuggling ring as well as the Rizzuto crime family based in Montreal – arguably North America’s most powerful contemporary mafia family. The high levels of corruption and collusion within the Venezuelan government should not be underestimated, and such realities have placed Trinidad and Tobago at the forefront of this international narcotics pipeline.

Sometimes the influence of these transnational groups appears intangibly, in the form of money, drugs and guns pouring into local criminal organizations, which can then be used to fuel the violent growth of these local groups and street gangs as they attempt to gain more regional power and influence for themselves. At other times, TCOs have actual people on the ground, rather than utilizing a local proxy group to do their dirty work. It appears that both may be the case in Trinidad and Tobago. The easiest example of this arrangement is Jamaica, whose problems with crime have been well documented, if somewhat exaggerated in popular modern mythology. As mentioned earlier, during the heydays of Colombia’s Cali and Medellin cartels, the primary point of narcotics trafficking was through the Caribbean and into south Florida, primarily Miami. This caused an unprecedented growth in violent crime along this transhipment route. By 1982 Miami’s homicide rate had become the highest in the United States, reaching over 600 murders a year from just a few dozen in 1980. In the Bahamas and Jamaica this trend repeated itself. Money, guns and drugs poured into the Jamaican criminal underworld, fuelling the rise of powerful criminal entities, which used their newfound influence to embed themselves into Jamaica’s political establishment. Indeed, even today, each major Jamaican organized crime group has an affiliated political party. As can be seen with the major riots in Kingston, Jamaica, and the arrests and seizure in Toronto, Canada, both of which occurred just a year ago, Jamaica’s infamous Shower Posse – merely one of several elements of Jamaican organized crime – retains incredible international reach.

As can be seen, it appears that Trinidad and Tobago has followed Jamaica down this path of drug-fuelled violence. While the exact nature of the arrangement between South American TCOs and Trinidad and Tobago’s political elite cannot be fully known, it is safe to say that obvious collusion is taking place on some level. Firearms are not readily available in small Caribbean countries until they are brought there by TCOs, who would not be there unless there was an obvious economic advantage in doing so. And besides the arrival of firearms there is also the growing presence of narcotics. Colombian Bandas Criminales (BACRIMS) have grown considerably under the tutelage of the Norte del Valle Cartel, which is based along the Atlantic coast of Colombia. Colombian BACRIMS have now replaced this fragmented cartel and groups such as Aguiles Negros (Black Eagles) and Los Urabenos are now rumoured to be spreading their influence into the Caribbean as the US attempts to shut down the cocaine traffic along its Mexican border.  Colombian militant groups such as the FARC and ELN as well as the BACRIMS group ERPAC now also enjoy direct contact with Venezuelan criminal groups that are supported by the Venezuelan government in order to control major transhipment points throughout the cocaine pipeline to Europe. As these routes and relationships come to light, it becomes safe to conclude that the Venezuelan underworld undoubtedly maintains a presence on the island nation and throughout the Caribbean.

In many respects the efforts undertaken by Trinidad and Tobago are exemplary, and may represent a real attempt by this country to nip the problem in the proverbial bud. The homicide rate and other instances of violent crime have diminished since the curfew and State of Emergency and it appears that Trinidad and Tobago’s primary revenue source, tourism, remains largely unaffected. However, small Caribbean nations, such as Trinidad and Tobago, simply don’t possess the population size, government stability and power as well as institutional traditions to combat the vast amounts of money involved. This means that the wealth available to TCOs to bribe, coerce and kill may well surpass Trinidad and Tobago’s own resources. In fact, such processes are occurring across northern Latin America, particularly in Central America.

While it is known that Central America is at the mercy of Mexico’s powerful cartels, it remains to be seen if these groups have extended their influence into the European market. If they have, then there could well be Venezuelan, Colombian and Mexican TCOs now operating in Trinidad and Tobago, which may also be contributing to the increasing violence. It remains to be seem whether Trinidad and Tobago has acted in time and with enough force to block this disturbing trend, regardless, it could certainly be an interesting time to vacation in the southern Caribbean.

Editor, PanAmerican Crime

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