We've known for some time now that Trinidad and Tobago was a country spiralling out of control. People were being killed and robbed at record rates, weapons made for war flooded our streets and everyone seemed to be living in fear of losing their life.
If you think our national nightmare couldn't get worse, just reflect on the events of the last few weeks. In broad daylight, there were deadly gun battles in the streets of Port-of-Spain at least 24 people in different parts of the country were killed last week alone. No place seemed safe from the scourge of violent crime—from an evening jaunt for fried chicken in Westmoorings to a children's birthday party in central Trinidad.
From the time you step out of your door, you're taking your life in your own hands. Only two days ago, a businessman getting ready to drop his wife off to work was shot dead in a drive-by shooting.
Criminal gangs have gotten more brazen. They respect no one. Mothers and children are often collateral damage, caught in the crossfire of bloody gang wars. Senior citizens are being targeted and killed by armed home invaders. The spike in rapes of women is now attributed to roaming bands of serial rapists.
Some crime scenes in our country resemble the world's deadliest war zones. We are well past the point of patience and tolerance. We do not have the luxury of time. We demand urgent and immediate action. The leaders of our government and opposition parties have failed to deliver. They need to set aside their differences and confront our national crisis head-on.
1. It starts at the top. That means you, Prime Minister Rowley. When you campaigned for office five years ago, you predicted that out-of-control crime would topple the UNC-led government. Appealing for support at the polls, you told us that we were "virtually voting to save (our) life." Voters put their trust in you.
Our lives have never been in greater danger.
The first and utmost responsibility of any government is to protect its citizens and provide safety of law and order. On that score, your government gets an F.
Crime has soared since you took office, surpassing by far the dubious records of your political rivals, whom you appropriately lambasted for their own failings in fighting crime.
When Barack Obama became president of the United States in 2008, he quickly accepted the role of consoler-in-chief to comfort his nation after mass shootings and other periods of national grief. In our nation, there is a deafening silence from the top when mothers wail after the blood of their children flows in the street. We can do better.
Ask random people in Trinidad and Tobago to list close family members and loved ones who have been murdered in the last decade and it is not unusual for the number to exceed 20.
You, Dr Rowley, have felt your own visceral agony of losing loved ones to crime. In early May, your former high school classmate John "Joker" Mills and his common-law wife, Eulyn John, were brutally killed by an intruder in the bedroom of their Tobago home. Their hands and feet were bound, their mouths gagged and multiple stab wounds covered their bodies. In your Facebook post, you asked: "What have we become? What are we producing as the next generation?"
As head of government, you can help save our next generation, Dr Rowley. Even though it took three years for you to install permanent leadership in the police service, it was only a start. The lion's share of the work is yet to be done.
One of the first tasks should be ensuring that police have all the tools to do their job. It didn't help that Guardian Media reports recently disclosed that our government used millions of dollars in taxpayers' money to support gang bosses and criminal networks fuelling crime. It is indisputable that these criminals take our money, buy bigger and more menacing guns, fund their illicit activities, then fight each other for the government largesse. Many civilians become their innocent robbery and murder victims.
(The UNC-led government does not have clean hands in this matter, as it has also funded "community leaders", also known as gang bosses).
But now, Dr Rowley, your wear the jacket. How can the commissioner and his rank-and-file do their jobs when your government is funding the gangs? Don't take our word for it. Listen to what Police Commissioner Gary Griffith said last week: "It is absolute madness that anybody that holds a position of authority could feel that by giving criminal elements funds and money…. [then] throw blame on the police service. I will not have anyone throw blame…when they are not doing their job."
This is the time, Dr Rowley, for you to stand up and make bold decisions for all the people of Trinidad and Tobago. One should not ponder if starving the criminal networks of taxpayers' money will result in electoral consequences.
Here's another way you can make a difference, Dr Rowley. Undertake a massive restructuring of the nation's legal system.
In the PNM's 2015 manifesto, you promised: "The PNM will engage the criminal justice system stakeholders to re-engineer the structure to provide an efficient and legitimate criminal justice system as the foundation for crime prevention, law enforcement and the protection of human rights."
Everyone agrees that our justice system needs a massive overhaul. Criminal cases still take up to 15 years to come to trial—with no guarantee of resolution. (One fraud case involving a lawyer who tampered with witnesses ended last week after 24 years.) Many cases languish before magistrates and judges, some of whom, for various reasons, lack any urgency to clear their dockets.
The judiciary owns part of the crime problem. If you cannot have a fair justice system, you cannot fairly prosecute criminals responsible for the crime spree.
Dr Rowley, the question is: do you have the will to fulfil your promise?
Many people—eminent legal scholars and citizens alike—were dismayed last week when you decided to leave Chief Justice Ivor Archie in his job. He faced misconduct allegations involving his association with two convicted fraudsters. Over the last few years, his colleagues on the bench, the legal community and the public have lost confidence in Archie and, by extension, the administration of justice.
If Archie appears to be compromised, how could he be expected to help you transform the justice system?
Fighting crime should be the Government's top priority. That is why we cannot understand how Stuart Young, your hardest working minister in government business, can be minister of communication, minister of legal affairs, minister in the Office of the Prime Minister and minister of national security.
No wonder, the overburdened Mr Young sometimes takes a hands-off approach when pressed on crime. "At the end of the day the Commissioner of Police and the men and women of the Police Service are the ones constitutionally who have the powers of arrest. I can't go and arrest anyone," he said in a recent rebuttal.
Attacking our national crisis is a full-time job. Here's a radical proposal: reduce Mr Young's portfolio to only minister of national security or appoint someone who can focus every minute of the day on our national crisis.
2. Fellow citizens of Trinidad and Tobago, the heinous nature and frequency of the crime you see everyday is not normal. We are losing a generation of young men—and young women.
If you follow social media sites covering our carnage, you'll receive a daily blast of drive-by killings, robberies and vicious fights—often with guns, cutlasses and anything people can get their hands on. In other videos, women and children confront and even repel police who enter neighbourhoods to arrest suspected gangsters. This is not normal.
The criminals keep getting younger and younger. With the glee of children playing video games, a group of boys who seemed no older than ten-years-old brandished guns and bragged in a recent video about their criminal and sexual exploits. No wonder that many people, after seeing or hearing about grotesque crime, say in exasperation: "Trinidad is not a real place."
Last week came another shocker: young women flashing big grins and what appeared to be semi-automatic weapons.
Many of our young people have lost their innocence. It is no surprise that in many schools, teachers are no longer in charge and discipline holds no sway. Some youngsters have little or no regard for authority because they feel that kind of behaviour is empowering and has currency.
It seems like every day the lives of our nation's youths are being snuffed out as killers show no mercy. We all remember how 13-year-old Videsh Subar, while awaiting his SEA result, was brutally murdered. The schoolboy and his neighbour, in whose care he was left, were found in her Malabar home tied up and their throats slashed.
In Laventille, where violent gang wars reflect the horrors of urban warfare, children are often innocent victims.
About two weeks ago, Fitzgerald Hinds, minister in the Office of the Attorney General, disclosed that in the last decade, more than 1,300 people in Laventille alone had been murdered, some 93 per cent by gunfire.
Hear Mr Hinds: "We have a crisis in Laventille. Because you know better than me that tomorrow, this evening, your children are at risk. They could be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And you know you too are at risk. Because if you only provoke somebody now, tell them something, watch them too hard, bounce them as you passing by the shop, they want to go for their 'lass, they want to go for their gun. That is the level of ignorance."
Hinds seemed baffled that children in Laventille would suffer the same dire plight of children in Middle Eastern conflicts. "This is no war zone," he said of Laventille.
When you hear despair in a government minister's voice, you know we're in trouble.
3. This is a call to all decent people. All the good citizens of Trinidad and Tobago who value law and order over lawlessness must come forward in numbers greater than the criminals to reclaim our country, to help make our neighbourhoods safe again and work with what should be a revamped and professional police service.
Let us channel our collective outrage over two decades of record-setting bloodletting to let our leaders know that we don't like it so. Demand that they work together to solve the crisis.
We need to develop and rally around a well-articulated national crime prevention strategy. The Government and Opposition should embrace civil society groups and the business community to develop this plan, with appropriate contributions from people across the nation.
Before that happens, the Government should be honest and transparent about the scope of the problem.
But first, the Government and the police should consider taking interim steps to restore public trust in the police and judiciary.
We must acknowledge that recent examples of people who have stood stood up against criminals haven't gone so well. Just ponder how many state witnesses have been killed while they were in protective custody.
Commissioner Gary Griffith would acknowledge that many corrupt cops would disclose the names of informants to criminals. Griffith needs to be given the tools to clean up rogue elements to build confidence in police service.
Any effort to address crime must confront the toughest questions. For instance, if the murder toll in Trinidad and Tobago is largely fuelled by turf battles over drugs, is it time for a wholesale review of our existing drug laws? How do we prevent weapons of war from entering the country through our ports? How do we provide jobs—in the public and private sectors—and hope to impoverished communities? And how do we rally the nation to become part of the solution?
Guardian Media remains committed to addressing these pressing issues. In the next few weeks, we will show how our dire crime situation is ripping apart the fabric of our nation—and what we all need to do to be safer in our homes, our neighbourhoods and our country.
To channel Stalin, the bard from Marabella: Our country faces its darkest hour. This is a time to demand that our leaders put country before party.
Finding solutions will not be easy. They will require our best minds, sacrifice and collaboration to ensure that Trinidad and Tobago does not become a failed state.
Staying the course or doing nothing is not an option. Our beloved nation's very survival is at stake.