Welcome to the world's newest narcostate.
- By Dorn TownsendDorn Townsend is a freelance reporter. He recently led an investigation into guns, drugs, and governance in Trinidad and Tobago for the Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based think tank.
Of late, Patrick Manning, the prime minister of the tiny island nation of Trinidad and Tobago, has been publicly contemplating deploying the country’s navy to patrol the Antilles for drug smugglers. His statements might come as a surprise. For one, Trinidad and Tobago barely has a navy: just three 140-foot offshore patrol vessels and some patrol crafts. Additionally, the country, renowned as a Caribbean vacation spot, generally has no need to defend itself.
But not everyone in Trinidad was caught off guard. The drug trade has made the island paradise a very violent place. At the same time, oil wealth has given the Manning government the means to assert Trinidad and Tobago as a regional power.
Over the past decade, Trinidad’s murder rate has risen nearly 400 percent; last year, the rate in the capital city of Port of Spain rivaled those in Johannesburg and Baghdad. Proliferating gangs, mostly composed of impoverished young men, are behind many of the killings, centered in the dense suburbs of Port of Spain. But shootings are not confined to the slums. Last year, a witness against a gang boss was gunned down as she left the central courthouse; another gang leader was shot to death at a popular outdoor bar.
What has emboldened the gangs and caused the violence? Mostly, drugs. According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Trinidad and Tobago has become a major transshipment point for illegal substances heading north from South America. Traffickers send cocaine and small arms from Venezuela, just 7 miles off the coast of Trinidad, via fast boat. The drugs are then shipped out on container ships, planes, and private yachts. Between June and November, hurricane season in the northern Caribbean but not as far south as Trinidad, the trade increases, with drug runners packing the cocaine into boats, sometimes with extra-wide decoy hulls, and sending it on to the United States and other consumer countries.
Cocaine mostly passes through Trinidad and Tobago, but marijuana and small arms often stick around. Clandestine fast boats carrying large quantities of marijuana come from nearby islands such as St. Vincent and Grenada. Lately, assault rifles decommissioned by Venezuela’s military have been turning up in Trinidad. Between 2001 and 2008, the number of guns seized by authorities quadrupled.
Manning has tackled these problems head-on — claiming he will build "Fortress Trinidad and Tobago," buying helicopters and summoning his security forces. But, unfortunately, the Port of Spain government helps stoke the drug trade and the gangs. The country’s annual per capita GDP has risen from about $11,000 to $18,800 in the past decade due to strong exports of natural gas and steel. Still, unemployment remains high, and to create jobs, the government spends about $400 million per year on make-work projects. The bulk of this money is ultimately funneled to gang leaders, who administer "grants" and distribute "salaries." Indeed, corruption — always a problem in the country — is reaching new heights. According to several security analysts, a damning unofficial study carried out by the government in 2009 suggested that almost 90 percent of police officers were regularly involved in illegal activities. Those pursuits ranged from running and selling drugs, to colluding with gangs by renting out weapons to criminals, to performing extralegal killings.
Plus, despite Manning’s saber rattling, Trinidad and Tobago’s security teams have not been terribly effective. Trinidad’s security forces have never intercepted a cocaine-carrying fast boat or made a significant bust. In 2005, officers did impound a shipment of cocaine said to be worth $800 million. But this find was accidental. Late one night, officers investigating suspicious lights on a deserted beach literally tripped over the contraband.
Senior intelligence officials cite the lack of arrests as proof that claims that major cartels operate in their country are mistaken. They claim the allegations are the invention of local muckracking reporters. Residents and workers on offshore oil rigs near those drug channels disagree. According to one foreign oil worker, so many fast boats cruise toward Trinidad’s sheltered coves that "It’s like the Normandy invasion." A few years ago, Trinidad purchased a sophisticated new 360-degree radar system. According to one senior official, the government has yet to turn it on. Another analyst disputes this, saying the problem is that too few staff members understand how to use the radar technology.
Thus, whether or not Manning is effective in protecting Trinidad and Tobago from drugs and guns from overseas, it is clear he needs just as badly to tackle problems at home. To do so, he needs help — and international supervision. A coalition of governments — including the United States and Britain, whose navies patrol the region — should step in to help patrol the lane between Trinidad and Venezuela. Training should also be supplied to Trinidad’s Coast Guard so it can vigorously pursue smugglers. With its new navy, the largest in the English-speaking Caribbean, Trinidad may be able to fill a real void in detecting cocaine smuggling. But it has to secure its own borders first and purge its security forces of corrupt members. Until Trinidad gets serious about this, the United States should disinvite the country from regional security dialogues. With its wealth and strategic location, Trinidad and Tobago is a natural partner. Yet these countries would be wise to make sure that they do not let the fox guard the henhouse.