Rapid expansion of Sangre Grande squatting site blamed for crime spike

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Debris was set on fire blocking several roads in the Northeastern Settlement, Sangre Grande after police shot and killed Brandon De Gale on November 28. – ANGELO MARCELLE

Residents of Northeastern Settlement, Sangre Grande say the rapid expansion in what was once a quiet squatting village has “destroyed the area’s innocence” causing it to move from a community where people were “trying to do better for themselves” to a place of refuge for those hiding from the law or their enemies.

Homeowners have reported an increase in shootings in the community in recent times, along with a rise in gang-related violent crimes.

The previously peaceful development began approximately four decades ago with a handful of squatters living in a forested area, just under one kilometre north of the Sangre Grande Hospital.

One elderly man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said, “When my wife and I came here it didn’t have water so I used to have to go to the standpipe out where they had roads, because we didn’t even have roads in here. I had to get the water and bring it back home in buckets. We were the last house in here.”

He said more forest was destroyed making way for several other houses to the back of his home.

The community has since grown to a densely populated 320-acre space encompassing hundreds of houses, paved streets, some with street lights, and thriving small businesses such as mini marts, a tyre shop, bakery and a mosque.

Street names such as Road Three, Road Four, Road Six, and Road Seven, give an insight into the speed with which the community expanded and the subsequent shortfall in the required infrastructure, to keep pace with its growth. There are no box drains in some areas and the water supply is infrequent.

Residents spoke with Newsday after the police killing of contractor Brandon De Gale, 33, at his Northeastern Settlement home on November 28.

His shooting provoked a wider discussion in the community with some now asking, “How we reach here?”

Newsday visited the area on November 29 to get the views of residents on the torrents of crime sweeping their community.

De Gale was killed by a single shot from a police officer around 5 am during a search for arms and ammunition.

A statement from the police said De Gale pulled out a gun from under a pillow and pointed it at police when they entered his bedroom.

Police also say they seized a .38 revolver, ammunition and marijuana.

A police patrol moves through the Northeastern Settlement, Sangre Grande on November 29, one day after residents protested the police killing of a resident. – Angelo Marcelle

The police involved-shooting led to protests in the area with debris set alight in roads throughout the community.

De Gale was employed as a contractor building box drains in the community. Some residents claim his life was under threat over those contracts.

The protests divided the community. Younger residents believed it was necessary while the older residents expressed unease with the actions of protesters.

That divide was also apparent when they were asked their thoughts on the crime situation in their community and how it has evolved over the years.

The elderly residents have blamed the younger population and the prevalence of drugs.

The younger residents, however, said the general desertion of the community by the authorities is the reason.

“Plenty of youths are doing wrong here now,” said an elderly man.

“They are looking to grab people’s things and sell it. Anything to hustle. We seeing all sort of strange people.

He said this has led to more serious crimes. “Sometimes we hear somebody get shoot up because a man take something from the wrong person, or they hustling drugs and they have a falling out.”

Another woman echoed similar sentiments attributing the crime in the community to bad parenting.

“It’s all about how you bring up your children. But some parents figure their children never wrong. They say everybody innocent until proven guilty but you have to know when your child isn’t innocent. They’re breeding their own monsters…whatever you breed is what you does get.”

A man watching the protests last week told Newsday crime began when “outsiders” began moving in to the community.

He said people came “from all over Trinidad” and saw the opportunity to start a thriving criminal enterprise where there was none.

“Everybody wants to be a boss,” he said. “There was no bosses here yet so they figured they could get a hold in this community.”

A group of young people who spoke with Newsday one day after the protest said while drugs might be a contributing factor to crime in the community, the real reason was the authorities’ treatment of the area.

“It come like we don’t exist,” said a young girl sitting near the roadside.

Her friend nearby chimed in, “You know how long we haven’t seen police here like this.”

A boy added, “The older heads need to talk to the youths but sometimes it is just the environment you grow up in because I grow up seeing (crime) happening on a regular.”

The girl who spoke first added, “If the police were just doing their job on a regular (basis) we might not have these (protests). It feels like we could never get justice for anything in the back here”

Another group of youths liming several streets away expressed similar sentiments.

“Some people are taking advantage of other people and, those who are fed up, don’t think they could get justice and came together. They decided since the police can’t help, men will just take things into their own hands.”

When Newsday pointed out the claims by the older resident that the youths were essentially to blame for the crime, one young man responded by saying, “Two things can be true at the same time.”

He said the older residents are correct about the majority of offenders being young because they feel they are being ignored by the authorities and take matters into their own hands.

The residents held a peaceful candlelight vigil on Friday night in memory of De Gale. Despite their differing views on the reason for the crime in the area, it seems they are all united on one thing, it must come to an end.