... 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.
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.
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.”