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Kidnappings Send a Chill Through Sunny Trinidad

Times Staff Writer

For as long as pastel rum drinks and hedonistic pre-Lenten celebrations have been in fashion, fun-seekers have flocked to this tropical duet of lush islands to sunbathe, sway to calypso and savor the exotic flavors of its multicultural cuisine.

But an ugly social ill threatens the perpetual party atmosphere: kidnapping, a crime so epidemic that Trinidad ranks second in the world behind Colombia for its rate of abductions.

Victims and police point to a home-grown radical Muslim gang that sought to topple the government in 1990 and has since built a lucrative criminal empire. U.S. intelligence operatives are believed to be watching the militants of Jamaat al Muslimeen for signs that they are linked to global terrorist networks such as Al Qaeda.

Abductions targeting the prosperous and politically influential have evoked comparison to the Abu Sayyaf guerrillas, whose kidnappings in the Philippines and Malaysia have chilled business at island resorts in those Pacific countries. They have also instilled fear in this country, the Caribbean’s most dynamic economy, that visitors and foreign investors could begin looking elsewhere.

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The relatively small and obscure Jamaat al Muslimeen sparked the kidnapping wave that flared up about two years ago, but authorities see an even more troubling copycat phenomenon. Amateur crooks and street kids are getting into the act, inspired by the ransom paid by relatives who may fear the police as much as the abductors.

Kidnapping has been on the rise throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, but it has soared in Trinidad. In 2001, this country of 1.2 million had fewer than 10 kidnappings. In 2002, the number was 29. In the last couple of years, the figure has been about 150.

Police say most kidnappings are instances of gangland score-settling or drug dealings gone wrong, an explanation that serves to defuse public anger and convince honest citizens that they run little risk of becoming targets.

The victims are primarily Indians, who make up 40% of the population and tend to be more affluent than blacks, who compose a similar proportion. They contend that the kidnappings are being fueled by police corruption, government complicity, racism and an attitude that most victims had it coming.

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Still missing six months after his June 21 abduction, 11-year-old Vijay Persad has become a symbol for the plight of ordinary Trinis caught up in the violence. “People say they’re after us. The black community doesn’t give us support. They are scared of these people,” Ragkumar Persad, 38, says of his neighbors’ indifference to his family tragedy and Jamaat al Muslimeen.

Saran Kissoondan, whose family paid $167,000 to free him last year, accuses the police of being in league with organized crime.

“The criminals were getting information from the police. I could hear their conversations,” Kissoondan recalled of the 18 days he spent handcuffed and blindfolded in a dirt-floor shack, listening to his captors talking on their cellphones. “The police officer handling my matter was advising the criminals not to let me go [for a lesser ransom]. The police were telling them my family could pay more.”

Kissoondan, owner of a car dealership and brother of one of the country’s most successful restaurateurs, identified two of his captors, who were arrested shortly after his release. One of the men, a member of Jamaat al Muslimeen, agreed to testify against the crime masterminds of the group and was put under police protection. Before he could testify, however, the witness’ body was found in a lake, shot, wrapped in plastic and weighted with rocks. All charges were dropped against the rest of the suspects.

“Since the PNM came to power, kidnapping of Indian people has come alive,” Kissoondan said, referring to the ruling People’s National Movement and Prime Minister Patrick Manning. “There’s nothing and nobody to stop it. The police know who the main kidnappers in Trinidad are, but they are their associates so they will do nothing.”

A senior police source, who spoke on condition that he not be identified, confirmed that authorities knew that members of Jamaat al Muslimeen had been involved in the kidnappings. After a failed 1990 coup, the group’s leaders were freed on a legal technicality and have since run drugs, smuggled arms and carried out other criminal activities with impunity from a mosque complex in the south.

“The group isn’t really religious anymore. The leader has been picking up hardened criminals and getting them into his fold,” the official said. Police don’t move against them “because both the present government and the past government rub shoulders with that group to win votes.”

Jamaat al Muslimeen members are seldom denied bail, even on murder charges, which enhances suspicion in the business community that the government, courts and security forces are not to be trusted.

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“Ninety percent of the time, relatives are not willing to go along with the police. They think the police are dragging their feet, or worse. I’m not saying there is not corruption,” the official said. “Their main concern is to get back their loved ones.”

Police insist that the kidnapping threat is exaggerated.

“There have been problems, but we are getting on top of the situation,” said Supt. Adam Joseph, head of the anti-kidnapping squad within the National Police Service. “Very few innocent people are killed. Most murders involve gangs. They are killing each other off. Still, it’s not good for society to be without law and order.”

Of the wealthy and influential people who are increasingly among the victims, Joseph turned philosophical. “Criminals will always be inclined to go after people with money,” he said. “There will always be an element of society motivated by greed and envy. But by and large it is a very small element.”

Joseph acknowledged that Jamaat al Muslimeen was suspected in much of the crime wave and noted that the group’s leader, Yasin Abu Bakr, and three other kingpins face charges of conspiracy to murder stemming from the assassination of the state’s witness in the Kissoondan case. The defendants are free on bail.

Asked whether U.S. intelligence or security officials had expressed concern about the group or any ties it might have with global terrorist organizations, Joseph said he wasn’t privy to talks at that level.

A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Port of Spain wouldn’t comment on whether there was concern in Washington that Jamaat al Muslimeen posed any threat beyond Trinidad’s borders.

But Hamid Ghany, dean of the social sciences faculty at the University of the West Indies, said he thought the extremists probably had ties to an international network such as Al Qaeda. “My suspicion is that they are not operating in isolation,” he said.

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The Trinidad & Tobago Express newspaper has covered the kidnapping wave and Jamaat al Muslimeen’s leading role, drawing veiled threats against reporters and editors transmitted through a radio station with close ties to the group.

Reporter Richard Charan said he’s been told by senior police officers that they know Jamaat al Muslimeen controls the kidnapping rings but believe they are powerless to stop them. He also worries that the targeting of Indians by the predominantly black gang members threatens to expose racism “that is never spoken about but is just below the surface.”

Average Trinis echo the official line that upright citizens have nothing to fear from the kidnapping wave or the concurrent string of killings.

“It’s just criminals knocking off criminals,” tour guide Balkissoon Narine said. “There’s a lot of drug business in the country, but they keep themselves to themselves.”

Early this year, calypso artist Weston Rawlins, who goes by the stage name Cro Cro, brought the simmering racial issue to the surface with the song “Face Reality,” in which he appeared to condone kidnapping as a tool for social justice.

“Dey dress with jacket and ties. Dey thief and living a lie. Dey better pay back all the wrong things they do, or the bandits coming for you,” Cro Cro rapped to appreciative audiences.

News commentators, opposition politicians and Indian community leaders denounced the song as inciting violent crime.

Joseph, the leader of the anti-kidnapping squad, brushed off the controversy as political posturing by the opposition.

“If one listens to the lyrics of the song, it was tongue in cheek,” he said.


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