The high rate of criminal activity has fostered a deep anxiety and deep despondency in our nation. We have been a resilient people, but the many years of murders have been taking its toll on our collective psyche.
In 1994, the year that ttcrime.com began publishing murder statistics, the number of murders stood at 143. It fell all the way down to 93 murders in 1999 then began a steady rise, jumping to 229 in 2003, 386 in 2005, 550 in 2008.
Murders dropped to 354 in 2011, but have been rising since, reaching 494 in 2017. Looking at the murder rate per million people, T&T is ranked ninth in the world. The USA is 43rd.
I believe the real problem is not murder and guns; it is persistent underdevelopment in geographical areas. Criminal activity and murders are taking place in many parts of the country. Laventille has one of the highest crime rates in the country, with drugs, murders and gangs.
This community, which produced many of our most brilliant artists and professionals, remains a sphere of persistent urban underdevelopment. The contrast between this community and its neighbours is the real challenge.
Port of Spain is the financial and commercial capital. It is where all the money flows and businesses flourish. On the other side of the Dry River, we have persistent underdevelopment.
But, ‘behind the bridge’ used to be the cultural capital of the nation. It is where the pan was born and tambu bambu was innovated. Calypso, soca and so many artforms emerged from these communities.
Today, a high number of groups devoted to the arts still operate there, yet no infrastructure exists for the development of the arts. No arts academy, no place for the performing arts to do shows, no resources to assist in the organised development of raw talent. It is not Laventille that has failed: we have failed Laventille.
Laventille has more failing schools than other communities. When you belong to a community that is failing and you go to a school where less than 30 per cent pass SEA, it is like being condemned to failure.
It is not that children in Laventille, or any poor community for that matter, are less bright or have less talent. It is that poverty also means bad nutrition, less stimulation of the child in infancy and so a child at five is less ready for learning.
To solve crime we need to fix education in all failing communities and create some of the best schools suited to the needs of the children offering a path to genuine development.
The drug trade is a major actor in the high criminal activity in T&T. It has the power to corrupt and it seems as if no matter who comes into power, the underworld has the experience and capacity to corrupt. This is a major part of the challenge.
Some of those employed to protect us, our people and our borders, our laws and our society, have been corrupted, where the corruption is either by direct bribe or threat to their families. The drug trade turns over millions of dollars of illegal money. Paying a couple millions in cash to someone is not a challenge.
When we become conscious about crime, there is always a cry for the resumption of capital punishment. Somehow, despite the evidence to the contrary, we believe that the taking of a life by the State is going to solve this very complex challenge of underdevelopment.
We seem to need blood spilt to feel satisfied we are solving the problem of crime, while the detection and conviction rates are still woefully low.
Many good citizens, desperate for a solution, are saying things are so bad we need someone brave enough to ‘take out’ the criminal element and rid the country of the scourge. This thinking seems to be gaining momentum.
This speaks to the desperation and the hopelessness we are experiencing collectively. This is a temptation that we will all regret, if not resisted. Once we begin to ignore the action of the State toward any citizen who may be denied due process of law, and denied a sentence proportionate to the crime, any of us could become victims of unconstrained state power.
There are no easy solutions. My proposal is that we do several things at the same time.
Those with expertise in matters of national security, which I do not have, need to put forward their proposals and their best ideas implemented. At a minimum, however, we need to ensure, as far as possible, that our police and prisons officers are diligent in doing their duties, and they act with integrity and with restraint appropriate to the dangers they face daily.
Secondly, we need swifter dispensing of justice by the courts: in that regard, the recent initiatives of the higher judiciary are to be welcomed.
Thirdly, we must support government efforts to ‘follow the money’ and to choke off the supply of funds to the drug trade and to the gangs. This means that each of us has a responsibility to report crime, whether in the streets or in our offices.
Most importantly, we need a plan for systematic development of our at-risk communities and in particular the young people within those communities.
—This article first appeared in Catholic News December 9, 2018.
• The Most Rev Charles J Gordon is Archbishop of port of Spain