Law-abiding citizens are being outgunned and gunned down by criminals. Gunmen are armed to the teeth with sophisticated weapons, challenging the police and other members of the protective services.
Businessmen and regular citizens have been left vulnerable to criminals as many have expressed difficulty in obtaining Firearm User’s Licences (FUL). Even those with licenced firearms were up to recently limited in the quantity of ammunition they could legally possess, putting them at the mercy of lawbreakers. Originally allowed to carry 25 rounds of ammunition, that number was recently increased to 40.
On the flip side, criminals and gang members have no constraints using high-powered fully-automatic and select-fire (the capability to fire in semi-automatic, three-shot, and/or fully automatic firing mode in rapid succession) weapons with extended magazines that give them more firepower than licenced firearm holders’ firearms and even the weapons used by the protective services.
Research done in 2019 by the Strategic Services Agency (SSA) found that more than 8,154 guns were circulating in Trinidad and Tobago then. Sunday Guardian was unable to get any recent data on the amount of guns circulating since then.
However, some 680 illegal firearms were seized last year. And only last week, Minister of National Security Fitzgerald Hinds revealed that 84 firearms had already been seized for this year.
Police seized six high-powered rifles in Curepe after a report of a gun attack and arson in the Curepe area, July 2021.
Violent gun crimes punctuate the days rapidly and cut short the lives of scores of people in home invasions, innocent bystanders, those involved in criminal activities, and others in revenge killings and fighting for turf in a gangland war.
The violence has cut through places of work and celebrations, it has taken lives at jewelry store and the doctor’s office, and on the streets.
Broad daylight attacks are being planned with multiple assailants, some inside carrying out the attacks and others on the outside in vantage lookout points.
Business owners have faced the wrath of armed robbers, with security guard Andy Hosein being gunned down at Ketan Jewellery store in High Street, San Fernando, on February 5 and security guard Tojay Ricketts at Dr Lall Sawh’s office in San Fernando on February 23.
Businesswoman Nicole Moses was killed by gun-toting bandits during a home invasion when they entered her property in Westmoorings on Thursday morning. They were armed with a pistol in this instance.
Crime Scene investigators at the scene of a double murder at South Park Plaza, San Fernando, in January.
Moses’s relative used his licenced firearm–a handgun–to kill two of the three bandits. She was shot in the melee by bandits while trying to save her nephews and died at the hospital.
There has also been a proliferation of criminal activities in the agriculture and farming industry. Farmers have witnessed a sharp increase in praedial larceny and theft of livestock, and they are being robbed of their money and equipment in home invasions, when they are plying their trade or waiting to get into the markets in the wee hours of the morning.
Bindra Maharaj, president of Sills Farmers Support Group, said there should also be a consideration for FULs to be granted to farmers to defend themselves as citizens feel vulnerable and are living in fear.
Scores of the murders in the country were carried out using deadly high-powered weapons.
Apart from the semi-automatic AR-15s being the preferred guns of the underworld, submachine guns/machine pistols are also popular underworld items. Pistols and revolvers of various calibres commonly available in the US such as Glock, Beretta, Smith & Wesson, Browning, Sig Sauer, and Sturm Ruger have also made their way into the hands of the criminal underworld.
Law enforcement was also starting to see the appearance of ‘sophisticated’ pump and semiautomatic shotguns such as Mossberg, Beretta, and Benelli shotguns, arms used by the drug cartel.
Criminologist Daurius Figueira said the American AR-15 assault rifle has become the “calling card” for local gang members who have connections with transnational organised crime syndicates. That gun, he said, has become “the preferred weapon of choice and a status symbol among gang members,” elevating the normal gang ‘soldier’ to a ‘ranker’ or ‘player’ among his peers.
The AR-15 is the brand and image of gangland in T&T and all over the Caribbean.
The AR-15 has superseded the Russian Kalashnikov or AK-47 style assault rifle and its clones.
With a proliferation of AR-15 rifles, they are readily available, reliable, and lighter than the Russian AK variants.
A person can carry more 5.56×45mm ammunition for the AR-15 than the AK-47’s 7.62×39mm ammunition, both are deadly on people and can penetrate bulletproof vests or ballistic vests designed depending on the strength level of the vest. In some cases, level four and level five vests contain a ceramic plate that can prevent this type of ammunition from piercing the vest.
The 5.56×45 mm bullet that the AR-15 rifle uses has a lighter weight, less recoil, and a higher rate of fire, than the AK or Kalashnikov rifle’s 7.62x39mm bullet, and could carry more rounds of 5.56×45 mm ammunition than the larger cartridge.
The advantage of the 7.62x39mm larger, heavier bullet is that it can punch through walls, trees, and vehicles.
The 7.62 bullets are also used by snipers, and in target competition, because the heavier bullet is less affected by crosswinds.
The AR-15 used in several assassinations
The AR-15 rifle, the prized weapon of gang members and bandits, has been used in several assassinations recently.
*Malick Straker, 31, of Arima and Joel Chambers, 29, of Morvant, was shot and killed by AR-15 wielding gunmen who riddled the car they were in at the South Park mall in San Fernando, on January 28.
*Jermarc Quashie, 26, Terrance Nixon, 29 and Skeete Sanchez, 28, all from Sangre Grande were shot and killed when gunmen opened fire on them with AR-15 rifles when they were in their vehicle along the Toco Main Road on January 14.
*Jamaican national Garth Perkins was shot and killed by a gunman with an AR-15 while seated in his car along Broadway, Port-of-Spain, near the Chaguanas taxi stand on January 10.
*Prison officer Nigel Jones was killed by a gunman with an AR-15 in a vehicle in Siparia on November 29, 2021.
*Prison officer Trevor Serrette was operating his fruit and vegetable stall in Valencia when he was shot and killed in a drive-by shooting by a gunman with an AR-15 on November 26, 2021.
*Police officer Sgt Ricardo Morris was also shot and wounded with an AR-15 rifle in Sea Lots back in May 2016.
*Reputed gang leader and criminal mastermind Selwyn “Robocop” Alexis was killed with an AR-15 rifle in July 2016.
Gang member’s TEC-9
‘Gang leader to petty thieves want automatic fire, volume of shots’
Law enforcement consultant/combat specialist Paul-Daniel said pistols, rifles, submachine guns, shotguns of all brands and variety were coming into T&T.
Nahous said there was a trend where criminals were focusing on seeking automatic fire and the volume of shots. He said even many of the pistols being seized had been modified for automatic fire and were found with extended magazines, some up to 30 pistol rounds.
According to Nahous, it seemed that from gang leaders down to petty thieves were all armed with firearms now.
He said pistols were used mostly in robberies, rifles and submachine guns were being used for gang warfare, and there was the looming threat that these were weapons to counter police and have been used against police recently.
There is another threat with the proliferation of ‘ghost guns’—homemade, virtually untraceable guns without a manufacturer’s serial number, that were assembled from parts purchased over the internet and underworld gunsmiths milling gun parts from unfinished blocks of metal.
Nahous said gangsters like submachine guns for the rate of fire and manoeuvrability in smaller spaces.
He said all types of calibres, and ammunition from .308, .40, .45, 9mm, to hollow points were available. Full metal jacket ammunition remains more popular, Nahous said, as it can be found in much higher quantities on the black market (and in general).
High-powered guns seized during a raid in Cunupia in November 2018.
Automatic weapons instead of cash to take a life
The T&T Police Service (TTPS) recorded 53 murders in January. The January 2022 figure represented 28 more murders when compared to January 2021. Of that figure, 45 of those people, according to the TTPS statistics, were killed by a gun. This translates to 85 per cent of the murders being gun-related for January.
Of the nine killings in Arima, eight were firearm-related. Sangre Grande and Cunupia each recorded three people being gunned down. South Trinidad recorded 11 gun-related murders, and from Arouca to Port-of-Spain, along the East-West corridor, ten out of 11 people were killed by firearms.
Cascade recorded one murder, Maraval recorded one, Paramin recorded one and St Ann’s recorded three; three of the victims died from gunshot wounds.
Tunapuna, Arouca, Malabar, Barataria, St James, El Socorro, San Juan, Wallerfield, Malick, Paramin, and Brasso Seco all reported a gun-related murder in January.
A gun has now become payment to snuff out a life.
The preferred murder weapon for most hitmen and killers in this country has now become the main currency instead of cold cash.
Several underworld sources who spoke to The Sunday Guardian on the condition of anonymity said contract killers are taking automatic weapons as payment for the hit in several instances.
“There are a lot of times I know killers who would take the automatic weapon in exchange for the job. When they get that weapon, they can obviously use it for other jobs in which they can either get paid by collecting more guns or cash,” one underworld source explained.
“But the game has changed and most killings, depending on the target, are cheap. Someone can be killed for as little as $500. Only a high-profile target could be $100,000 and up. But in most cases, these hitmen don’t get that kind of job often, so taking an automatic weapon that is worth $15,000-$20,000 or more, most of the time is what they prefer.”
The guns are being brought to the country through the porous borders from Venezuela, through areas in Cedros and Point Fortin, and along the Aranguez river and the North Coast. They are even brought into the country in containers from the US.
In early February Acting Commissioner of Police McDonald Jacob had told the Express newspaper that people were hiring criminals to get rid of relatives involved in land and property disputes.
He said that hitmen were being paid thousands of dollars to take the job and added that “there are gangs out there that have some segments of their operations to be hired for that purpose.”
Jacob had also promised in mid-January of this year during a Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS) press briefing to put a stranglehold on illegal guns and dismantle criminal gangs that have wreaked havoc on the streets across the country.
In January 2022, according to statistics on the TTPS website, 58 people were charged for possession of arms and ammunition.
While Jacob’s assertion may be based on specific police information about hitmen taking big bucks for jobs, another underworld source familiar with how things work inside the belly of the underworld said that getting to keep an automatic weapon far outweighs getting paid unless the job is a big one.
“These automatic weapons are like an asset and it also allows them to, in certain cases, rent it out to get money. It is a revolving door and that is why a lot of those involved in killings now ask for payment in the form of one or more automatic weapons,” the underworld source explained.
“The illegal firearms are big business, fella,” said another source from east Trinidad who had been charged for a shooting incident several years ago and has since been released.
“The most popular guns the killers like to use to put down ah wuk (sic) is the AR-15 rifle, the Russian-made Kalashnikov rifle, and then there’s the Mac 11 and Tech 9,” he said.
New weapon gives FUL holders a fighting chance
FUL holders in T&T traditionally had three choices in weapons for self-defence–revolvers and pistols for concealed carry and shotguns for home defence.
Now there is a fourth class of weapon available, the pistol calibre carbine (PCC). To John Public, the weapon resembles a submachine gun. A pistol calibre carbine is a shoulder-mounted gun that is chambered in a pistol calibre cartridge such as 9mm.
868 Tactical Firearms and Accessories, in Valsayn, one of the newest firearms dealerships, has a Grand Power Stribog SP9A1 9mm carbine on display in one of their showcases.
According to the owner of the company, retired major Dirk Barnes, this new type of weapon for T&T combined with the proper training and tactics, gives FUL carrying law-abiding citizens, law enforcement (LE), and security personnel a fighting chance against criminal elements who use automatic weapons and multiple armed attackers.
Barnes said with more home invasions and multiple intruders carrying guns, it can be overwhelming for the homeowner/defender with a licenced 9mm pistol with a ten- to a 17-round capacity.
“Shotguns are an excellent home-defence weapon and its ammunition wouldn’t pass through walls and injure a family member in the next room.
“Once a person gets his FUL, he can apply for a variation which will allow him to add on different weapons. There are other platforms available now like 9mm carbines or carbine conversion kits which are new to T&T. I’m happy to see them here, they retain the same 9mm ammunition as handguns.
“The exception being the pistol calibre carbine offers three points of contact on the user; the shoulder, cheek, and foregrip which gives you a lot more stability and accuracy.”
He said accessories such as optical sights, weapon lights, and lasers can be attached to these types of weapons.
Barnes said in the scenario of a home invasion at night, the homeowner doesn’t have to go from room to room switching on lights, he can move around and turn on his weapon light on his carbine, use the optical sight for accuracy while engaging multiple targets as carbines hold more rounds than pistols so they don’t have to reload as often and are becoming more available to law-abiding citizens with FULs.
Gang member’s AK or Kalashnikov rifle.
No centralised repository to store weapons seized from criminals
To compound the situation involving illegal firearms, police stations do not have a centralised repository to store the weapons when seized from criminals–the weapons are held in the police station as exhibits in court cases, there is no computerisation of the weapons stored but a logbook is used.
Law enforcement consultant/combat specialist Paul-Daniel Nahous said there have been incidents of illegal firearms in police stations going missing and rented out, even some police-issued guns also end up being used in a crime.
Nahous said there had been talk from time to time of private firearms and ammunition left in police stations for safekeeping being interfered with in some manner.
“Some civilians who lodge their firearms in police stations claim that their weapon was used or fired.”
According to Nahous, “The storage of illegal firearms and court exhibits are centralised or decentralised depending on division and storage needs at the time. There is a system currently of electronically tagging and keeping e-records of seized firearms, but officers piloting this are dealing with a massive backlog and continuous intake. Overall, the main issue is that there are simply too many illegal guns being seized to keep up with.”
He said once an illegal firearm is entered officially into the property (evidence) room, it was very difficult for it to leave without a record being taken as those areas were restricted access even to police.
Sunday Guardian also asked firearms dealer Barnes what was the solution to gun storage in T&T. Barnes, the director, chief training officer at Blue Line Defence, Training, & Consulting Ltd said even though it was lodged in a station for safekeeping and should be treated as such, the practice which he recommended was for the owner to (after the officer receiving logs the information on the firearm and ammunition) was to secure the firearm function itself.
Nahous recommended using a gun or trigger lock to securely lock the functioning mechanisms of the weapon, or secure in a lockbox. He said this eliminated the opportunity for the odd occurrence of mischief in a police station.
Nahous said this was standard proper storage practice all over the world, even mandated by law in countries such as Canada.
Figueira said firearms used in the commission of crimes became evidence that had to be placed in evidence lockers under strict supervision, well manned, and under the surveillance of a 24/7 security system to ensure the integrity of the evidence.
He said the same problem with the integrity of evidence may arise at institutions such as the Forensic Science Centre.
Figueira said computerised inventory systems must have checks and balance to verify who entered the evidence locker, time in and out, the movement of items in and out of the locker, and most importantly; the integrity of the personnel charged with managing the evidence lockers.
He said the weak point is people who can be bribed, corrupted, or blackmailed, a case may collapse if the evidence ‘disappears’ or goes missing from the locker room and end up in circulation in the hands of criminals.
Figueira said police stations, courthouses, and weapons repositories should have armed law enforcement and security personnel as well citing cases where guns were stolen from police and court arsenals, sometimes in armed robberies.
Continuing next week