Bloody gang rivalry and brazen killings have now taken over parts of Tunapuna as many unemployed young men find it easier to access firearms for as little as $500 to commit crimes.
The easiest way to earn a dollar for some of the young men is by robbing someone, even if it means ending a life in the process.
The claim: That they are faced with no other option as they face increasing unemployment and a lack of opportunities in the area. Residents blame unemployment, lack of leadership, and the absence of sporting clubs for the current crime situation.
Of the law-abiding families in the community, many are facing borderline poverty. They have no form of income and are uncertain where their next meal will come from.
The police admitted that “Tunapuna is hot,” especially upper Fairley Street, Maingot Road and First and Second Traces. Once regarded as close-knit areas, they are now crime hotspots.
“I know we have a lot of work on our hands,” a senior officer told the Sunday Guardian.
But the officer disputed that unemployment was fuelling the crime and murders.
“It’s not unemployment. It is greed. If you commit robberies, sell drugs and extort money from people...that in itself to them is employment. They are involved in criminal activity.”
He said the gangs are in the habit of shooting at each other for control of “certain blocks and zones”, and this has left residents living on the edge.
The reality for Tunapuna resident and mother of three Janet Govia (not her real name) is grim. Govia, who was too ashamed to give her real name, has been surviving on a meagre monthly $600 widow’s benefit.
Govia is one of the scores of unemployed residents in Tunapuna which has a voting population of over 25,000. Sandwiched between St Augustine and El Dorado, Tunapuna has been a People’s National Movement (PNM) stronghold for several years.
Frustrated, Govia, 36, sat in the living room of her Fairley Street home on Tuesday, as she waited patiently for her children to come home from school.
Pacing the floor, Govia said her “children would be annoyed because they coming home to an empty pot”. She said “They leave home this morning with nothing in their stomachs, and this evening it’s back to square one.”
Govia said she sent the boys to school hoping they would be provided with a box lunch.
“It’s the hardest thing a mother could face...to watch your children starve and not know where the next meal would come from. With rising food inflation $600 is nothing. I can only buy the bare necessities which run out in a matter of days.”
Her boys–ages six, eight, and nine–have to walk more than a mile to get to school as she cannot afford public transport.
Govia began collecting the social grant from the Government after her husband passed away more than five years ago. She supplemented the grant by working in a company as a cleaner for two years. But when COVID-19 struck in 2020 she was thrown on the breadline.
Trying to cope with her constant struggles, Govia said the situation has been made worse as she also has to deal with the warring gangs, murders, and bloodshed in the area.
Govia said people in the community avoid speaking about the killings and their hardships.
“In the back here people catching their tails but they would not tell you about it. They have a lot of pride.”
Desperate to move out of the home she grew up in, Govia does not have an alternative and fears her sons might be roped into the wrong company, as the gangs are always on a recruitment drive for young blood.
“It’s a fear I live with. I try to talk to my boys every day. Tell them education is the key to a better life. Despite my preaching, they can be easily influenced.”
Govia said she has seen good boys in the community go down the wrong path.
“Some of them have died in a hail of gunfire,” she added.
The woman is convinced that unemployment is one of the factors fuelling gangs and gang rivalry which has invaded her once peaceful community.
“There are no jobs for the people. Securing a work hard these rounds…employers asking for experience and qualifications,” Govia said.
Many of the youths, she said, never graduated from secondary school nor have they learned a trade or skill.
“These fellas have nothing to do. They telling you plain if they can’t get work it is easier to pick up a gun and rob somebody.”
According to the most recent figures published by the Central Statistical Office in the second quarter of 2021, there were a total of 28,200 unemployed people in T&T.
Of this figure 22,600 was actively seeking employment. The youth unemployment rate at that time was 12.8 per cent.
The International Labour Organisation(ILO) stated that youth unemployment had worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Three murders hours apart
The killings of three men in Tunapuna just over a week ago pushed the country’s murder toll, already past 400, even higher. This has only added to Govia’s unease.
On August 30, 20-year-old Kester Warner was gunned down in a car wash along St Vincent Street in Tunapuna. Hours later, 50-year-old Richard “Wally” Drayton was shot multiple times near Church on the Way, Tunapuna Road. The following day, gunmen shot and killed 50-year-old Kerwin Warner (Kester Warner’s father) inside Barney’s Variety Store, Eastern Main Road, Tunapuna. The brazen killing took place a stone’s throw away from the Tunapuna Police Station.
Around the same time as the triple killings, police also had to respond to a report involving 56-year-old Johnson Ramloie, who was shot in his elbow and back near the Monte Grande recreational ground.
This year, Corey Benjamin, Joshua Nicholas Le Platte, Shazim Habidoondeen and 15-year-old Antonia Badenoch also died of gunshot wounds in the area.
A police source said that the recent murders in Tunapuna were all gang-related.
Concerning one of the murders, the police said, information reaching them was that a reputed gang leader in the community was paid $100,000 to avenge Kester Warner’s murder. Warner, the police said, was known to the police and had been involved in illegal activities.
In 2020, the Sunday Guardian reported on a spate of killings in Tunapuna that had residents gripped in fear.
Living in the “Zone” all her life, Jessica Johnson (not her real name) also attributed joblessness and a fight for turf as the reason for senseless killings.
Searching for a permanent job before the pandemic, Johnson has not been successful.
She earns $400 a week doing janitorial work, stating the money is barely enough to put food on the table and pay her bills.
The Zone is on the northern side of Tunapuna.
Johnson, who lives alone, admitted that boys as young as 14 are already school dropouts and involved in gang activity.
“Parents can’t control their children. I watch many of these children grow up on the block and turn to a life of crime,” she said.
It was customary for Johnson to see armed men running and firing shots at one another in front of her home.
Long ago, she said, the youths got involved in sporting and recreational activities.
“Now their way of exercising is picking up a gun and shooting after someone.”
Like Govia, she too wants to flee from the murders and mayhem.
“But go where? I can’t sell my house because nobody would buy my place knowing what is taking place up here. The area has a reputation. So, I have to stay and take the grind.”
Rapid gunfire day and night
Fearing for his life, an elderly resident of Sesame Street, who asked that his name be withheld, said the gangs started with one family and grew within the Zone.
“It’s so strange that the youths are constantly fighting with one another but their parents live in one love.”
He said it was normal to hear rapid gunfire day and night.
“The police does (sic) pass but that won’t stop them from shooting. A lot of people move out of the Zone in the last few months because they could not cope with the ongoing crime. Others relocated and migrated after their family members were gunned down.”
Those who left created a brain drain in the constituency.
Having lived in the community for decades, he said certain areas in Tunapuna are now run by gang members whom he described as teenage thugs.
“Their leaders are under the age of 25.”
He said if the gang members live to their 20th birthday they would openly boast and celebrate. “You would hear them saying, I real (sic) live, boy. That is an accomplishment for them. It’s a badge of honour.”
The senior citizen called on Tunapuna MP Esmond Forde for better representation.
“When you look around is only one set of people getting contracts. Nothing trickles down to the young people who want betterment. Is only one set of people eating ah food.”
Admitting that Tunapuna was once a close-knit community, the resident said the constituency has now turned into a hell hole with criminal elements.
“Tunapuna is now a place of terror. Them fellas...it’s all about power...the power to hold a gun and to control the streets. They don’t care if you are collateral damage when they start firing on their enemies.”
Gangs named Rebel 6 and 9
From Auzonville Road to Balthazar Street, a resident of the Zone said, three active gangs often war with each other over turf and drugs.
The gangs have names such as Rebel 6 and 9.
“Each member is identified by a number. They don’t use names. To me, they are on dotishness because none of them is a millionaire. They have nobody to lead them with sense. All they could do with the little money they have is to buy an illegal gun and when they buy the gun they are broken the next morning.”
If they can’t afford a gun, he said, one would be rented to carry out their illegal acts.
A few months ago, the man said, it was surprising to see members of different gangs put down their guns and participate in a friendly football match.
Sitting on the steps of his Connell Street home, former T&T’s national midfielder Neil “Brain” Caesar, 69, confessed that he barely scrapes through the month with his $3,500 senior citizen pension and weekly football classes he offers.
Caesar, who last worked as a coach for St George’s College ten years ago, said that unemployment was one of the factors fuelling crime.
“Tunapuna is not dying. It is dead. It has nothing to offer.”
In all his years, Caesar said, this was the worst he has seen.
“This village was deeply rooted in sports, now it is a haven for crime in the Zone. It’s sad. Everybody wants to control the block. Thank the Lord I still getting a little pension.”
He said plenty of people in Tunapuna have nothing to eat and are facing poverty.
Nakhid: I’m meeting and talking with the youth
Defeated United National Congress candidate David Nakhid admitted that like any other constituency, Tunapuna has an unemployment problem.
Dozens of men between the ages of 16 to 30 would come to UNC’s office in Tunapuna weekly seeking jobs.
“Every day I would receive WhatsApp messages from constituents begging to help them find a job. It shows the level of desperation people are in.” The UNC senator said he does not have the resources or power to hire people. “We are not in Government,” he pointed out. Nakhid contested the Tunapuna seat in the 2020 general election but Forde won.
Following the PNM’s closure of some National Energy Skills campuses and MIC centres, and with jobs dwindling in the area, Nakhid said he had predicted that crime in Tunapuna would have surged.
“A lot of mentorships, developmental and training programmes that were available have been shut down. Access to a gun is now easier than access to a job or honing a skill. The youths are saying they have nothing....no hope...no future...no nothing. When you hungry and starving and you say, ‘senator, I going to look for it,’ I understand what they mean.”
The most Nakhid said he can do is dissuade them.
Nakhid said talk on the ground was that the young men have been renting guns for $500, $1,000, and $2,000 to commit crimes.
“How are these guns reaching their hands? They don’t have a pot to pee in or money to buy a pack of crix. How are they getting the guns? Who are their suppliers? Where are the guns coming from?”
In May, Nakhid began serving 100 breakfast meals at the Tunapuna Market to help feed the people. Also, every Saturday he distributed soup bowls. Nakhid spent $2,000 each day to provide the meals.
The food programme was only sustained for two months, however, due to a lack of funding.
He also distributed 80 hampers every month to needy families in the constituency.
“When it became known about the hampers the office secretary had to reject at least 250 people every two weeks until it reached the point that I could no longer give out those hampers from the office. I had to deliver them to the homes of the recipients.”
While delivering two large hampers to a destitute family six weeks ago, Nakhid said the delivery driver was held up and robbed of the grocery items.
Nakhid said he spent over $150,000 from his pocket while sponsors offered $250,000 in the last two years to help those who are less fortunate in the district.
He said Tunapuna needs an industry to help the people out of poverty. “Anything else is a pie in the sky.”
Between last year and this year, Nakhid said he held three meetings with some of the troubled youth.
No word from Forde
The Sunday Guardian called Forde’s cell phone seven times last week but all calls went unanswered. He also did not respond to WhatsApp and voice messages.
On Thursday, PNM’s PRO Laurel Lezama-Lee Sing said that Forde was abroad and could not say if he had returned. She promised to reach out to Forde to contact this reporter.
However, up to the time of this publication, Forde had not contacted us.