"Machine guns everywhere. I'm afraid to go to church,” whispered a receptionist.
"Gangsters are booking their own funerals with expensive coffins. They know they will die young and a fancy funeral is all they ask of life...They don't fear killing or being killed," said a businesswoman.
Why, we all ask? Why the daily triple homicides, why 500 murdered? Why this state of siege?
A report by researcher Janina Pawelz of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg (IFSH) landed on my phone like a bomb last week.
Pawelz's paper (Hobsbawm in Trinidad: understanding contemporary modalities of urban violence) should be required reading for every single policymaker in T&T.
Janina Pawelz, an associate researcher at the German Institute of Global and Area (GIGA), spent four months in Trinidad in 2015 when she interviewed 53 people living in high-risk areas.
"Gang members perceive themselves as victims of a political system ruled by greedy, power-hungry and corrupt politicians in their country..."
A leader of 'Rasta City' told Pawelz that T&T is a rich country, but not everybody profits from the country's oil. "While some live in affluence, others are deprived of basic needs such as sanitary infrastructure."
The gang leader recounted how he grew up in Laventille's poverty and accused rich Trinidadians of stealing from society to 'get themselves rich', stating that 'the rich people need to share some of the money'.
"We live here in Laventille, and we still have people living without toilets, with s... holes, latrines. You know they thief! Everybody thieving in this country! All I know they [their] house big, their family have everything.'"
Pawelz quotes a Beetham resident confirming social discontent. "The Government cream off a large amount and then they trickle down some [money] to the middle class and the crumbs to us. Everybody keep grabbing."
This "self-perception" as deprived victims is a "convenient life motto which they live up to." A gang leader warned Pawelz that "people are fed up and ready to claim their share. "
Another gang leader said "politicians don't have the interest of the people" but have "the dollar sign in their hearts" and that "voices of the people are only heard when they become violent."
"…gangs opt for brutality to cement their position and 'prove their mark' in the community…political leaders are afraid to go into areas such as Laventille. The symbiotic give and take of political patronage have shifted to gridlock...politicians have no choice but to deal with the gangs."
The withdrawal of the Jamaat al Muslimeen from Laventille saw the rise of 'the Muslims' and 'Rasta City' between 2008-2012—"umbrella groups with hierarchical leadership and 'tremendous influence' that split up vast gang territory among themselves."
Pawelz said police pointed out the "paradox of handing out contracts and social work programmes to gang leaders, which enable them to finance the purchase of arms.
"The Government hands them [gangs] a million-dollar project, and they use the money to buy expensive guns that they use against us!"
Pawelz's paper implies that successive governments have been blackmailed for decades by 250 gang leaders who are given CEPEP funding and control of communities in return for keeping gun violence under control.
Their power is "bolstered by their social role as defenders and voicers of public discontent in their community. The police say the gangs 'don't do random'. If they are coming to shoot you, they shooting you. If they are shooting innocent people, they are shooting innocent people. Whoever pick up, pick up'."
Pawelz observed that gangs "secure their borders through snipers with high-power assault rifles, located at designated observation points. Invisible to outsiders, gang territory begins close to the capital city's major shopping street and main bus station. They are also involved in drug trafficking, burglaries, robberies, prostitution, fraud, and extortion through their own legal companies and NGOs that receive government contracts and dispense jobs related to social welfare programmes."
Gang leaders believe gun violence is a "response to the status quo; they are the freedom fighters of the oppressed. 'The poorest people of society take up their arms as a struggle for survival.'"
We are losing this battle against the 30,000-strong gang army. For every man you arrest, 100 youngsters are waiting to take his place.
The COP and armed forces can’t fix this. The State can't fix this. Business can’t fix this. NGO's can't fix this. The media can’t fix this. A joint vision can. This is a call on behalf of citizens for collective action as a people to ask humbly for a ceasefire, listen respectfully to the human rights lacking in these communities and fix it starting with empowering families and women who can guide their boys. A fish rots from the head down. They are us. We are them.