Reasons for Trinidad and Tobago Emergency Measures Remain Murky

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The prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago has extended the current state of emergency for three more months, but the reasons behind the move remain unclear, with rumors of a showdown between local gangs and Colombian drug traffickers.

During an emergency parliamentary meeting on Sunday, officials in the Caribbean island nation approved an extension to a state of emergency in the country, which was first announced as a two-week measure on August 21. According to Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, the extension was necessary in order to improve security, and has already prevented “a criminal uprising of untold proportions.”

The state of emergency grants enhanced powers to the police, allowing them to seize property and make arrests without a warrant. It also imposes a curfew from 11:00 p.m. to 04:00 a.m. in six criminal “hotspots,” including the capital, Port of Spain, and San Fernando, the biggest city (see InSight Crime’s map of these areas). The security forces are also expected to establish more roadside checkpoints, in an effort to clamp down on crime on the country’s highways.

But despite all these measures, the exact trigger for the state of emergency has not been explicitly identified. The announcement was presumably related to the fact that homicides in the island nation have risen by almost 400 percent over the past decade, with an unusual 11 murders the previous weekend, but generally a state of emergency is imposed in response to a specific incident. Such was the case with the (ongoing) state of emergency in the Peten region in Guatemala, declared this spring. Although the Zetas and other groups had been building a criminal presence there for years, it took the massacre of 27 farm laborers in the province for the government to act. The authorities in Trinidad and Tobago lack any such cataclysmic event.

Nor does there appear to be a specific target for the measure. In Guatemala, the main enemy of the troops sent to the Peten region were the Zetas, who carried out the killings. In similar security surges in Colombia and Mexico, officials had a clear idea of the criminal networks they are up against. For instance, in Colombia’s recent security push in the north and southwest regions (known as “Operation Troy”), troops were sent to dismantle influence networks established by neo-paramilitary organizations like the Rastrojos and Urabenos. Similarly, the wave of Mexican police sent into Michoacan last July were there to track down Servando Gomez Martines, alias “La Tuta,” leader of the Familia Michoacan successor group known as the Caballeros Templarios. In Paraguay, a state of emergency declared in 2010, which suspending constitutional rights in several provinces, came in response to a high-profile kidnapping and series of killings by the Paraguayan People’s Army (EPP) rebel group. But no concrete foe has yet been identified in Trinidad and Tobago.

This has not stopped the flow of rumors, however. On Tuesday, officials of the opposition People’s National Movement told local press that government representatives said the state of emergency had been called because officials feared a bloodbath between a Colombian drug trafficking group and a local drug gang following authorities’ seizure of $22 million worth of drugs at the Trinidad and Tobago’s Piarco airport on August 19.

Government spokesmen have told the Opposition PNM that the state of emergency was called because a Colombian drug gang wanted to kill members of a Trinidad and Tobago drug gang, following the drug bust. According to Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley, the information was shared with them after Sunday’s parliamentary meeting.

“When the debate was over and we were dispersing in the crowd and talking amongst our parliamentarian colleagues, government spokespersons came to the Opposition, whispering in our ears as good friends well-met, ‘we can’t tell the country but we could tell you that the real reason is this: that the cocaine that they pick up in the two suitcases in Piarco, belonged to a Colombian drug gang and Trinidad drug gang was supposed to guard it in Trinidad for it to be shipped out, and that (Trinidad) gang allowed the Government (the law enforcement authorities) to intercept it. So the Colombian gang was going to kill the Trinidad gang and that is what the Government moved to avert.” Rowley said.

The government has yet to confirm or deny these rumors, adding to further speculation about the measure and the intention behind it. If Rowley’s account is to be believed, then it is not clear why the prime minster did not say as much when she first announced the state of emergency. If the measure is instead intended to be a catch-all cure for the country’s recent uptick in homicides, then it is not clear why such a drastic measure was needed, instead of lower-key and more sustainable methods, like a raise in funding to police units or a revamped security strategy.

There are some signs that officials are emphasizing a more comprehensive approach against crime. As Foreign Affairs and Communications Minister Suruj Rambachan told the Associated Press on Monday, the enhanced security measures are intended to be paired with efforts at “preventing or discouraging the less fortunate citizens from engaging in a life of crime.” This will reportedly include youth education programs in poor communities, as well as a research committee tasked with finding the root causes of crime in the country. If in fact the country is gearing up for a long-term “war on crime,” such measures will be key to its success.

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