“This is like a horror movie,” said a family member whose relative was among 69 people discovered locked in cages at the Transformed Life Ministry Rehabilitation Centre in on the Eastern Main Road, Arouca, yesterday morning during a raid by police.
“I never knew all this was happening here. I am lost for words. This is worse than bad treatment of animals. Had I known I would have done things differently but I could not deal with my relative who is mentally ill.”
Of the 69 people rescued, 65 were men and four were women. Some were handcuffed. They were all between the ages of 19 and 70 years old.
Six people were detained at the church, including the pastor.
They were believed to be victims of “modern-day slavery” and “human trafficking” according to Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith who spoke to the Guardian Media’s lead investigative editor Mark Bassant on Wednesday just outside the centre.
However, Guardian Media was told by officials from the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Social Development and Family Services that the case is more of “false imprisonment” and “maltreatment” given the conditions that they were housed in, such as locked cages resembling prison cells.
We were told that family members paid from $2,000 to $5,000 and more for their loved ones to be housed at the centre.
Another person, whose friend was at the facility because of drug addiction, described a visit as “suspicious” and “uncomfortable. We weren’t allowed to carry in cellphones and any other electronic items. It was one way in and then into a room where we were made to wait at a long table.
“When my friend came we did not have the privacy to talk freely. We could not go outside on a bench. We were made to sit there and every time a question was asked, my friend just said that he was okay and everything is okay.
“All the time the workers would be at earshot and would come and keep asking if everything is okay. It felt as though we would go to a prison to visit. There were cameras monitoring us too. So now I know they were hiding things from us,” he said.
A relative, who could not hold back the tears, said she now understands why she was turned away many times.
“Every time I go they would tell me my relative is unavailable or sleeping or being given his medication or some sort of excuse.”
A worker at the facility said she was very frightened and claimed staffed was continuously warned and threatened not to talk about the operations.
“Maybe we thought or we were made to think that it was the right thing that was being done that it was for our safety. Maybe we were brainwashed. We were warned and threatened over and over and reminded of the confidentiality. I’m scared for my life now. I can’t say any more.”
The sting operation commenced around 12.15 am on Wednesday.
According to the T&T Police Service (TTPS), search warrants were issued under Section 13 Chap. 12:10 of the Trafficking in Persons Act, after a period of monitoring and investigations.
Some have been defending the operations at the church, with one woman insisting it was a rehabilitation home for people who want to come out of drug addiction.
Griffith said he was told by senior police officers that reports were made about the organisation a few months ago. It was alleged that they were aware of false imprisonment.
“We have cracked what we believe is the biggest human trafficking ring in the country. Some of them said they have been here for years. This is a much bigger picture and we have to investigate each case. This relates to virtual slavery with what we have seen here. Some of them say they have been tortured. It is such a bigger picture with profit being made out of this.” Griffith said.
He described the scene as barbaric.
“We saw tasers and batons… and again this is a situation of virtual modern-day slavery,” he said.
Psychiatrist Dr Varma Deyalsingh described the situation as a very disturbing state of affairs.
“This has a lot of us in the psychiatric community very upset because today is actually World Mental Health Day. For this news to come out that the maltreatment of the mentally-ill persons in any sort of conditions that are inhumane and violation of human rights leaves a lot to be said to our treatment of the mentally ill in our society,” he said.
Deyalsingh didn’t think it was a case of human trafficking.
He explained: “Most of those persons are drug addicts who are mentally ill and their family is unable to cope.”