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Kidnappings soar in Trinidad

By Carol J. Williams

Los Angeles Times

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago - For as long as pastel rum drinks and
hedonistic pre-Lenten celebrations have been in fashion, fun-seekers have
flocked to this tropical duet of lush islands to sunbathe, sway to calypso, and
savor the exotic flavors of its multicultural cuisine.

But an ugly social ill threatens the perpetual party atmosphere: kidnapping, a
crime so epidemic that Trinidad now ranks second in the world behind Colombia
for its spiraling rate of abductions.

Victims and police point to a homegrown radical Muslim gang that sought to
topple the government in 1990 and has since built a lucrative criminal empire.
U.S. intelligence operatives are believed to be watching the militants of Jamaat
al-Muslimeen for signs that they are linked to al-Qaeda.

Abductions targeting the prosperous and politically influential have evoked
comparison to the Abu Sayyaf guerrillas, whose kidnappings in the Philippines
and Malaysia have chilled business at island resorts in those Pacific countries.
They also have instilled fear in this country, the Caribbean's most dynamic
economy, that visitors and foreign investors could begin looking elsewhere.

The relatively small and obscure Jamaat al-Muslimeen sparked the kidnapping wave
that flared up about two years ago, but authorities see an even more troubling
copycat phenomenon. Amateur crooks and street toughs are getting into the act,
inspired by the ransom paid by relatives who may fear the police as much as the

Kidnapping has been on the rise throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, but
it has soared in Trinidad. In 2001, this country of 1.2 million had fewer than
10 kidnappings. In 2002, the number was 29. In the last couple of years, the
figure has been about 150.

Police say most kidnappings are instances of gangland score-settling or drug
deals gone wrong, an explanation that serves to defuse public anger and convince
honest citizens that they run little risk of becoming targets.

The victims are primarily Indians from Asia, who make up 40 percent of the
diverse population and tend to be more affluent than blacks. They contend that
the kidnappings are being fueled by corruption, government complicity, racism,
and an attitude that most victims had it coming.

Saran Kissoondan, whose family paid $167,000 to free him last year, accuses the
police of being in league with organized crime.

"The criminals were getting information from the police. I could hear their
conversations," Kissoondan recalled of the 18 days he spent handcuffed and
blindfolded in a dirt-floor shack, listening to his captors talking on their
cell phones. "The police officer handling my matter was advising the criminals
not to let me go [for a lesser ransom]. The police were telling them my family
could pay more."

Kissoondan, owner of a car dealership and brother of one of the country's most
successful restaurateurs, identified two of his captors, who were arrested
shortly after his release. One of the men, a member of Jamaat al-Muslimeen,
agreed to testify against the masterminds of the group and was put under police
protection. Before he could testify, however, the cooperating gang member's body
was found in a lake, shot, wrapped in plastic, and weighted with rocks. All
charges were dropped against the rest of the suspects.

Trinidad and Tobago News

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