As the sun rose Friday behind the Northern Ridge near here and the 6 a.m. bell pealed at nearby St. Mary’s College, the trapdoor snapped open beneath Dole Chadee’s feet in the State Prison gallows room. Trinidad’s most notorious murderer, drug lord and gang leader had been hanged.
Joey Ramiah was the next to die. And then, at 8:44 a.m., it was Ramkalawan Singh’s turn.
Three more will hang today, and another three Monday, until all nine members of the gang that slaughtered the Baboolal family over an apparent drug dispute five years ago are dead.
Marking the moment with prayer and protest, the church bell at the capital’s Roman Catholic Cathedral tolled nine times at 8 a.m.--a reminder, Archbishop Anthony Pantin said, that “enough blood has been spilled.”
But with hourly news bulletins, street-corner banter and banner headlines announcing, “Hanging Time,” many in this crime-weary nation of 1.3 million heaved a sigh of relief that justice was done.
“Everybody will think before they kill now,” concluded Marjorie Clark, a 50-year-old hospital worker in the somber crowd gathered at dawn outside the 187-year-old prison.
In staging these hangings--with a single exception, Trinidad and Tobago’s first executions in two decades--this twin-island nation means to send a tough message to drug traffickers and contract killers who are littering the Caribbean with cocaine and corpses.
It also is leading the way for neighboring island states seeking to brush aside legal challenges and lengthy appeals and implement the death penalty. The Trinidad hangings set the stage for executions expected in the months ahead in Barbados, the Bahamas, Jamaica and other Caribbean nations.
But for Trinidad on Friday, hanging day was rife with irony: It was a major victory for Atty. Gen. Ramesh Maharaj, a onetime lawyer for death row inmates and a human rights crusader who partially withdrew from international rights bodies while pushing hard for the hangings. His own brother is on death row in Florida.
After years of frustrating judicial delays, Friday’s hangings, Maharaj said, “will build confidence in law and justice.”
And the judicial body that cleared away the last roadblock to the gallows early Friday was London’s Privy Council, the highest appeal court for most of the Caribbean’s former British colonies. The council in the past has been the biggest obstacle to imposing capital punishment in the region.
The council--based in a nation that has banned the death penalty at home and has lobbied its former colonies to follow suit--blocked dozens of executions in the region by issuing a ruling in 1993 that limited the amount of time convicted killers should have to spend on death row.
But in turning down a final desperate appeal just three hours before Chadee--hooded, robed and hands bound--stepped up to the gallows, the Privy Council finally ceded Trinidad’s constitutional right to enforce a law that states: “Every person convicted of murder shall suffer death.”
Most here agreed that, of all the people Amnesty International says are on death row throughout the English-speaking Caribbean--about 250--Chadee was an appropriate first choice for the gallows.
Demonized by Trinidadian and U.S. drug enforcement agents for years as one of the most powerful and brutal of the drug czars who smuggle tons of Colombian cocaine through the region and into the U.S., Chadee never was convicted on drug charges. He was, however, found guilty of ordering murders.
Testimony at the 1996 trial of Chadee, 47, and the eight other gang members showed that his men, acting on his orders, executed Hamilton Baboolal and his sister Monica, each with a single shot to the head on their living-room floor in January 1994. The killers then casually gunned down Baboolal’s father and mother outside.
After the trial, the key witness against the group was shot, hacked and burned to death as soon as he left protective custody. Chadee was a chief suspect in that slaying.
Drug-related killings have continued at a disturbing pace here and throughout the region, a transit route for what the Drug Enforcement Administration estimates is a third of the cocaine reaching the United States. And Trinidadian Prime Minister Basdeo Panday came to power vowing to reinstate hanging as a deterrent.
Not everyone was in favor. “I understand people are outraged by these crimes; Dole Chadee was able to reach outside the prison walls and kill a chief witness,” said Ishmael Samad, a 55-year-old field ornithologist who appeared outside the prison at dawn wearing a sandwich board condemning the gallows.
“But we should not allow the criminal to pull us down to his level.”
But a taxi driver said he felt “pleased” after the hangings. And a radio talk show caller said he found them “refreshing.”
And it was only convicted gunman Ramiah’s sister who was crying Friday afternoon when a white minivan carrying three wooden boxes arrived at the Golden Grove Cemetery, where the three men were buried in an unmarked hole beside a ditch on the cemetery’s outer perimeter.