Crime and Border Security to the Fore as Trinidad Grapples with a spate of Murders

Trinidad Coastguards/ Image: Damen Magazine

The archipelagic Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago is no stranger to high crime rates and incidents of violent crime. However, even by the standards of this country of 1.3 million, inured to violence for some time, the murder on 23-24 July 2019 of seven fishermen after they were assaulted at sea by bandits within the territorial waters of the country stands out for its revealing of the abysmal state of both border security and crime prevention and detection in the country. Coming on the heels of a horrendous period in which 24 people were murdered in seven days, this horrendous incident inflicted fresh trauma on the country’s population.

Crime Problems – High Crime Rate but Low Detection Rates

Commissioner of Police, Gary Griffith, stands with elite members of the Trinidad Police/ Image: Loop News

The Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS) is viewed as somewhat ineffective. This is despite an ostensible improvement in its crime detection rate and a reduction in the number of reported serious crimes between 2010 and 2017. When the number of serious crimes reported to the TTPS from 1990 to 2016, when taken in intervals, are examined, an increase of 6% is shown from 16,199 in 1990 to 17,134 in 2000. Thereafter, from 2000 to 2010, the number of serious crimes increased by 17% from 17,134 to 20,126. However, from 2010 to 2016, there was a decrease by 43% from 20,126 to 11,493.

The detection rate for the overall crime of 24% in 2016 was an improvement over the figure of 16% in 2010. However, it is not clear whether the reduction in serious crime is in part caused by an increasing reluctance among the general population to report crime owing to an expectation of no results being forthcoming from the TTPS.

Nonetheless, the statistical reduction in serious crimes is noteworthy. This, however, has not been the case with murders. From 1990 to 2000, murders increased by 43% from 84 to 118. From 2000 to 2010, it increased by 294% from 118 to 485. From 2010 to 2016, there was a decrease from 485 to 463. However, previously, from 2004 to 2005, there was an increase from 260 to 386 and from 2007 to 2008, the total jumped from 395 to 550. In 2018, there were 517 murders and for 2019, there had been over 300  before the tragedy of the fishermen.

The detection rate, for murders, has been declining quite alarmingly. From 69% in 1990 to 16% in 2016, the fall has been precipitous decade by decade. From 1990 to 2000, the detection rate fell from 69% to 57%. Then, from 2000 to 2010, it slid from 57% to 23% and this worsened still further as from 2010 to 2016, the detection rate fell again from 23% to an abysmal 16% where it remains to date. It should be emphasized that this detection rate deals with charges being laid, not convictions secured which are far fewer as prosecutions are all too often bungled, chains of evidence disrupted and witnesses intimidated or killed.

The TTPS – Manpower Issues

Image for representation: TTPS/news.gov.tt

The TTPS, on February 13, 2017, had a sanctioned strength of 7,884 full-time officers with an “actual strength” at that date being 6,768 a 14% or 1,116 deficit. However, even with this less than sanctioned strength, the police to population ratio for Trinidad and Tobago (population approximately 1.3 million) stands at some 1:192. This compares very favourably with the United Kingdom where the ratio stands at approximately 1:540. Like the British Special Constabulary, the TTPS has support in the form of the Special Reserve Police (SRP) which were supposed to be a reserve force but some 2496 are employed on a full-time basis with only 652 being part-time.

There is a total of 3,732 Regular Officers, 1,477 Full-time SRPs and 626 Part-Time SRPs giving a total of 5,835 officers assigned to the nine (9) Police Divisions and available for normal policing duties. The remaining 3,399 officers are assigned to the various special Units and Branches within the Service and comprise 2,354 Regular Officers, 1,019 Full-time SRPs and 26 Part-Time SRPs. It should be noted that the TTPS is an armed service with all personnel trained in the use of firearms, except for a proportion of the SRPs, with firearms including pistols, submachine guns and assault rifles.

However, these numbers do not tell the whole story. An inefficient shift system and a high rate of absenteeism, poorly planned leave and sickness dramatically reduces the number of TTPS personnel available for duty at any given time. In addition to the 14% shortfall between actual and authorized strength official information showed that a further 10% to 20% of officers are not on duty at any given time, reducing the number of daily available personnel to about 4700 full-time TTPS officers. The shift system cuts this number in half meaning that at any given time, the country has fewer than 2500 full-time police personnel on active duty.

Corruption – An endemic problem

That the TTPS is corrupt is widely known within the country. Whether through solicitation of bribes or through the use of undue influence to secure favours or obtain unfair advantages, the TTPS is perceived as thoroughly corrupt as an institution. Indeed, part of the reason for Trinidad’s failure to tackle violent crime has been attributed to corruption in the TTPS, allowing illegal firearms and narcotics to become easily available and even running so-called “drug blocks”. As far back as 1986 when Justice Garvin Scott prepared a groundbreaking report which severely criticized corruption in the TTPS, the issue of corruption as one which successive governments have been unable to address. In the 1990s, an attempt to enlist the help of Scotland Yard failed because of a complete lack of cooperation and open threats to the Scotland Yard team from several police officers – one Superintendent Sagram Bhagwandeen – was suspended for his behaviour towards the team. Despite the obstacles they faced, the Scotland Yard team concluded that there was a hard-core of corrupt officers who would do anything for money. As recently as January 2018, former Prime Minister and Minister of National Security bemoaned the lack of progress in fighting corruption in the TTPS.

Collapsing Border Security

Trinidad Coastguards/Image: Damen Magazine

The problems of the TTPS have been compounded by the virtual collapse of Trinidad’s border security system. The country possesses an excellent coastal radar network with Elta El/ M-2226 radars around the country’s coast and also covers the islands of St. Vincent and Grenada. While there have been occasional serviceability issues, these radars are functional and are being upgraded. This radar network has not prevented a thriving enterprise in smuggling illegal Venezuelan economic migrants, illegal weapons and narcotics from South America to Trinidad.

The Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard, with 102 officers and 1356 ratings is the largest Coast Guard in the English-speaking Caribbean. Between 2010 and 2016 the force was completely recapitalized with the induction of six Austal APB-30 Fast Patrol Craft, two armed 46m vessels converted from oilrig support vessels, one 79m Chinese made OPV, two 54m armed Damen FCS 5009 armed utility vessels, four-armed Damen SPa 5009 Coastal Patrol Vessels and six DI1102 interceptors to add to a fleet of 17 existing interceptors. 

In terms of availability, and serviceable ships, the TTCG has never been larger, though the Austal APB30 vessels are largely non-operational due to severe maintenance issues. Serviceability problems have bedevilled the interceptor fleet but some efforts to restore unserviceable vessels have shown results.

However, it has singularly failed to maintain an effective patrol cycle and has not been able to keep vessels on station to actively patrol or secure Trinidadian waters.  At one stage, due to bureaucratic inertia and perhaps incompetence, the TTCG was unable to pay for fuel for its vessels, though assurances were given to rectify that situation.

A bigger challenge is the abject failure of the TTCG leadership effectively use its manpower to crew its existing assets with some officers being reluctant to go to sea, others taking shore-based assignments for the relative ease of life, with no accountability for any operational shortcomings. At present, only the four Damen SPa 5009s have permanent crews attached to them, the remaining vessels are either without such crew assignments or have skeleton crews. This bizarre situation has rendered the TTCG virtually ineffective.

The collapse of Air Support

Trinidad and Tobago Air Guard AW139’s/ Image: Collective Magazine

Trinidad had a well-developed air support network to assist law-enforcement operations. Through its National Operations Centre (NOC) Air Division and its earlier incarnation the Special Anti-Crime Unit of Trinidad and Tobago (SAUTT), a force of S-76, Bo-105CBS-4 and AS.355 helicopters maintained reasonably effective air surveillance. These were later augmented by four AW-139 helicopters for the Trinidad and Tobago Air Guard (TTAG) which also operates two C-26 aircraft.

This entire system has virtually collapsed. The four AW-139s of the TTAG were grounded because of their high maintenance costs. Recent efforts to restore them to service, the first supposed to be operational in June 2019, have not shown results. The TTAG is now in a state of near collapse with at least seventeen pilots leaving (out of a very small number to begin with) and its sole assets – two C-26 aircraft – being in dire need of overhaul and repair with their surveillance equipment being non-functional.

The NOC Air Division is also in dire straits with its AS.355, S-76 and at least one Bo-105CBS-4 grounded for repairs. In addition, their surveillance equipment is unserviceable, restricting their operations at night.

This unsatisfactory state of affairs has led to the civilian National Helicopter Services Limited (NHSL) being pressed into service for law-enforcement assistance but this may be curtailed following the crash of a new EC-135 helicopter on 14 May 2019 during a manhunt.

Capabilities Compromised, Security Affected

With the country’s air and naval assets severely compromised by a combination of serviceability issues, financial concerns and outright mismanagement, Trinidad and Tobago cannot secure its borders nor provide support to the TTPS in its fight against crime. With the capabilities of its air and naval forces so degraded as to render them ineffective, and the TTPS plagued with its own problems, the fight against crime will be an uphill one and the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago will continue to pay a high price.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Dr Sanjay Badri-Maharaj

Dr. Sanjay Badri-Maharaj is the author of the books "Indian Nuclear Strategy: Confronting the Potential Threat from both China and Pakistan" and "The Armageddon Factor: Nuclear Weapons in the India-Pakistan Context". He is an independent geopolitical, security and defence analyst and attorney-at-law based in Trinidad and Tobago. He holds a PhD on India’s nuclear weapons programme and an MA from the Department of War Studies, Kings College London. He has served as a consultant to the Trinidad and Tobago Ministry of National Security. He was also a Visiting Fellow at IDSA - New Delhi. HE can be reached at sbmvv_2000@yahoo.com

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