Charles Kong Soo
The influx of high-powered rifles and firearms smuggled through T&T's porous borders have caused alarm among law enforcement officials and citizens alike, with the US-made AR-15 semi-automatic rifle increasingly favoured by gang members.
AR-15 rifles have figured prominently in several drive-by shootings, hits, murders, and other crimes by underworld elements and have usurped the Russian-made AK-47 style rifles as the weapon of choice.
Unfortunately, police officers, innocent children, and adults have also been killed and injured by stray bullets from these powerful firearms. The AR-15s 5.56 mm bullet travels up to three times the speed of sound.
During a press conference two weeks ago, Acting Police Commissioner Mc Donald Jacob said that 55 people have been killed and 18 others injured in 21 incidents involving high-powered rifles for the year thus far.
He said the police had already seized 60 of these firearms in the third quarter of this year (July and part of August), compared to 61 high-powered firearms for all of 2021.
Jacob said 408 illegal guns have been seized for the year (January to August), and 1,030 people were charged with gun-related offences.
What is also concerning is that in several murders, the spent rounds recovered were issued by the T&T Police Service and Defence Force.
Spent shells recovered after 36-year-old businessman Ian Sobers, from Petit Bourg, was gunned down on April 1, 2021, and Garvey Campo, 38, who was shot and killed on January 8, 2019, in Arouca, bore TTPS markings.
20 of 28 spent shells recovered by forensic personnel in the murders of Rosanne Granger, of Chinapoo Village, Morvant, and Acori “Bless” Mason, of Bagatelle Road, San Juan, in Aranguez on August 16, bore the markings of the T&T Air Guard on them.
Police also found spent shells belonging to the T&T Regiment at the scene of the killing of Gamal Waldron, who was awaiting trial on the charge of stealing a vehicle from former journalist Khamal Georges in 2018. The ammunition was 5.56 mm bullets, usually used in high-powered weapons such as AR-15s.
If the high-powered weapons were not enough for law enforcement to contend with, grenades have also been discovered by police among a weapons cache.
In 2005, PC Omar Marajah was killed in a gunfight between police officers and bandits at JSL Speedpak Complex, Piarco, when a grenade was also thrown into the car he was in and exploded.
The large cache of guns and ammunition seized by police at a Central warehouse.
Spent cartridge shells a valuable commodity, being recycled
Criminologist Daurius Figueira revealed that criminals were reloading their own ammunition by importing equipment such as reloading presses from the US and distributing the finished product throughout the Caribbean, hence the reason why even spent cartridge shells have become a very valuable commodity and are being recycled.
Speaking to the Sunday Guardian, Figueira said "With an 'explosion' of FULs given out, there would be more spent cartridges available to be reloaded by criminal elements.
"As the legitimate firearms dealers sector expands to deal with FUL holders, some of them may be tempted, and their services may spill over into the underworld.
"Since it was a specialised field, gang members would need gunsmiths or armourers with formal training to service, repair, and convert their firearms to fully automatic," Figueira said.
"While 'long-time' revolvers were not the best for a firefight with a limit of only six rounds, some cartel hitmen preferred them over a semi-automatic pistol," he added.
Explaining the reason for this, he said unlike a semi-automatic pistol, a revolver did not eject the spent cartridge casings; the discarded shell casings can become evidence from fingerprints or the 'ballistic fingerprints' from the weapon it was fired from.
Dr Chandra Naraynsingh was killed by hitman Shawn Parris who shot her five times with a .38 revolver in the car park at the Langmore Health Foundation, on June 29, 1994.
Figueira said that as hitmen usually work at close range to their targets, they sometimes prefer using a smaller calibre round such as .22 to the back of the head. Figueira said a .22 round was quieter, and an experienced hitman will use environmental noise to mask or suppress the gunshots.
Heerah on Gunshot detection technology
Sunday Guardian asked former National Operations Centre (NOC) head Garvin Heerah if gunshot detection technology (GDT) could be used in T&T to combat gun violence.
Gunshot detection technology uses a network of outdoor acoustic sensors to automatically triangulate, detect, and notify police and law enforcement dispatchers and officers of the specific times and locations of firearm discharges.
Heerah said gunshot detection was a highly sophisticated technologically-driven tool and it had proven to be highly effective in many high-crime cities in the US.
He said, however, it must be understood that technologically-driven policing and crime-fighting involved a holistic approach.
If such a system is considered for introduction in T&T, Heerah explained, the readiness, capabilities, and capacity of the TTPS to effectively use this technology would need to be assessed.
This technology would involve a special type of investigative process coupled with new architecture and upgrades and complemented by 24/07 readied responses.
He said that one would question such sophistication in the crime-fighting approach, as body cameras are still being evaluated in the field by police officers.
According to Heerah, gunshot detection technology was looked at before but not considered.
In 2012 former national security minister Jack Warner wanted to implement a gunshot detection system called "ShotSpotter", but it was never done.
Set up Firearms Interdiction Unit
Saying that many of the weapons wielded by criminal elements were high-powered automatic rifles with military and paramilitary bearings, Heerah felt that more needs to be done in solving gun-related crimes.
He strongly believes that the protective services may have to look at forming a Firearms Interdiction Unit to focus on illegal firearms.
This unit, he said, should be closely connected with the country's international counterparts and be driven by technology and intelligence because of the thriving trade in illegal arms and ammunition.
In Transnational Organised Crime, this is known as SALW (Small Arms and Light Weapons) trade.
Heerah suggested that just as when the country was threatened by the onset and increase in kidnappings and the AKU (Anti-Kidnapping Unit) was formed, T&T should seek to establish the Firearms Interdiction Unit with specialised investigators and should be properly resourced. The unit should also seek to work closely with international agencies and push hard to win the war against the illegal arms trade affecting the country today, he said.
Heerah said the existing environment and spate of gun-related crimes should make the authorities desperate enough to consider this initiative
T&T's porous borders/ports of entry
Illegal arms and ammunition are entering T&T not only from Venezuela, but different regions. The Bolivarian country has become a conduit where South American weapons are coming into T&T mainly via pirogue, and North American weapons such as the much sought-after firearms of gang members, AR-15 rifles were being smuggled into the country via shipping containers.
On April 22, 2021, police and Customs made a major discovery of high-powered guns, ammunition, and equipment during a raid at a Bond at Piarco International Airport. An operation was carried out at the Bond, involving officers of the Customs and Excise Division, the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), and the TTPS Crime Scene Unit. During the search of the package, the team discovered 30 firearms, 762 rounds of assorted ammunition, police sirens, police blue lights, bullet-proof vests, and magazine holders.
Several days after, on April 26, police officers in an intelligence-led operation uncovered another large cache of guns and ammunition at Medway Ltd, a customs warehouse, in Couva.
Regarding the shipment of guns seized, a source explained that goods were x-rayed upon receipt prior to the issuing of an airway bill for air freight or a bill of lading for ocean freight.
He said that the only way those goods could come through was that the exporters were under surveillance by the ATF or law enforcement, someone working in the shipping company would have received the goods, let them bypass the scanner system, and shipped them to Trinidad.
He alleged that in order to clear that shipment, someone from Customs and Excise had to be involved.
The man explained that it would have been more prudent not to move and seize the guns but to wait for them to be cleared and see who were the officers that approved everything, check the paper trail and, apprehend all those involved.
There may be another possibility, he said, explaining that they deliberately sacrificed several guns and ammunition for the police to find while the major shipment came in unnoticed at night by the sea.
The source also claimed that bribes are being paid to look the other way and let the guns pass.
He said that the simplest thing for transnational drug trafficking organisations to do was to bribe the people who monitored port containers.
He cited as an example the port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands and the port of Antwerp in Belgium, where the customs structure was compromised or corrupted and several of their personnel worked for transnational traffickers.