Over the past decade one of the challenges facing  the small, divided society of Trinidad and  Tobago is the intrusion of ‘gangs’ in the sphere of money laundering and drug trafficking. Gangs have also emerged in the political arena, and more recently have established themselves as major players in state policies relating to the creation of job opportunities for the less-advantaged as well as in the distribution of state lands. It should be recalled that the responsibilities of any government and their related institutions so far as promoting mechanisms of ‘good’ governance rests on tenets such as the promotion of transparency, accountability and security for its citizens. Criminal gangs, however, retard these processes.

In the case of Trinidad and Tobago, the term ‘gang’ differs from that used in the case of the United States or even Jamaica. Rather, on further examination, it appears that there may be two or more categories of gangs. One gang is more organized in nature and its membership are involved in drug trafficking, money laundering and gun running. The second category, relates to small groups that have emerged in small urban communities such as Laventille. These communities often marginally survive in urban areas that are characterized as shanty towns where people have little access to education and adequate social services and are forced to live in precarious housing conditions. It is suggested that such areas have overtime become abandoned by the local authorities, and a power vacuum is created which is filled by local gangs, or vigilante groups.  The local communities are then in a sense caught in a complex and reciprocal system of protection and clientelism and members of the gangs are often an integral part of the society. These gangs often provide income and  the rudiments of an alternative welfare system through charity. In their efforts to build legitimacy and social capital, gangs therefore act as benefactors of the social life of the community. Local gang lords also provide for some form of governance including the settlement of disputes and enforcement of obligations. They also take an active role in cultural affairs as steel pan and are therefore often dubbed as community leaders.

The violence and intimidation that reigns in these urban areas are hampering the development of democratic community organisations and, ultimately, the ability of the population to improve their living conditions and social advancement, despite the short-term benefits they might gain through cooperation. Some of the crime lords or security providers are also able to acquire political power directly or indirectly, seriously corrupting the political and administrative system. In the communities the appropriation of the monopoly of violence from the state amounts to uncontrolled security providers. This contributes to perpetuating poverty and social marginalization, as well as preventing efficient, fair governance.

While there is often a lock down of the community, it is often ineffective and it is evident that, a different approach is badly needed. How to restore human security in these communities without and excessive recourse to police violence? How to counter the power monopoly of criminal gangs through forms of local democratic governance? What are the experiences of community movements and how can they be strengthened? What kinds of alternatives are available for local authorities that wish to take another approach?


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