By Raffique Shah
February 03, 2020
As we battle against the crime-plague that is devastating the country, and we in the media add our two-cents’ input to what should be considered a national discussion on the issue, I was jolted by an intervention from well-respected commentator Ira Mathur that turned up in my email inbox last weekend. Ira wrote that a “bomb” landed in her smart-phone in the form of a report on gang violence in Trinidad and Tobago by a researcher named Janina Pawelz of the Institute for Peace, Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg, Germany.
What Pawelz wrote after spending four months here in 2015 and interviewing 53 people who lived in high-risk communities was not startling, except perhaps for the estimated size of the “gang army” (30,000) and the report’s reference to “250 gang leaders who are given CEPEP funding and control of communities in return for keeping gun violence under control”. This latter assertion is sure to offend many legitimate CEPEP contractors.
Also, Pawelz dramatised her report with some choice quotes (I have not read the report— I’m relying on Ira’s accuracy), such as: “Machine guns everywhere. I’m afraid to go to church,” whispered a receptionist.
“Gangsters are booking their own funerals with expensive coffins. They know they will die young and a fancy funeral is all they ask of life…They don’t fear killing or being killed,” said a businesswoman.
What shocked me most, though, were the columnist’s conclusions: “We are losing this battle against the 30,000-strong gang army. For every man you arrest, 100 youngsters are waiting to take his place.
“The CoP and armed forces can’t fix this. The State can’t fix this. Business can’t fix this. NGO’s can’t fix this. The media can’t fix this. A joint vision can. This is a call on behalf of citizens for collective action as a people to ask humbly for a ceasefire, listen respectfully to the human rights lacking in these communities and fix it starting with empowering families and women who can guide their boys. A fish rots from the head down. They are us. We are them.”
I should point out that earlier in her commentary, Ira cited claims from gangsters that they and entire communities in which they fight to survive on a daily basis are victims of a political system that ensures they remain poor while others, especially the politicians who hold power, are corrupt to the core. The gangsters argue that in this fairly wealthy country, a few at the top cream off a grossly unfair chunk of the pie leaving only the crumbs for folks like them. They vow to continue acquiring firearms and shooting their way to their share, unmindful of who gets caught in the cross fire. Some see themselves as “freedom fighters of the oppressed”.
Against such a bloody backdrop, and with no hope that we will see an end to the violence that has intensified, one can understand why Ira and other citizens are prepared to virtually capitulate to the criminals, plead with them for a ceasefire, and shift the conversation to a new social and economic order, a more equitable society.
Let me state that I am among those who support socio-economic interventions in depressed communities in general, not just in “high risk” districts, as a means of rebalancing the inequities of the past sixty-plus years that we have been in charge of our destiny. Indeed, I have written repeatedly about initiatives by different governments, NGOs, churches and other individuals and organisations that have laboured in the slums to uplift their residents.
While our education system has its deficiencies, no one can deny that close-to-equal opportunities have been in place for decades, from pre-schools to tertiary-level institutions. Any eager child or young adult, especially those supported by ambitious parents, can access a wide range of studies and practical training, pursue careers that are available in few other developing countries.
But even as these opportunities go a-begging, there are tens of thousands of poor people who ignore them and instead reach for and rely on government handouts, which politicians generously dole out through multiple programmes that are supported by public funding. It is amidst such mindset that dependency syndrome flourishes. And young criminals mushroom in such environments, demanding their share of the largesse, rather than access education and training to uplift themselves from the wretchedness of poverty.
For this and other reasons I cannot agree with Ira that we capitulate to criminals, that we go on our knees, beg forgiveness, and run public money their way. Lift the veil of the so-called “freedom fighter” and you find nothing more than a common bandit whose murderous life is dedicated not to helping his community, but to self-enrichment. The politicians give them contracts, CEPEP or whatever, and they muscle their way past the “sufferers”, aiming only to buy themselves luxury sedans or SUVs, adorn their bodies with kilos of gold, and acquire more guns to continue their reigns of terror.
Sorry, Ira, I not on that! These thugs that intimidate the mass of law-abiding citizens are no Robin Hoods. They are robbing hoods. They have not even a remote resemblance to the legendary thief who stole from the wealthy and gave to the poor. And I, a proud product of the 1970s, an era when real freedom fighters liberated entire colonies from colonialism and imperialism, will not allow the term to be tarnished by thieves who give only to themselves and who rob and murder their own people.
The people from the ghettos need to liberate their minds from harbouring and idolising these career criminals, otherwise they will remain trapped in persistent poverty and have nobody to blame but themselves. Nuff said.