Welcome to Crimeopolis: Trinidad’s Dystopian Utopia

Anyone acquainted with dystopian science fiction is familiar with the theme of crime. As the stories usually go, in some near-future basic human decency has severely broken down. This can leave us with societies where crews of psychopathic rebellious youth terrorize the rest of the populace, like A Clockwork Orange. Or we find ourselves in the midst of a crumbling urban community ridden by rampant criminality, as we get in Robocop. The most bleak assessments are those that feature the utter breakdown of civilization, where everyone is left to fend for themselves against leather-clad S&M biker gangs, psychotic rapists and cannibals who’ve learned to hunt in packs. Often, these latter dystopias are based on cities in our present world with a crime-related image, such as John Carpenter’s classic Escape from New York (with all its questionably racially suggestive metaphors) to 2009’s District 9 (equally filled with problematic racial allusions) set in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The one place I would think furthest away from this futurist world of societal blight and crime is Trinidad & Tobago, where I spent the earliest years of my life. But if you’ve visited the island republic any time in the past few years, you quickly learn that crime is the hot topic on everyone’s lips. From relatives to friends, acquaintances and strangers, journalists and government officials, crime is the crisis du jour. Everyone has stories of crime to tell you, each more harrowing than the next. And everyone is worried about where the country–and crime–is headed. A small Eastern Caribbean country often associated with utopian scenes of beaches, Carnival and festivity, is experiencing its own crime-associated dystopian reality.

*disclaimer: these are the observations of an outsider-insider, and are not meant to supplant anyone’s daily lived experiences.

For the past decade, every time I go to Trinidad I get warnings. Before I even arrive, phone calls pour in from relatives, with endless advisement to be safe. Look out for people who might watch you “too hard.” Don’t talk too much–just say yes and no; people hear your accent and they’ll know you’re visiting and try to rob you! Don’t go to the bank by yourself and watch you’re not followed. Don’t ever walk with too much money–but don’t have no money, because if you get held up and you can’t give them nothing they’ll beat you. Don’t wear gold or anything fancy when you go to town (Port-of-Spain)–they’ll snatch it right off your neck!

My trip this time would be no different. The warnings began when I mentioned I was going, and continued as soon as I touched down. About half-a-dozen relatives called me immediately to make sure I made it out of the airport safely. And during each conversation I got the run down on the crime wave gripping the country; theft, rapes, killings were all related to me in stark detail. Some stories I realized were the same, though the number of victims and the exact events were tweaked along the Trini grapevine. Television news and local dailies strive to relate the latest person shot or killed, with government officials taking to the airwaves and vowing crackdowns. People point out places I should definitely never go, and the local bar where a shooting took place. Even the neighborhood drug dealers entrepreneurial pharmaceutical suppliers (black and Indian guys in their 30s and 40s who are now fathers and family men) sing lamentations to me about crime.

“We used to run cocaine, marijuana, heroin, everything up and down this street,” one complained as I stood with him, watching a heated game of draughts. “But now, these young boy doin all kind of chupidness–shooting and killing. Like they does sell drugs just to get the guns or what?”

Weighed down with all these warnings, it’s impossible not to indulge in a bit of personal paranoia–even for someone who has lived in major US cities where crime is an everyday part of life. Walking the borough I once called home by myself is now an exercise in ritual preparation: placing my wallet and money in separate pockets, making sure my backpack is properly zipped, watchful of which taxis I get into, trying not to talk too much to give away my foreigness and being mindful of anyone whose eye lingers on me too long. Though I swore I wouldn’t do it, I’ve caught the Trinidad crime hysteria bug. And it’s vexing.

Trinidad has seen crime–especially violent crime–increase substantially in the last decade. Before 1980, an island with a population of 1.2 million saw about 50 murders annually. By the 1990s this jumped to a terrific average of about 130. Then came the 21st century. In 2004 the murder rate jumped for the first time to over 260. It more than doubled by 2008, to its peak of 550. Theft also jumped significantly, to an average of 5000 cases per year–with burglaries and break-ins becoming frequent by 2009. Sexual offenses, once in low numbers, jumped to around 600+ reports per year. For an island not used to these levels of crime, it now understandably consumes the national and social debate.

Many of the murders are drug and gang related, especially in parts of Port-of-Spain like the impoverished Laventille. Trinidad has become a conduit for regional drug traffickers, and the guns and mayhem follow, trickling to local small-time players. The majority of these perpetrators and victims of the crime are young black males, who often live in slum-like conditions in urban spots like Laventille, reduced now to small narco-fiefdoms. The little addressed, but well-known, reality is that the “big fish” who run much of this are untouchable wealthy individuals (both from the island and without) as well as corrupt government, customs and police members. Millions in laundered drug money circulate to varied corners, and drugs themselves are often found stashed in the oddest places–chicken containers or automobile parts that somehow get past inspections. However, because the faces on the television screens are mostly black, poor and male (and some poorer Indians), it is they who get the brunt of the societal backlash–and everyone has an idea on how to fix the problem.

“It’s slackness!” one of my aunts says. As she sees it, the problem is one of morality: these young men have lost their way, too prone now to wickedness and in need of the church. “It’s foreigners–Grenadian and Guyanese,” another relative insists. “They come here and doh want to work and just messing up the whole place.” A friend of the family blames Trini-American deportees, born on the island but raised in the US and well-trained in American criminality. A vendor at market insists it’s the music (dancehall from nearby Jamaica), glorifying sex, guns and crime, that is negatively influencing the youth.

Bits of truth and nonsense fit in with all of these. There certainly seems to be “slackness” as it pertains to the importance of human life, a readiness to kill that wasn’t seen previously. Much of this can be traced to a ready supply of guns, as lethal bullets replace a fist-full of “licks.” Where all of these guns are coming from–in a nation that does not manufacture them–remains an unresolved issue. As for illegal immigration, Trinidad’s policy for poor migrants is notorious–crowd them into one place or in shanty areas, where they’re often cut-off from participating in the larger society, which only makes illegal activity for some more appealing. But most immigrants aren’t committing crimes, nor can they be held responsible for most crime; and those that do indulge in crime are usually Trini raised, some of them second-generation–hardly foreigners any longer. While there is some truth regarding criminal deportees from America (Trinidad now amazingly has Crips and Bloods), it hardly explains or accounts for the majority of incidents. As for the claim of corruption through music, that’s a common charge hurled by older generations upon each succeeding one–seeming to forget the glorification of manly bravado, “bad man” and sex in its own past music.

Frustrations in trying to determine the reasons for the crime increase can sometimes lead to the bizarre, and frankly absurd. In 2010-2011 a local group, the Living Society Community Consultants, conducted a survey to root out the cause of “Heinous Crimes and Criminal Conduct.” As its key findings, the report concluded people infected with HIV/AIDS (who supposedly have nothing to live for), the drinking of Puncheon rum and morally loose young girls (who allegedly entice young men to commit violence to impress them) were the leading factors of the crime pandemic. Trinidad even has it’s own firebrand TV crimefighter in Ian Alleyne. Wearing a bullet-proof vest on air and declaring “the hunt is on,” Alleyne is the living embodiment of a dystopian media demagogue, whose organization Crime Watch broadcasts the crimes in the country with vivid in-your-face sensationalism; even if you’ve never been a victim of crime, by the time you finish watching the almost Orwellian program, you’ll certainly feel like one.

In many of these laments on crime, there is a creep of nostalgia, as people recall fondly the utopian Trinidad of their memories. True enough, when I was younger my home like others on the street was built open in the front–and people stopped by all times of the day to visit my grandparents. No one thought much of break-ins, much less murder. Now, “locking up the house” is a full-scale ritual; people driving to collect you call to say they’re on their way, so you can begin the procedure. Local businesses have found profit in these crime fears, with burglar bars, gates, home alarms (sold by the local phone company), security details for parties and events, even trained pit bulls, all for sale–if you can afford them.

Yet for all these claims of “paradise lost,” Trinidad is no stranger to violence. The country’s great cultural celebration, Carnival, in fact has part of its origins during the heightened violence of the late 19th century. Known as the period of “Jamettes,” Carnival became dominated by a black ex-slave population forced and marginalized into the impoverished slums and dock areas of Port-of-Spain, which became a breeding ground for crime and gang-wars. These pimps, thieves and badjohns were similar to many of the “bad man” (a slang term for criminals) that haunt today’s Trinidad. And at early Carnival, they would mingle in with kalinda duelists (stick fighters), often turning the festivities into full-scale brawls. This type of ritualized violence, which would help make Carnival a scene of revelry and danger (as all such performances usually are), was passed down to the panmen of the mid-20th century, whose legendary street fights with bottles, “big stone,” baseball bats and cutlass (machetes) were immortalized in songs such as the late Lord Blakie’s “Steelband Clash.”

Of course, the difference today is in the sheer intensity and frequency of all these crimes. No longer is violence relegated to large-scale clashes during some ritual event; it’s now part of daily existence. And everything, including sexual assault, has increased dramatically. This has left the populace both fearful and frustrated, and prone to look for heavy-handed solutions. After all, a central part of the dystopian sci-fi story is the repressive order-obsessed police state created to respond to it–whether it be in the form of Judge Dredd or Omnicorp.

One aunt of mine doesn’t just want to see tougher policing, she’s ready to get medieval–calling for public floggings with cat-o-nine tails for criminals. A neighbor wants to do away with trials where criminals might get free and just throw them in jail if we know they’re guilty (yes, wrap your head around that). Not to be outdone, one family friend said she was so frustrated, she (who is black) wanted to just grab a gun, go to Port-of-Spain, and shoot down all those “chupid young black boys” who in her estimation were just taking up space.

With such calls for draconian state-sanctioned ritual violence (the legacy of a bygone British colonial era) and threats at vigilante-styled intra-racial genocide, it’s not surprising that politicians are all touting a “tough-on-crime” approach that would make American GOP members blush. Police now have a tactical unit, complete with what a cousin brags to me is “American army camouflage” and armed with high-powered military guns. “When they hold yuh, is no questions yuh know,” he relates. “Is just licks!”

This tactical unit has been sent out to conduct raids for illegal guns in high-crime areas, with the television news reporting their “resounding successes” with all the objectivity of an embedded reporter. It’s part of the new tough anti-crime plan of the recently installed National Security Minister, long time politician Jack Warner–who years previously brought in none other than Bernard Kerik (disgraced former New York Police Commissioner and President George W. Bush’s Secretary of Homeland Security nominee, who is now serving time in a US federal prison), as an anti-crime consultant. Kerik’s former boss, Rudolph Guiliani, similarly visited the island back in 2003, to tout his tough-on-crime successes as Mayor of New York–a claim rooted more in mythology than reality, but almost religiously believed by many local officials and newspaper columnists.

Warner has also invoked the spectre of bringing back the once notorious Trinidad “Flying Squad,” a group of police officers in the 1970s who often took the law into their own hands, engaged in corrupt arms dealing, extra-judicial executions and torture–earning such a negative public perception, they were frequently dubbed a “death squad.” Trinidad also has a fleet of surveillance vehicles–massive airships (called skyships) like out of some steampunk dystopia that roam the skies to keep an eye out for crime. One can’t help but wonder if drones and ED 209 aren’t far behind.

Yet many openly applaud these measures, calling for more–of which politicians are quite eager to oblige. When the Prime Minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, declared a limited State of Emergency (including an enforceable curfew) in August 2011, that just so happened to coincide with a possible nation-wide strike by Trade Unions, many cheered and breathed a sigh of relief–welcoming the brief police-state with open arms. “I was glad for it!” one friend related. “Let them catch all the criminals and lock them up!” Of course, it didn’t work that way. Things dropped for a while during the curfew, then ticked back up directly following. It’s hoped Jack Warner’s new “tough” initiative will work, though since he’s taken his position the murders have continued. The Prime Minister has her own plan that she hopes will gain popularity with the populace–a renewed push to bring back the death penalty.

But this is Trinidad, and popularity does not equal unanimity. Much of the debates on crime have fallen along party lines, with the opposition PNM both criticizing the current UNC party for its inability to deal with crime as well as their tactics. More than a few voices have challenged the varied anti-crime initiatives as one-sided, dealing more with punishment than prevention. “Just as the effects of crime are widespread, so too are the causes, which range from problems within the family to the increased use of drugs, to the rise of gangs and gang warfare,” the Trinidad and Tobago Chamber of Industry and Commerce noted. “Therefore the only way to effectively battle serious crime is to tackle it at all  levels.” They argue that more emphasis needs to be placed on prisoner rehabilitation, youth development and crime management.

While this is a step beyond the emphasis on heavy-policing, it’s also painfully obvious that the 1000 lb elephant agouti in the room very few are talking about, is poverty. Trinidad is a wealthy country–with a lucrative oil industry, technology and first world ambitions. There are malls and shopping centers like those found in most of the more developed world. Most middle and upper class Trinis travel regularly, attend fetes that could cost up to $200 USD and pay to play in Carnival bands (for two days out of the year) at prices that begin around an average $400 USD and can more than double for higher end bands. Cell phones and smartphones are readily available, and carried by nearly everyone. And cars of foreign manufacture–from American trucks to Range Rovers–zip along the highways.

Yet like every other nation in the hemisphere, including the US, it’s also one with rampant wealth inequality. So it’s not unfamiliar to have on one street several houses as large and opulent as mansions, sitting right next to makeshift structures that barely look habitable–all along a road severely in need of maintenance and canals that haven’t seen a cleaning in ages. In the most crime rampant areas, the poverty is crushing and joblessness high, especially in a sluggish economy. Government projects are slow to implement and many are left to rely on private sector employment, where discrimination by color and class is common. Some, like the low-wage paying fast food service industry, see a marked preference for foreign workers who have less of a turnover rate. Yet in a society where “work” is considered next to godliness, the inability to find honest labor is a damning sin in itself.

When I gently suggested to a relative that perhaps the government needs to invest in a massive public jobs program with a livable wage for many of these youth, instead of focusing so heavily on beefing up the police, she scoffed. “They doh want no work!” she declared. “They fraid work! Because you poor, doh mean you have to do crime!” And of course, she has a point. The overwhelming majority of poor people don’t commit crime–they just do what they must to get by, and suffer in silence when they don’t get by. Still, as she went on to relate how in her life she’d taken any odd job, sometimes not even getting paid in the end, and that these young impoverished men should do the same, I couldn’t help but see a massive disconnect. It was hard to imagine that in a society where the “have-nots” now regularly see billboards and other media imagery flaunting the good-life of the “haves” (from Iphones to expensive watches), that such Horatio Alger stories hold much appeal. A cousin I talked with pointed out he knew young men who scoffed at the idea of doing laborious odd jobs just to be handed $20 TT (about $3.15 USD). “That kind of work doh pay nothing,” he said. “So they does say, why bother?”

Thus far the government’s chief solution seems to be to spend more money–on fighting crime. With the seeming belief that white men from further North understand how to handle crime, lucrative contracts are paid to them for police training and consultation; white foreign nationals like the Canadian Dwayne Gibbs are hired to head the police and implement “21st Century Policing.” When it comes to getting tough on crime, Trinidad spares no expense. This is a country that buys skyships at $15 million USD to patrol the skies, then (unable to maintain them), has to sell it back for $50,000 USD. The blimp was bought under the PNM administration, and was credited for lowering some crime at the time (most notably kidnappings). But one has to wonder, how that $14.95 million USD loss could have been better spent in impoverished communities towards prevention.

It should be pointed out that for all the call for tougher measures, crime has dropped somewhat in the country. Kidnappings, which spiked to over 150 in 2007, are almost non-existent five years later. In the area of murders, 2008 remains the peak at 550 with the lowest to 354 in 2011 (the 3-month curfew is often cited for this, but this is disputed). This year has so far seen some 230. Still, these statistics are a 200 to 300% increase from 1990s or 1980s levels. And everyone talks about “taking their country back” from “the bandits,” as crime stifles the economy, with many people staying indoors rather than patronizing businesses.

In the end, the most distressing aspect of this crime wave is the attendant hysteria it brings. The rate of criminal violence is only matched by the feverish news reports, that seem to live in a type of symbiosis. The aforementioned Ian Alleyene’s Crime Watch urges people to report each and every crime they see–or suspect. This exploitation landed Alleyene in hot water this past April, after he aired a videotape showing the brutal rape of a mentally disabled 13 year-old-girl; it earned him ratings, and a stint in jail. All of this combines to create a palpable air of trauma in the country, reminiscent to what I saw in the US in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. In both cases, frightened people seem so fed up and frustrated, they’re willing to give their police and government whatever powers are needed to feel safe and protected. While Trinidad is hardly in any danger of developing parallels like the “tonton macoute,” there’s a slippery slope when you begin dallying around the fringes of a police state–as any dystopian sci-fi novel warns. After several recent claims of police abuse, local politicians have been swift to condemn misconduct; but there’s already a wink-and-nod understanding about acts of police brutality, if it yields results.

Alongside this, is the temptation of conflating all crime as one. So that drug addicts and the homeless, already improperly cared for, become associated with criminality. I sat listening to a group of men, one of them a policeman, boast of holding a thief (known to have mental problems) and beating him; he had only scaled a tree and stolen some fruit from someone’s yard, but crime is crime. A relative of mine already has a solution for such people: “the vagrants and them should be gather up and put on some small little island, where they can be put to work before they can turn to crime.” He was very serious, and at length related his complex plan of mass-banishment for the poor and indigent.

The LA Times recently featured a story on Trinidadian-born filmmaker Shaun Escayg, who was shooting a film on the island. His topic is, naturally, crime. “Crime and poverty is something we don’t like to talk about in the Caribbean;” he relates, “it’s swept under the rug with talk of parties and beaches. But I wanted to show what for many people is the real world.”

Escayg says he received some opposition in making the film, from those who believed it would portray Trinidad in a negative light. Topics like these are for Trinis, at home or in the diaspora; but such dirty laundry shouldn’t be aired to the world. Yet Escayg is undeterred, especially in highlighting what he considers the often neglected relationship between societal inequity and crime. “They say I’m showing the country in not so good of a light,” he said. “And my answer is that I’m speaking for the people who probably don’t have the opportunity to speak for themselves.”

In one particular scene shot in Port-of-Spain, Escayg depicts several young men stealing from a fish market. During filming, local cops, mistaking the theft for a real crime, began chasing the actors–their guns drawn. Escayg had to quickly intervene, taking 10 minutes to assure the skeptical policemen this was all a scripted scene.

Welcome to Crimeopolis, where your dystopian utopia is already in progress.

Photo credit: Trinidad Guardian

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4 thoughts on “Welcome to Crimeopolis: Trinidad’s Dystopian Utopia

  1. Excellent post, enjoyed reading your blog. As an American by birth, but Trini by marriage , I love the people and the culture. I started visiting the island in 1998 and have been traveling there frequently. I’ve observed the decline and the fear. There are multiple causes for the problem, and you have explained some of them, poverty and the erosion of a middle class. But may I add a few, 1) Brain Drain- some of the brightest and best have migrated to other countries for the pursuit of their dreams and have not come back to invest their knowledge and know how 2) Poor Law Enforcement- Minimal forensic support, low wages for police officers, corruption, society does not respect them 3)The massive influx of guns- Not just guns, but American made guns! I hope some legal mind in Trinidad sues American Gun Companies for carnage that they are partly responsible for. These are just a few reasons for a complex problem.

  2. TRULY apprecited your essay. I am the Associte Producer of kweliTV, a digital streaming service that produces content for and about the African Diaspora. I would like to interview you for a Blab.im (Twitter platform) live broadcast. How can I reach you?

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