Special Branch to audit army guns

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

In this file photo, two soldiers display one of the high-powered weapons in their arsenal during a military tattoo exhibition at Woodfrod Square, Port of Spain. –

An audit at the armoury of the regiment’s Cumuto base has been initiated by the police high command to verify that all military weapons are accounted for.

A national security source said Commissioner of Police (CoP) Erla Harewood-Christopher sanctioned the audit which is being done by a team of officers led by ASP Fransisca Rawlins of the Special Branch.

About two weeks ago, Rawlins encountered some challenges when she and her team showed up at the Cumuto base and were initially denied entry by soldiers.

Newsday was told by two independent sources, police and military, that Chief of Defence Staff Air Vice Marshall Darryl Daniel had approved the police audit of the regiment’s weapons.

Homicide investigators have raised queries about ammunition casings with TT Defence Force stamps recovered at numerous crime scenes, particularly involving criminal gangs using automatic high-powered rifles to kill and maim rivals.

A report by Special Branch to the National Security Council, which triggered a chain of events at the Strategic Services Agency (SSA), referred to the loaning of four high-powered police weapons to be used by six named SSA agents on the instructions of a senior police officer in April 2021.

Those guns – two Sig Sauer MPX automatic rifles, and two Sig Sauer 516 rifles – which were returned by former special reserve police officer Ian Brown, the pastor of the Jerusalem Bride Church in Malabar, were once part of the cache of weapons used by the now-defunct Special Operations Response Team, established by former commissioner of police Gary Griffith.

SSA director Major Roger Best, who was among four people arrested by police on May 15, had established a Tactical Response Team (TRT), an operational unit under his command comprising 12 highly-trained ex-soldiers, for additional security at SSA bases and those officers were reportedly armed with multiple weapons. Those officers have since been terminated along with 13 other civilians working for the spy agency.

A short statement from the Ministry of National Security, said Cabinet met on May 18 and took the decision to advise the acting President Nigel de Freitas to terminate Best’s appointment as director of the SSA with immediate effect.

Best was sent on administrative leave on March 2 by the Prime Minister, the head of the National Security Council, and retired Brig Gen Anthony Phillips-Spencer was recalled as this country’s ambassador to take up the acting post of SSA director. Phillips-Spencer has since disbanded the TRT.

Best, his adviser Ian Brown, the SSA’s former security supervisor, Portell Griffith, and Sgt Sherwin Waldron were arrested between May 15 and 16. They are being questioned by officers of the Professional Standards Bureau about the possession and transfer of automatic rifles, which are prohibited under the Firearm’s Act.

Dr Rowley has sounded the national security alarm over the number of military-type weapons in the hands of civilians and has criticised Griffith for approving those licences during his three-year tenure which ended in August 2021.

Three separate reports were commissioned into the granting of gun licences under Griffith, including one sanctioned by Cabinet, another done by retired judge Stanley John on behalf of the Police Service Commission, and an ongoing audit by police into licenced gun dealers.

In an affidavit, in response to a lawsuit by one gun dealer, Harewood-Christopher claimed intelligence from the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and other foreign agencies suggest that 30 guns imported by authorised gun dealers have ended up in the hands of criminals and used in at least one instance to commit murder.

The CoP also raised serious national security concerns about the stability of the country over such imports, the poor accounting records of guns and ammunition imported, the possession of “military-grade” guns and 5.56 and 7.62 ammunition in the hands of civilians which can pierce wood, concrete, metal and body armour worn by police.

At a parliamentary Joint Select Committee meeting on national security in March 2023, CDS Daniel, Wing Commander in charge of the Air Guard Kemba Protain, Lt Commander Akenton Isaac and Lt Colonel Sheldon Ramanan were questioned about what appeared to be regiment-issued ammunition being recovered at crime scenes.

Ramanan, a lawyer who was appointed as Inspector General of the Defence Force by Daniel, then reported that he had almost completed an audit of the ammunition allotted to the Defence Force and was able to account for all of its ammunition.

Since then, the Defence Force has instructed that ammunition with specific markings only be used in training.

A military source, familiar with the probe, said he was unsure what the police were looking for as the weapons at the Cumuto base “had nothing to do with the SSA.”

“That is so weird because the SSA has no control over that.”

The senior military officer said the Defence Force does audits on weapons and ammunition quarterly but in 2023 a mammoth task was done to quell rising concerns that regiment-issued ammunition was being used by criminals.

The officer surmised that gun dealers who import stamped ammunition for the Defence Force may have ordered excess which somehow ended up in the hands of civilians or that empty casings from shooting ranges were being re-used in live ammunition.

He said there were “several checks and balances” in the Defence Force for the proper accounting of guns, each of which had a unique serial number, making the possibility of guns going missing almost impossible.

Police sources also pointed out a Special Branch report which detailed information about state assets, including vehicles, which were once assigned to the now-defunct Special Anti-Crime Unit of TT (SAUTT), which was established under the Manning administration, being dismantled and shipped out of the country.

A former homicide bureau officer said after SAUTT was disbanded in 2010 under the former People’s Partnership (PP) administration he recalled seeing a “crate of guns” at Riverside Plaza, Port of Spain which “went missing.”

SAUTT’s criminal intelligence database was located at the 15th Floor of Riverside Plaza, and is now the base of the Homicide Bureau and other units.

The PP administration had established a steering committee comprising Prof Daniel Gibran, then DCP Stephen Williams, former director of the SSA Col Albert Griffith and former permanent secretary Jackie Wilson to come up with a plan to restructure the unit.

Some of the assets were re-distributed through the State’s other intelligence agencies including the then-National Intelligence Agency.

In December 2022, National Security Minister Fitzgerald Hinds said he was concerned that regiment-issued ammunition casings were found at murder scenes. He said that measures were introduced to prevent a trend from developing, without elaborating.

Questions seeking comment on the new audit were WhatsApped to Dr Rowley, who is overseas, Hinds and the CDS but there was no acknowledgement or response. Former acting commissioner of police Williams declined to comment on the reports of missing assets which once belonged to SAUTT.