Authorities in Trinidad and Tobago have warned legislators that the Caribbean island nation is likely to see a rise in violent crimes, as gangs splinter and bounce back from the pandemic.
The country’s intelligence body, the Strategic Services Agency (SSA), issued its 2021 security report to Parliament. Though serious crimes decreased in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the intelligence assessment said that the country was seeing a new crime wave. The SSA also predicted the splintering of gangs, potentially “resulting in an increase in murders, injuries, shootings and other violent crimes."
Shootings in recent weeks indicate renewed gang warfare. On May 10, a suspected gang leader was gunned down in Saint James, a district in the country's capital, Port of Spain. Four of the six killings during the week of April 25 were attributed to gang violence. Two of the men shot dead were suspected of belonging to the country's two largest gangs, Rasta City and the Muslims.
In 2021, Trinidad and Tobago recorded 448 homicides, an increase from 399 in 2020. The tally, however, was below the 539 murders reported in 2019 prior to the pandemic.
InSight Crime Analysis
Three factors help to explain the complex criminal landscape and rise in violence in Trinidad and Tobago.
First, it appears that gangs are splintering and, in the process, becoming more vicious. In March 2022, Security Minister Fitzgerald Hinds told Parliament that the 2021 killing of a gang leader had generated “deep ramifications in the criminal underworld.”
Hinds did not name the gang leader but he was likely referring to Anthon Boney. Boney was the alleged leader of the Muslims who was shot dead in a well-orchestrated attack in September 2021. He was driving on a highway in Port of Spain when gunmen dressed in tactical gear stopped his vehicle and shot him at close range.
Boney's death has caused internal warfare among the Muslims, a union of gangs with some 600 members. Other gangs have also used the upheaval to muscle in on the Boney's operations. In November, killings in Trinidad and Tobago climbed to 69, the highest monthly total since at least 2013.
"These newer gangs are anticipated to be more volatile as they try to establish themselves,” the 2021 SSA report states.
Second, the gangs are profiting from activities beyond extortion and drug sales, according to the report. Given their power in many poorer neighborhoods, gang bosses are presenting themselves as community leaders, and they have been awarded numerous contracts to execute public works.
Gang activities now include "illegal quarrying (sand mining), fraud-scheming, money-laundering, black-market sale and resale of US currency, party and events promotion, organized robbery, motor vehicle larceny, marijuana trafficking, counterfeiting, human smuggling and illegal gambling," the report states.
Third, gangs have increasing access to firearms. In 2019, the SSA estimated that over 8,000 illegal guns were circulating in Trinidad and Tobago.
The SSA report pointed to both the United States and Venezuela as sources for guns smuggled into the country. Several Venezuelan nationals have been charged with possession of illegal weapons in Trinidad and Tobago. Corrupt customs and port staff have also been implicated in weapons smuggling.
Police corruption also appears to lead to guns being returned to the streets. The SSA report said that “illicit firearms seized by the police from violent criminals are making their way back into the hands of gang members.”