Senior Multimedia Journalist
In mid- August, parcels of cocaine began washing up in coastal villages, with whispers of villagers recovering the perilous, precious powder spreading from house to house and village to village.
Last week, in Mayaro, police recovered more than 46 kilograms of cocaine with a street value of $21 million.
It is believed that much more is out there, still unaccounted for. In many of the communities, according to residents, armed men “from town” have attacked local dealers and villagers in search of the drugs.
On Wednesday, Guardian Media visited Mayaro, Manzanilla and Guayaguayare. Every resident we spoke with said they were terrified. They were also unsatisfied with the police presence.
Residents of coastal communities stretching from Toco in the north to Galeota Point in the south are paralyzed with fear, as drug dealers and gang members scramble to recover cocaine from a shipment lost in the Atlantic Ocean.
“We hearing it have people coming up here, terrorizing people because of this business. The government has to do more to protect the country and the borders from this kind of thing,” a Mayaro resident said.
“We are not feeling safe with this drug business, it’s killing going on. You don’t know who could come by and who could interfere with you. I’m not feeling safe and I’m not feeling comfortable with it, and I wish that something could be done, because what I’m hearing is that it happened all about and like people have it, and who have it, hide it and who have it waiting, and I don’t want any killing to take place around my area.
“I would like to have an increased police presence, even if it’s Army or Coast Guard, something for the residents of Mayaro,” said an elderly woman who lives opposite the Mayaro Recreation Ground.
As we drove aroung the community, there was only a handful of pedestrians in sight. The police presence was light. One or two police cars were seen during more than five hours of driving. Wary eyes peeped through the blinds of shut windows, while every front door was closed. Typically, there’s a welcoming atmosphere for visitors to Mayaro and Manzanilla, but instead, the mood was guarded and uncertain. Rumours and eyewitness accounts of violence dominated small talk in the few busy areas.
“This is the talk of the whole town right now, from Guayaguayare straight back to Manzanilla. It is unsafe. All those who are living close to the waterfronts fear for their lives because it getting more and more dangerous because people dying already. In Manzanilla, they have killed four people already.
“Some of the people are being blamed wrongfully. Some people getting licks wrongfully. They going by word of mouth. If someone says John get parcels, they will go by John just because someone said John got, and John doesn’t even know what’s going on,” said a Guayaguayare fisherman who asked Guardian Media not to reveal his identity or the community he resides in.
Last week, the fisherman’s family saw several heavily armed men in police uniforms chase two neighbours. The two men escaped after running past their house and into the sea. The talk of the town is that the duo forcefully took parcels from a villager who collected them from the shore. Word got out, so people came looking for them. There are stories like these in almost every coastal community. People are just hoping someone doesn’t come looking for them, or someone they know.
“How you will know who is the police and who is the fake? Police are supposed to be passing and visiting the area regularly. I say, at least, three to four times per day pass through, make sure everybody is safe, but they not doing that. The boy who died in the car park in Arima. He died because of that. Two people get chopped up on Manzanilla’s side. They beat them to a frizzle. They were in critical condition in the hospital.
“You have to be careful because they are still out and looking. Just two nights back, they jumped a drug lord’s yard. They jump his fence with a gun. They just looking. If you a man who sell in the area, they are coming for you,” the fisherman’s relative said.
Residents: It’s not so straightforward
The fallout along the coast from the missing cocaine shipment is a more layered, complex issue than outsiders may assume. Perhaps the thickest layer is the level of poverty.
Just outside of Mayaro MPRushton Paray’s office on the junction, a pholourie vendor spotted Guardian Media’s cameras and began complaining bitterly about her hardships.
“If somebody takes a gun and shoots me and kills me, it’s just like I will come out of all this trouble that I going through right now,” she said.
“I have two children who come out of university. One did biochemistry and two years now, he applying all over the country and he ain’t have a job right now. He cannot set up a house or a family. He’s 26.
“My daughter just came out of university. She has her Bachelor’s and Master’s and is still unemployed. And my last son going to do medicine. Look how hard I have to be working. My husband not working. I have to stand up in the hot sun to sell pholourie and pepper roti to survive to send my children to school. Right now, it is really hard. It comes like I minding my children back again like primary school children.”
Several Mayaro residents said they understood why peopl risked picking up a parcel. Some admitted they would have done the same.
Abudal Awwal, who owns stalls on the junction, said: “I don’t know the situation the people (who took parcels) in. If you are living a life and you’re suffering, going through hardship all the time, and something like that shows up, that is an opportunity. That is money. The consequences don’t come to your mind then.
“You have to understand that it’s poor people you dealing with. If you are poor and you are hungry what consequences are you studying? That is why there is so much crime in the country, cause they are not studying consequences. People are hungry. When people are hungry, they will do all kinds of things to get money,” he said.
A short distance away, Kesto, a fisherman from Guayaguayare, said while he understood the temptation, he would resist, given the stories and accounts of violence.
“I am telling you, if I see one of the parcels here right now, I’m not touching it because I will feel like I going to die.
“It have people who will take a chance to do it because, at the end of the day, they don’t have nothing, no work, nothing because we have a government, they saying they will bless us with everything, but after we vote, it’s a different thing.
“So if a poor person like myself sees drugs on the beach washed up, they will likely go and pick up . . . I will them carry it back. Yes, you find it, but it doesn’t make sense you find something and you know it’s drugs, and your life is uneasy. Because it’s not only you, it’s your whole family uneasy, because they might not get you, and they will go behind your family. So it’s better you see it and leave it alone,” he said.
Keston recalled that many years ago that drugs washed up in Moruga where he worked at the time. The consequence for people picking up the drugs then was similar, he remembered.
“I see people running up and down with drugs and the man I was working with told me don’t touch nothing. About five hours after, I see a big maxi pull up with people from town. People start to get beat up, people start to get shot behind. Thank God I was able to go on top of a locker and hide myself,” he said.
MP: Only three vehicles to patrol
According to Mayaro MP Rushton Paray, the fallout from the cocaine shipment is symptomatic of bigger issues. He claimed that there aren’t enough vessels and helicopters patrolling the country’s borders and the Mayaro Police Station only has three vehicles to cover 25 miles of coastline.
“ There’s one (vehicle) for Court and Process, one (vehicle) for the Criminal Investigations Department, and one for whatever it is they have to do. What is happening to patrols? In the past, you had joint police and soldier exercises from Toco to Manzanilla to Galeota Point. All of that has been washed away, so the drugs coming up on the seashore is just a symptom.
“The Mayaro Police is doing the best that they can. All I can do as the MP is to call on the minister to give us the resources that we need, to get those boats out there and put the helicopters in the air to make a real attempt to put control on the escalating crime situation in the country,” Paray said.
The Opposition MP acknowledged that there is unease in Mayaro at the moment. He said he’s heard numerous stories of home invasions linked to young men boasting of finding some of the parcels of cocaine.
“The bandits are bracing their homes, beating the mothers and fathers, and searching for the drugs and some of these things are not being reported to the police because what are you going to tell the police? That you picked up a block of cocaine and I have it in my home?
“There was one shooting, one altercation, between the police and a known drug dealer last week, so I believe that was one fatality emanating out of this. So, it has the community in a bit of fear, in terms of there’s this attraction for the bad element to focus on communities along the seashore,” he said.
Figueira: You don’t mess with these people
Criminologist Dr Daurius Figueira, who has written on and done extensive research on cocaine trafficking in the Caribbean and Latin America, said the Colombian-Caribbean organization responsible for the shipment is renowned for its violence. He linked the increase in homicides in August to the lost shipment, saying the recent murders were largely as a result of the missing cocaine.
“You don’t mess with these people. You don’t mess with these people who use that trademark (on their product). You have a death wish to go mess with them.
“They have to be frightened because the word went around that they will kill everybody. You don’t even have to touch the product and you could pass in it because it’s one set of old talk, and a man could lie on you and frame you. They (the cartel) don’t check anything. They don’t seek a witness to confirm anything,” Figueira warned.
He said it is very likely that the violence linked to the shipment will continue. Communities along the east coast have every right to be terrified, he added.
“You will always get a feeding frenzy that will result in one set of violence, so those who want to go with these people’s product, they always find out what going on when time comes and they offer it for sale. Man does be selling them out and even though they may be lying on them, the Colombians don’t care,” he said.
The criminologist said it’s not a guarantee that the vessel carrying the shipment overturned by itself. It could have been as a result of gun fight out at sea, especially considering there is an ongoing cartel war. The drugs may have also been tied to a GPS buoy but got carried away with the tide.
“How the Colombians operate is they will have a don in charge of that operation and when losses occur, that will hit the don’s organization. So that’s why the word has spread that they are looking for their product and the fact of the matter is they have started killing. And there are one set of bottom feeders who have run in too, who picking up kilos and get killed too.
“If what they describing is true, the shipment would have come from a mother ship and that is why they so paranoid because that is more load than any other go-fast boat,” he said.
CoP: Measures intensified in response
Police Commissioner Erla Harewood-Christopher said Eastern Division officers have undertaken anti-crime measures consistent with the TTPS’ Violent Crime Reduction Plans in response to the recent drug find in the Guayaguayare district. She said the measures have been intensified in response to concerns by residents and recent incidents in the district.
“Officers of the Mayaro Police Station, Criminal Investigations Department Task Force and Emergency Response Patrol (ERP) have been conducting various intelligence-led exercises in collaboration with the Inter-Agency Task Force and the Canine Branch with the aim of keeping the Division safe and secure. Specialist investigative assistance is provided by counterparts from the Homicide Bureau of Investigations, Region Two and the Special Investigations Unit.
“Further discussions are underway by Snr Supt Ryan Khan to have personnel of the Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force assist with patrols. Snr Supt Khan is also supervising exercises investigating recent reports of robbery with aggravation, robbery with violence and assault with intent to rob,” Commissioner Harewood-Cristopher said.
She added that a Violent Reduction Plan has been implemented in the Eastern Division with specific focus on dismantling criminal gangs, seizing illegal firearms and tackling transnational organized crime. Regular patrols are taking place in policing districts with the assistance of ERP units, as well as other land, air and sea resources that are available upon request.
“I am aware that recent exercises have resulted in the seizure of a sub-machine gun, a revolver, several magazines, quantities of assorted ammunition, quantities of illegal cigarettes, alcohol and pharmaceuticals and the recovery of one motor-vehicle.
“One man, Kelvin Torres aka ‘Fish’ was also arrested and charged in connection with the murder of Sangre Grande farmer Stephen Juri, which occurred on August 21,” the CoP said.
- With additional reporting by Kellyann Lemessy