Around midnight on May 3, Dana Seetahal, a prominent attorney and former senator in Trinidad and Tobago, had just left a casino in the capital of Port of Spain when her vehicle was stopped by another car blocking the road. A van pulled up alongside and let loose a burst of gunfire, killing her in a well orchestrated hit.
Her murder was one of approximately 170 that have occurred in the Caribbean nation so far this year, putting it on course for one of the highest murder rates in the world. The country saw only 93 murders in 1999. Last year, there were 407.
VICE News visited the slums of Port of Spain and spoke with police, activists, community leaders, and gangsters to understand the country’s decade-plus spike in killings. Many of the murders are attributed to ruthless and politically connected street gangs who control territories that are sometimes no larger than a city block. The gangs fight over lucrative government contracts meant to provide social services and combat unemployment.
But gang violence is merely a symptom of a bigger problem. Trinidad has become an important stop for drugs headed to West Africa and the United States. Many observers point to “the big fish” — the nameless political and business elites who are behind drug trafficking and the culture of endemic corruption and murder that come with it. They are accused of turning a country rich in oil and gas deposits into their own personal narco-state, fostering impunity through a web of bribes and murders. Unlike the profits from the energy industry, however, this phenomenon trickles all the way down to the street level.
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