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 ... How community became a no-go zone

A Guardian Me­dia Spe­cial Re­port

AN IN­NO­CENT KILLING

My job as an as­sign­ment ed­i­tor at the Guardian places me on the front lines of the dai­ly blood­let­ting across the coun­try. By the time I get to the of­fice in the morn­ing, my agen­da is al­ready chock-full with overnight gang-re­lat­ed and oth­er killings. Many rob­beries, bur­glar­ies, and vi­o­lent crimes fall by the way­side.

Two Fri­days ago, I was mon­i­tor­ing one of the dead­liest weeks of shoot­ing deaths when news of Mur­der Vic­tim No 21 came in. A PH dri­ver in St Barbs, Laven­tille—blast­ed at close range by a hail of bul­lets—was slumped be­hind the wheel of his black Nis­san Almera. Bul­let wounds punc­tured his neck and chest, spilling crim­son blood on his bright­ly coloured T-shirt.

A few hours lat­er, I head­ed out to a rou­tine ap­point­ment with my doc­tor, who al­so hap­pens to be the se­nior pas­tor of my church. Af­ter tak­ing a phone call, he turned to me and said, “They just killed Glo­ria’s son in St Barbs.”

The words pierced deep in­to my bel­ly. Mur­der Vic­tim No 21 was 41-year-old An­tho­ny Phillip Williams, son of Glo­ria Dick­son, a beloved mem­ber of our church. Williams, who al­so goes by the name An­to­nio Dick­son, might have been a vic­tim of mis­tak­en iden­ti­ty.

Williams’s mur­der had hit close to home and showed how deep Trinidad and To­ba­go had de­scend­ed in­to blood­shed and law­less­ness.

It was an­oth­er crime scene in Laven­tille where, by of­fi­cial ac­counts, some 1,318 have been killed in the last decade, more than 93 per cent from gun­shot wounds. That’s a year­ly av­er­age of 132 peo­ple in Laven­tille who are vi­o­lent­ly killed.

By in­ter­na­tion­al stan­dards, mur­der rate is cal­cu­lat­ed per 100,000 pop­u­la­tion.

Trinidad and To­ba­go has one of the high­est mur­der rates in the re­gion, about 35 for every 100,000 in­hab­i­tants of the is­lands.

Laven­tille’s crime rate—231 per 100,000 peo­ple if you crunch the num­bers—is more than six times T&T’s mur­der rate. Laven­tille’s mur­der rate is more than dou­ble the homi­cide rate of the most dan­ger­ous city in the world, Los Ca­bos in Mex­i­co, which has a rate of 111 per 100,000 in­hab­i­tants.

Af­ter Williams’ killing, my mind flashed on the num­ber of friends and rel­a­tives who have been slain in the last sev­er­al years. In the last 15 years, I knew at least eight vic­tims of mur­der. Many times, I have been with­in close range of killings. I have heard the fa­tal shots and have seen the bleed­ing corpse.

A few years ago, I sensed some­thing had gone hor­ri­bly wrong when I heard an­guished sobs from a cor­ri­dor right off the news­room. I rushed to see two col­leagues hold­ing up a dis­traught co-work­er.

I learned that Ju­nior Valen­tine, a se­nior su­per­vi­sor in our pro­duc­tion de­part­ment, some­one I had known since my ear­ly days in jour­nal­ism, had been shot five times at Men­tor Al­ley in Laven­tille. The po­lice said he was just out­side his home and that hap­pened to be the wrong place at the wrong time.

We felt help­less over his killing. At our of­fices on St Vin­cent Street, work stalled to a slow, ag­o­nis­ing pace that day, punc­tu­at­ed by prayers and lots of tears.

There have been oth­ers: the coun­cil­lor who was killed by crim­i­nals af­ter he re­sist­ed gang mem­bers’ pres­sure to bend the rules so that they could cre­ate ghost gangs and de­fraud the State; the UK-born but Tri­ni-to-the-bone jour­nal­ist who was bru­tal­ly mur­dered in her home; and a fe­male po­lice­woman—the close rel­a­tive of one of our church min­is­ters—whose body was fished out from the Gulf of Paria two years ago.

The dai­ly slaugh­ter in Laven­tille and its en­vi­rons of­ten forces me to pon­der: how did this once neigh­bourly place be­come a no-go zone, a place where al­most dai­ly gun­fire could cut down many peo­ple.

NO-GO ZONES

From a dis­tance, there is a rugged beau­ty about Laven­tille. The ran­dom way in which hous­es tum­ble down the slopes of the North­ern Range, punc­tu­at­ed oc­ca­sion­al­ly by green­ery, has been im­mor­talised in paint­ings and pho­tographs.

At clos­er range, re­al­i­ty hits hard in this com­mu­ni­ty of con­trasts. Mul­ti-sto­ried hous­es stand cheek-to-jowl with crum­bling wood­en chat­tel hous­es, paved two-way roads give way to nar­row dirt tracks or no roads at all, just long flights of con­crete stair­ways with hous­es on ei­ther side.

The views are as­tound­ing. If re­al es­tate agents had to write de­scrip­tions for list­ings here, they would crow: Best scenic views in T&T!!!

West­ward, there is Port-of-Spain. From my van­tage point off the La­dy Young Road, to­ward the south­east, you can see the dis­tant Tamana Hill in the Cen­tral Range. It is par­tic­u­lar­ly breath­tak­ing at night, il­lu­mi­nat­ed by the lights from thou­sands of build­ings be­low.

Back in the day, Laven­tille meant Suc­cess Vil­lage, Trou Macaque, and Pic­ton. Now, it en­velops, among oth­er places, East Dry Dri­ver, Cale­do­nia, Mary­land, Chi­napoo, and Mor­vant.

I live in Mor­vant, a bor­der­ing com­mu­ni­ty that con­nects with the wider Laven­tille, as do east Port-of-Spain and the up­per reach­es of Bel­mont.

Al­though the views are beau­ti­ful, the back­ground noise is not. The sounds, too of­ten, are blar­ing po­lice sirens and gun­fire from near­by neigh­bour­hoods. It is not pos­si­ble to dri­ve too far in any di­rec­tion with­out cross­ing so-called bor­der­lines and en­ter­ing a dan­ger zone.

Laven­til­leans have to con­form to a form of self-im­posed zon­ing. If you live in an area con­trolled by a gang, you dare not ven­ture in­to a ri­val’s ter­ri­to­ry, even though that may be the next street over. A few years ago, a garbage col­lec­tor was shot dead be­cause gang­sters per­ceived that he had come from a ri­val gang area.

Some chil­dren must be es­cort­ed to school and sport­ing ac­tiv­i­ties. Par­ents beg for trans­fers when their chil­dren are placed at schools in ar­eas con­trolled by ri­val gangs.

Dan­gers lurk every­where. At St Barb's Pri­ma­ry School, a teacher re­count­ed how she has had to at­tend the fu­ner­al of 24 stu­dents in the last 19 years. Three years ago, at Suc­cess Laven­tille Sec­ondary, lo­cat­ed be­tween war­ring gangs from Beetham Es­tate and the Laven­tille hills, two stu­dents on the way home from school were dragged out of a PH taxi and shot dead.

Even for long-time res­i­dents, fa­mil­iar­i­ty does not guar­an­tee safe­ty. In the hottest parts of this hot spot, walk along cer­tain streets and the many pairs of eyes fol­low­ing your every step could be ma­cos but are more like­ly look­outs for gang lead­ers. I of­ten pray that my car is not mis­tak­en for one be­long­ing to a gang­ster.

Stay­ing on your own turf does not en­sure safe­ty. In April, a stone’s throw from my home, a res­i­dent was gunned down as he played foot­ball in the park­ing lot of his apart­ment com­plex.

A mur­der was com­mit­ted not too far from my place of wor­ship. That was on a Sat­ur­day af­ter­noon in Sep­tem­ber 2015 when the sound of gun­shots in­ter­rupt­ed the fi­nal ses­sion of a con­fer­ence at the church au­di­to­ri­um. A few min­utes lat­er, po­lice of­fi­cers came in­to the church au­di­to­ri­um re­quest­ing the ser­vices of the se­nior pas­tor, Bish­op Dr David Ibeleme, who was al­so the dis­trict med­ical of­fi­cer for the area.

Just a stone’s throw away, the bul­let-rid­dled bod­ies of two men in a Nis­san B-14 had been dis­cov­ered. We lat­er found out that Amit Ram­lo­gan, 18 and Ka­reem Tur­ton, 28, were gunned down in a reprisal killing. The mur­der count for that day was four.

BET­TER DAYS ON THE HILL

I was born in Suc­cess Vil­lage, in the down-the-hill sec­tion of Laven­tille. Many res­i­dents of Suc­cess Vil­lage have lived up to the name. Kei­th Smith and Lennox Grant, two leg­endary top ed­i­tors of the Ex­press and Guardian, came from this com­mu­ni­ty of a few thou­sand peo­ple. Writ­ers Pe­ter Blood and Ter­ry Joseph, who chron­i­cled the vi­brant cul­ture of the hill and na­tion, al­so hailed from Suc­cess. Ter­ry and I used to say to each oth­er in mild jest but with great pride: “I from Laven­tille.”

I was part of an ex­tend­ed fam­i­ly, with cousins, un­cles and aunts all liv­ing un­der one roof. Doors and win­dows were left opened and un­locked all day—and even at night.

Chil­dren used to play in the streets, go for walks in all of those ar­eas “be­hind the bridge” and around the East Dry Riv­er that are now so-called hot spots. My moth­er would leave home alone so that she could meet friends at the movies or a ca­lyp­so tent. She would al­ways re­turn home safe­ly.

As a child, the threat of ban­dits and killers didn’t ex­ist. I feared on­ly the la­ga­hoos, soucouyants and as­sort­ment of jumbies that came out at night.

WHAT AILS LAVEN­TILLE

For its unswerv­ing loy­al­ty, Laven­tille should be the prized jew­el in the crown of the Peo­ple’s Na­tion­al Move­ment (PNM), which has al­ways count­ed res­i­dents to de­liv­er their two elec­toral seats. Even when the Na­tion­al Al­liance for Re­con­struc­tion (NAR) trounced the PNM 33-3 in 1986, Muriel Donowa-Mc­David­son and Mor­ris Mar­shall man­aged to hold on­to the Laven­tille seats for the PNM.

There is lit­tle to show for decades of be­ing the strong­hold of the po­lit­i­cal par­ty that has held pow­er longer and more of­ten than any oth­er in T&T’s his­to­ry. Op­po­si­tion par­ties have of­ten point­ed to the fact that des­per­ate eco­nom­ic con­di­tions of Laven­til­lians should make them ques­tion the PNM’s com­mit­ment.

They are not averse to em­ploy­ing the same strate­gies as the PNM in their ef­forts to loosen that par­ty’s grip on Laven­tille West and Laven­tille East/Mor­vant. With­out fail, every elec­tion sea­son brings can­di­dates from all sides, hand­ing out jer­seys and oth­er cam­paign good­ies from atop mu­sic trucks, try­ing to coax votes from res­i­dents with promis­es of bet­ter days.

They nev­er ma­te­ri­alise. Women still have to fill buck­ets at stand­pipes and walk a mile up the hill, chil­dren still study by can­dle and the bad­men with guns de­ter­mine who lives or dies.

Pover­ty and crime cre­ate fer­tile breed­ing grounds where crim­i­nals lure hun­gry, naive young peo­ple to their dark side.

LAVEN­TILLE IS EVERY­WHERE

LeRoy Clarke, one of our coun­try’s best known artists, has for the last sev­er­al years been paint­ing a se­ries about the idea of Laven­tille.

Dur­ing a re­cent ex­hi­bi­tion of Clark’s work, Fazal Ali, head of the Teach­ing Ser­vice Com­mis­sion, made this ob­ser­va­tion: “Clarke’s con­tin­u­ing project of can­vass­es around the idea of Laven­tille made him see that Laven­tille is here, Laven­tille is there, Laven­tille is every­where.”

“Vi­o­lence, fear, pover­ty, hell and un­der­achieve­ment have no ge­og­ra­phy,” he said.

His words ring with a sober­ing truth. Laven­tille is of­ten blamed for colonis­ing hous­ing de­vel­op­ments across the coun­try with vi­o­lence and law­less­ness. A fre­quent com­ment is: “When you miss a ban­dit from Laven­tille is be­cause he move to...” Fill in the blanks with Mal­oney, La Hor­quet­ta, Orop­une, or any oth­er high-crime com­mu­ni­ty.

It tells the ex­tent to which this place, birth­place of the steel­pan and oth­er ex­pres­sions of our cre­ativ­i­ty, is now seen as the source of the con­ta­gion that has tak­en over every part of T&T.

YOU CAN RUN BUT…

I of­ten think about how my par­ents, both teach­ers, left Laven­tille for a sin­gle-lev­el bun­ga­low in Cas­cade more than 40 years ago. Af­ter see­ing in­creas­es in pet­ty crime, they want­ed a safer place for me and my two younger sib­lings. My fa­ther died in 2011, and the house re­mains oc­cu­pied by my moth­er and sib­lings.

Now Cas­cade is no longer safe. The house has had to con­form with the times. Se­cu­ri­ty alarms have been in­stalled to sound when in­trud­ers en­ter the premis­es. Win­dows have been re­in­forced with bur­glarproof­ing. That hasn’t kept the bur­glars out.

Not far away in St Ann's, the bru­tal 2017 mur­der of oc­to­ge­nar­i­an Claire Broad­bridge, for­mer cu­ra­tor of the Na­tion­al Mu­se­um, was one of sev­er­al killings that rocked the com­mu­ni­ty in the past few years. There is no longer any to place to run. And for the de­cent hard-work­ing peo­ple who live in Laven­tille, there are mea­gre op­tions.

While Laven­tille de­scends fur­ther in­to chaos, the coun­try is miss­ing out on the vast po­ten­tial of the peo­ple on The Hill—the same po­ten­tial that gave us the steel­pan, top writ­ers, sport­ing he­roes, and mu­si­cal leg­ends.

To ig­nore what ails Laven­tille would be to the detri­ment of our na­tion. There’s no way to fix Trinidad and To­ba­go if we don’t fix Laven­tille, be­cause now, Laven­tille is every­where.

An­tho­ny’s fu­ner­al

The fu­ner­al for An­tho­ny Williams last Thurs­day was a heart-wrench­ing af­fair. His moth­er, Glo­ria Dick­son, a usu­al­ly cheer­ful woman, shed tears but man­aged to main­tain some com­po­sure. His wid­ow, Aval­on, and her chil­dren could not con­tain their grief. Their wails filled the sanc­tu­ary at Vic­to­ry Chris­t­ian Out­reach Church in Bel­mont. Many loved ones took the podi­um to pay trib­ute to Williams, de­scrib­ing him as a de­vot­ed hus­band and fa­ther. They men­tioned that he was nev­er af­fil­i­at­ed with gangs and had lived a clean and de­cent life. On Face­book, Glo­ria Dick­son found the strength to write: “Sweet Je­sus, on­ly you alone know. For­give them for they don’t know what they have done.”

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