Gang violence, extortion, cripples business in Tunapuna

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Crime scene unit investigators gather evidence at the Tunapuna Market after a shooting incident which left two people dead and three others injured on January 3. – Jeff Mayers

The escalating gun violence in Tunapuna is causing its residents to live in fear, restricting their movements and negatively affecting their livelihood.

PNM councillor for Auzonville/Tunapuna John-Boyd Briggs said, at the moment, his district was probably “one of the hottest” areas in the country with seven or eight different criminal gangs.

He said because of the crime situation, Tunapuna saw a decline in visitors for Carnival compared to previous years and residents are living in fear.

He said Tunapuna had a vibrant business sector and no business person had reached out to him about extortion so he could not speak to rumours of gangs harassing businesses for money.

However, he was aware people were afraid to go to the Tunapuna Market since the shooting in January that claimed the lives of Mikael Voisin and Aaron Leander.

The men were killed near the Tunapuna Market at night when a car drove up, three men got out and shot at a group of people liming nearby. Two men and a woman were also wounded and taken to the Eric Williams Medical Sciences Complex in Mt Hope.

Briggs said the corporation and the market committee were putting measures in place to address the situation, including adding more police patrols.

Gang violence and extortion has affected several businesses in the Tunapuna district. Market vendors are among those tragetted. – ROGER JACOB

In addition, about a month ago, he hosted a prayer vigil at the Good Shepherd Anglican Primary School where Baptist prayers were held.

“I must say, after that prayer, we haven’t had any more major unfortunate shooting incidents except for the police killings in Dookie Trace and Monte Grande.”

Dirrel “Fire” Ramsahai, 22, was shot by the police on January 19 along Dookie Trace. Then, on February 17, Shaquille “Duss Boss” Mc Gregor, 29, Jadel Ottley, 18, and a man identified as “Silence” were killed by police during a reported shootout at Monte Grande, Tunapuna.

Briggs said the corporation was working with the municipal and local police to devise a plan to reduce crime and gang activity in the district. His team was also in the process of developing youth programmes to be implemented this year to get them “off the streets” and lead more productive lives away from crime.

He is hoping to arrange an employment drive for the people of his area soon and hopes to get assistance from the “higher-ups.”

UNC councillor for Caura/Paradise/Tacarigua Sookdeo Barath said there were gangs in several Tunapuna areas like Bamboo and Achong Traces and his districts were being affected as well.

“There is a direct relation between gang warfare and the murder rate. Residents there more or less have a self-imposed curfew so after certain hours you wouldn’t want to go there.”

He said many workers offering public and private services have refused to go into certain areas and the situation was affecting how people live and where they go.

In addition, gang members were extorting money from business people, which was having a serious impact on business activity and some businesses even had to close down because of it.

Barath had personal experience with such attempted extortion in August last year when he was running for the local government election. He said a man called his cellphone and listed his address, the names of his family members, threatened him and demanded $40,000. He reported it to the police.

He said there had also been a migration of gangs where, if members could not operate in their original areas for some reason, they would infiltrate areas along the East-West corridor.

He said in some areas of El Dorado, Tunapuna, residents had to set up neighbourhood watch groups, purchase CCTV cameras and monitor the area owing to numerous car thefts, home invasions and murders.

Residents have had several community meetings with the police over the past year and he said the police did not have the manpower to deal with all the criminal activity. One of the suggestions made was that people purchase air horns as an alert system and security camera systems for their homes.

He called for people to be allowed to arm themselves so they had some kind of defence from criminals.

Gang graffiti on an abandoned house at the corner of Streatham Lodge Road and St Augustine Circular Road, in Tunapuna. – AYANNA KINSALE

“I believe it has a lot to do with the gangs. It’s the drug culture that has infiltrated the communities. I think it is organised crime, not the normal, run-of-the-mill random crime.”

Attempts to get comments from Tunapuna MP Esmond Forde and Tunapuna/Piarco Regional Corporation chairman Josiah Austin, both members of the ruling PNM, were unsuccessful as they did not respond to calls and text messages.

Extortion hurting businesses

One Tunapuna resident said he did not “give the police wrong” for killing people they knew to be criminals because he believed gang activity in the area would only increase and it was “making the place worse.”

He said he was not worried about his safety as he grew up in the area so everyone knew him and the gang members knew not to approach him for any “protection racket” for his new business.

Asked what he thought could help improve the crime situation in the area he said, “Change (Prime Minister Dr Keith) Rowley. Kamla (Persad-Bissessar, Opposition Leader) smart. She ain’t even win the election and she put down garbage bins all over and gave people $500. They (the UNC) will spend some money in the community.”

A resident of Maingot Road said she often heard gunshots at night which scared and upset her.

She expressed concerns about where gang members were getting guns and how they could afford them. She said in her area, while the gang members did not interfere with the residents or visitors, the danger of getting caught in the crossfire during shootouts was real.

She said gang activity and gun violence were foolishness and begged the young men and women of Tunapua to stop.

She said the government was not doing enough to boost the economy in a way that would benefit the average person and people were complaining about unemployment and the ever-increasing cost of living.

But she said everyone had a mind of their own and joining a gang to get money was not a sensible option. There were programmes and educational opportunities available to citizens so if people wanted change they had to make it happen by educating themselves.

“You have to occupy yourself and your mind. You have to want change. And if the individual doesn’t want change and seek it, how are things going to change? And you must have some spirituality as well in the mix.

“They can’t depend on the government. They have to do it for themselves. Turn to other things that will benefit you and it will benefit the community. They just tearing apart Tunapuna.”

The owner of one business said the increasing crime had affected its operations negatively. She said the crime situation had stopped technicians from servicing certain areas as well as discouraged people from other parts of the country from visiting its Tunapuna branch.

She said she had operated in Tunapuna for 20 years and had not been extorted by gangs but she knew of some small businesses that were. She believed the gangs mainly targeted vendors in or near the Tunapuna market, as well as businesses they financed or were used to launder money or sell drugs for the gangs.

She did not believe the police could do anything about the situation.

“If you want to go kill somebody, the police can’t stop you. It’s the parents’ fault. They are the ones who are either encouraging it or ignoring it.”

A resident, who frequently limes near the market, said there were minor issues between vendors but there was no gang violence there. Instead, he said the location of the market was between two areas controlled by gangs and sometimes gun violence spilled into the market.

He said the youths involved in gangs and crime had parents who were born in the mid-1980s and those parents were desensitised to violence because of the movies, video games and music they consumed.

He believed they passed that on to their children, as well as a lack of spirituality, so the youths had no understanding of themselves or connection to something greater. And they used narcotics and joined gangs as replacements for that connection and understanding.

A business owner in Monte Grande, St Augustine said business had slowed down since the gang activity and killings increased over the past few months. He said residents were cautious about their movements and worried about being hit by stray bullets.

“The area has a stigma now. Nobody wants to die just so, so they are staying away.”

He recalled an evening when multiple gunshots were heard in the area around St Augustine Circular Road. Soon after, a car drove out of the back of Streatham Lodge Road and several men had their heads out of the windows, firing guns in the air.

“These young people need to find God, live in the right way and work hard for what they want. Everyone wants the fast life and fast money but that will lead to a fast death.”