PORT OF SPAIN (Reuters) - Energy riches have vaulted Trinidad and Tobago up the economic rankings, making it a rare Caribbean country that does not depend on tourism, but the good times are being soured by a surge in murders and gun violence.
Not far from gleaming shopping malls and towering cranes that testify to a sizzling economy, rough parts of the capital Port of Spain are home to gangs with names like G-Unit and the Crock Gang that are thriving on an influx of South American cocaine and cheap guns.
A tripling of murders in five years and a rash of kidnappings has strained the twin-island state’s ethnic relations and prompted some to propose radical solutions.
“There is a criminal insurgency in this country. Too much democracy corrupts!” shouted a man in historic Woodford Square across from the country’s parliament as he argued with friends.
In a debate that is echoed daily in newspapers, the 44-year-old contractor with dreadlocks in his graying beard said the government should adopt a zero-tolerance approach, shooting suspects on sight if necessary.
Another man urges restraint, worried that such measures could send the country down the path familiar to South America of death squads linked to security forces -- something that may have already begun, according to some government critics.
The former British colony’s infrastructure is visibly creaking under the strain of economic growth expected to top 12 percent this year, driven by an influx of foreign money chasing its rich natural gas and oil resources.
Congestion has turned what was once a 30-minute drive to the airport into a two-hour slog during rush hour.
The government has been liberally spending its energy earnings, contributing to a red-hot real estate market and inflation that late last year broke through 10 percent.
“I think we’re doing too much too fast,” said Gregory McGuire, an economics professor at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad. “We’re seeing the negative effects both on the (energy) industry and the economy.”
But it is crime that has prompted most national angst and nostalgia for the old days of slow growth and low violence. There were just under 400 murders in each of the past two years -- about the same number as in the U.S. state of New Jersey, whose population is nearly seven times bigger.
Police and government officials say gangs have expanded due to Trinidad’s growing status as a transshipment point for South American cocaine, even as unemployment has hit record lows.
Headlines from one day this month show why many fear the country is becoming more like crime-prone neighbor Jamaica.
“Fish vendor gunned down”; “Cop robbed, thrown over precipice”; “Girl, 18, shot in legs”; “Grandparents bludgeoned to death”, the headlines read.
“It’s getting a bit scary,” said Stephen Cadiz, a businessman who heads a group set up two years ago to pressure the government to tackle crime more effectively.
Recent weeks have seen a disturbing new trend with several police shootings of suspects.
“What we’re seeing is a knee-jerk reaction ... the perception in Trinidad is that there is a death squad operating,” said Cadiz.
Cadiz and other critics note there has never been an arrest of a major drug boss and say official corruption hampers the crime fight and also goes unpunished.
The kidnapping in December of a prominent businesswomen galvanized discontent over the government’s failure to cut crime despite millions of dollars spent on improving police methods, including recruiting 39 British officers.
But with elections due by next January and the country’s politics still divided along racial lines, solutions to the crime surge have swiftly become bogged down in old rivalries.
The kidnapped businesswoman, Vindra Naipaul-Coolman, was part of the ethnic Indian community that slightly outnumbers ethnic Africans and says it is bearing the brunt of crime. About three quarters of kidnapping victims have been Indians.
“The East Indian business community is under attack in this country. The statistics are there for all to see,” said businessman Rampersad Seuraj.
Relations between Indians and ethnic African descendants of slaves are generally smooth, as shown by the multicolored Carnival that takes over the islands for weeks every year.
Politics is different. Old rivals from the early post-independence days still lead the African-dominated ruling People’s National Movement and the Indian-dominated opposition United National Congress.
The UNC, which has six former cabinet members facing criminal charges for financial wrongdoing, has fiercely attacked the government over crime. Yet bad blood between the parties has held up much-needed reforms of the police and criminal justice system.
“The government is in league with the criminals,” Basdeo Panday, the prime minister in the previous UNC administration and himself convicted on financial charges, told Reuters.
Anthony Bryan, a Trinidadian who is a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said race was not a big issue for most people but was still used by politicians to stir up their constituencies.
“Racial politics will be a thing of the past, but first there is an older generation that has to fade out,” he said.
additional reporting by Linda Hutchinson-Jafar