A Paradise of Drugs and Human Trafficking: Trinidad and Tobago’s Story

Dr S. P

It’s one of those days. The Caribbean sun playing tricks with your brain, where apathetic systems of governance seem to be matched only by the lack of transparency that has allowed the illicit drug trade to mushroom to levels that would make any Mexican drug cartel green with envy. For clarity let’s focus our attention on Trinidad and Tobago, an archipelagic twin island republic whose system of relevance in the global order rests solely on its history as a past British colony. There could be arguments that its rapidly fading oil and gas sector, cricket and carnival have somehow shaped its trajectory out of its colonial identity, however such optimism is short lived as reality paints a country struggling with global competitiveness and a lack of innovation. The on-going pandemic highlights a government so steeped in corruption that any blueprint for transparency would at this stage be an exercise in deceit and dishonesty simply to appease the prying eyes of the IMF.

Financial Centre Port of Spain

To be honest Trinidad and Tobago has played its part in global development, but it’s a part that best aligns itself to the billion dollar drug industry that has infiltrated the very fabric of its existence and it’s increasing role in providing transit routes for smuggling drugs to the U.S. and Europe through the Caribbean. To assume that this country reached the pinnacle of its decadence would be an assumption based on a brief oil boom of the 1980’s that temporarily drove ambitious agendas for development. However, corruption and ineffective governance allowed the drug trade to take hold and metastasize its own agenda to franchise what was already a global pandemic.

Trinidad and Tobago’s history has flirted with extremism, an arch defined by two failed uprisings, in the form of the 1970 Revolution, Black Power Uprising and February Revolution, which was an attempt by a number of social elements, people and interest groups to effect socio-political change. The other was the unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the NAR government in 1990, which seemed more like an exercise in misdirection towards America , to blind them to the invasion of Kuwait. Mere days after the surrender of Yasin Abu Bakr, the Republican Guards of the Iraqi government, under the direction of Suddam Hossein, invaded Kuwait. Did the Americans not see the build-up of troops on the Iraqi- Kuwaiti border, or were they distracted by events unfolding in Trinidad with memories of the 1984 Grenada invasion still fresh in their minds? This coup d’état was led by Yasin Abu Bakr who built his movement on the alienation of youth and the perceived widespread corruption that permeates government and society.

These events weakened a country’s system where perceptions then have been cemented in today’s reality, along the way undermining the systems that are meant to protect a society. Already weakened and poorly governed, large organisations both governmental and nongovernmental formed the crucible from which illegal narcotics could be sanitized and profits hidden. The passage of illegal profits found its way through insurance companies, legal services, hospitality and even the health sector as an unsuspecting populace would claim ignorance even in the face of the hardest of evidence.

According to the United Nations’ Office on Drugs and Crime’s Caribbean Drug Trends Report (2001-2002), the total drug GDP for the Caribbean was US$3.684 billion during that period. The United Nations Drug Control Programme (UNDCP), however, estimates that US$50 billion is being laundered across the Caribbean annually.

Critics would argue that white collar crime permeates every society, however in a population that hovers at around the 1.5 million mark, Trinidad and Tobago has branded its own flavour for the drug trade. It seems here everyone from the pauper to the politician, from the lawyer to the land surveyor has his fingers dipped into the ever flowing mine field of narcotics. If  there was ever an art  for washing drug money, Trinidadians have perfected that art with the same carnival flair that they apply to their everyday living. Even Trini cuisine, which forms the basis of street side vending, is the unofficial broker for narcotics.

Doubles: Trini Cuisine

It’s a simple journey. Let me walk you through it. Its Sunday morning and my taste buds get the better of me as indulgence beats reverence on this occasion. Mr Sauce as he goes by plys his trade on the busy streets of Barataria, a hot bed of drug activity in the east west corridor as well as a  fulcrum for political survival, it being a marginal political seat controlled by the Muslim elite.  It’s delicious treats and spices form the cornucopia of what’s best about Indian culture in Trinidad. His knowledge of where and how speaks volumes to his experience, describing how police officers purchase large amounts and in turn he gets a profit. At the end of the month the bank manager, who ironically is his customer as well, bypasses any institutional regulation when he needs to declare source of income. She pockets a small percentage for her troubles and maybe further discounts on his “doubles” for her and her staff. And so it goes, on and on and on until the sophistication of the process cascades into an evil of its own, and that evil today is what funds the human trafficking trade.

From the best of society to the worst, the far extending tentacles of this trade have compromised those whose ideals extend anywhere from murder to marriage. The legal system is so riddled with corruption from lawyers to clerks, that they weaponize the law to protect drug lords.  Let’s take the case of a well-known surgeon who  removed several packets of cocaine swallowed by a drug mule who was the son of a senior nurse. The doctor in question never alerted police to the fact as mandated by law neither did the management of this private hospital, which counts a former minister of health as one of its board of directors.

Apathetic media who chose charisma over candour have a history of non-accountability when it comes to politicians and special interests. Their function at best, is to create an unbalanced leverage of misinformation and unexplained narratives pitting the major races against each other, serving the interests of Christian Syrian descendants who form a powerful and influential presence that has spanned over 80 years in politics of this fractured society. Such is the power and fear of this small 1 percent Christian Syrian Lebanese community. some of whom have amassed massive amounts of wealth almost overnight, that successive governments have offered to look the other way for transgressions that might have placed others in the hangman’s chair.

Pigeon Point Tobago: Narcotourism

Trinidad’s emergence as a major narcotrafficking hub feels like an exercise in progressive politics evolving at an alarming rate even in the face of increased vigilance and resources from the USA. Increasing isolation of Venezuela, migration of Mexican cartels to explore Caribbean markets and the availability of technical expertise of former FARC members to narco traffickers and gang leaders in Trinidad have made it more attractive to move their product into Trinidad with greater sophistication and less detection and launch it globally.

What is equally shocking is the sustainability and innovation that drives these illicit activities through well-established international franchises and NGOs. We are speaking about international fast food outlets franchised to local stakeholders who ensure illicit profit making finds safe passage undetected onto the international banking system. Once there and globally circulating, any method of mitigation is usually held at bay by corrupt government officials, who were paid off along the way. Most international franchise licenses are held by the local Syrian Lebanese Christian community some of whom have exercised fear and intimidation in the pursuits of profit. Whispers in academic circles speak to a connection with the narco trade, only to be silenced by the high-handed corrupt officials and an apathetic media whose shareholders are usually the same 1 percent.

The perception of wealth and its trappings have always held a special place in the hearts of Trini politicians and  criminals alike. Darkly tinted vehicles, men in designer suits, branded clothing, gold chains and women. It speaks to the false sense of ego residing in them projecting power, fear and aristocracy, to cover technical flaws in their knowledge and intellect. Most of the politicians fall on either side of the racial divide (East Indian or African) and the small 1 percent exploit this divide like throwing bread crumbs to a bird! These divisions have morphed into frayed loyalties that end up as political favours with everything and anything from government tenders to vehicle licenses up for grabs.   

An ineffective and underfunded ministry of national security has made its borders relatively open. Trinidad has sixteen widely dispersed small ports of entry, relatively unguarded, that facilitate the traffic of drugs and human cargo. This coupled with high levels of corruption at all levels of service and governance and its status as a regional centre of finance and industry has facilitated its emerging role as a hub for drugs and other illicit activity. Daily, Venezuelans cross the narrow but rough stretch of water that separates the two nations to sell guns for needed food, medicine and other merchandise. Although very few guns have been seized entering the country, 1,456 illegal arms of all types were collected by police in 2015 and 2016, due in part to a financial incentive program that the police have for such seizures.

On a clear Sunday afternoon a large number of luxurious yachts are moored in Chaguaramas right next door to the coast guard of Trinidad and Tobago sharing the same body of water for their journeys. They are waiting out the hurricane season which runs from June to November and are believed to be used to smuggle drugs around the globe. Their passage involves a rendezvous with narcotraffickers near the coast of Venezuela to load illicit cargo before continuing on to their final destination whilst under the close proximity of the coast guard of Trinidad and Tobago.

With an oversupply of guns in the country relative to normal criminal needs the evolution of gang warfare has been met with relatively weak opposition from security forces, who either lack the will or power to deal with escalation or those who see surrender as a method of life preservation and profit.

Former businessman, government financier and narcotrafficker Dole Chadee controlled most of the drug traffic around the Caribbean leveraging powerful contacts with Mexican cartel members to nullify any mitigation efforts on behalf of security forces. When Dole Chadee was hung for murder by the government it franchised the drug trade into the multibillion dollar industry it is today whilst protecting the main players in this theatre production. Even the beheading of one of the country’s top Syrian businessmen Edward Khoury whose head was thrown out to sea and was signalled as a message from the underworld fell on deaf ears and failed to gain traction as a matter of national security. This again highlights a society willing to embrace apathy as a virtue to its existence.  

With Big Brother standing watch, questions would typically arise as to how and why could this happen. Despite its deep pockets and massive intelligence resources, the US government should and must know that any interruption to the flow of this trade would certainly curtail any intelligence leading to the top and finger pointing who the heads are. Common ground is shared with their British counterparts as they forge a way to delicately balance diplomacy with urgency and concern.

So on the surface of it they enter joint exercises to bolster capacity and share crime fighting techniques knowing all too well that this falls far short of any long term strategy. Such exercises form the basis for temporary media gratification. One effective strategy would be to have a permanent joint military mission stationed in  Trinidad, so that effective crime fighting techniques could be translated from policy to practice. The lack of innovation and refusal of proper strategic alliances speaks volumes to the arrogance and sovereign insecurity on display. European Union grants have also failed to impact a society embedded by  corrupt practises as most initiatives focus on social change agendas as opposed to legislative amendments to tackle the illicit narcotic trade. Moving forward and in conclusion initiatives need to be bold, innovative and sustainable before this Caribbean nation relegates itself to a failed nation status. It’s just a matter of time before institutional collateral held in bond for Chinese predatory loans becomes the bargaining tool for political survival and that very survival will depend on whom the government decides to take to bed.