Trinidad ends anti-crime curfew amid complaints

November 7, 2011 - 9:20 PM

PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad (AP) — Trinidad lifted a nearly three-month curfew late Monday that had helped stem a surging homicide rate but disgruntled many in the Caribbean country known for its nightlife, party culture and a carnival considered second only to Brazil's in its vibrancy and fame.

Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar said she was lifting the curfew because of a sharp drop in crime, including a 60 percent decrease in the number of killings in that period. She said the state of emergency, which allows police to search properties without warrants, would remain in place and warned that limited curfews would be applied in some areas as needed.

"We did what we had to do," she said. "We do not claim a complete victory. There have been challenges along the way, but undoubtedly, the battle has been won to a large extent."

The 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. curfew, which was imposed in August as a two-week solution and was extended for up to three months because it seemed to work so well, had started to chafe many. Violators faced fines or prison.

It had shut down activities at the mile-long stretch of bars and restaurants known as St. James, which have long been a magnet for all-night revelry, a blur of dancing bodies and blaring calypso, with rich smoke from grilling meat and shark filling the air.

The law was particularly hard on bar and nightclub owners, at least those who didn't lock everyone inside for a compulsory all-night party.

McDonald Ward, owner of Mas Camp, a restaurant and nightclub in Port-of-Spain, the capital, lamented an 80 percent drop in business.

Khadajal Alphonse, a casino worker in her early 20s, blamed the prime minister for the loss of her job.

"I used to make good money in tips, too," she said. "All that done now."

Trinidad and Tobago, the full name of the twin-island nation of 1.3 million people, is one of the most prosperous Caribbean countries thanks to oil and natural gas that make it a major fuel supplier for the U.S. and other nations. It has one of the region's most diverse populations, a blend of African, Indian, Chinese and Middle Eastern cultures. But it also has developed a gang culture fueled by drug trafficking that has caused crime to soar.

The country has experienced political turmoil in the past, including a 1990 attempted coup by Muslim extremists that prompted the last curfew in Trinidad.

Persad-Bissessar, whose party won last year in part because of the previous government's inability to control crime, ordered the new curfew Aug. 21, even as she acknowledged it would disrupt people's lives.

"We are aware that such a decision will have an impact on the daily lives of innocent, law-abiding citizens, but I feel confident that they will recognize and appreciate the need to protect them and bring the current crime surge affecting them under control," she said at the time.

The curfew apparently had an effect: The 11 homicides reported in October was the lowest monthly total in 20 years, police spokeswoman Sharon Lee Assang said.

The curfew was initially in effect from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. But that made it difficult for people to get off the streets in time, so officials shortened it to 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. The curfew was not imposed in Tobago, the sister island that depends on tourism and has far fewer crimes. Fines for breaking curfew ranged from $150 to nearly $800, with judges empowered to impose a jail sentence in lieu of fines.

During the curfew, authorities said they seized hundreds of weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition. Police officials said they arrested thousands of people, about 450 of them suspected gang members.

The state of emergency comes up for review in December and the country is divided on whether it has been a success. Many people, mostly older Trinidadians, praised the measure for the dramatic decline in killings and a new level of peace.

For Judy Bhola, the curfew meant a respite from the criminals lurking in the cemetery behind her house in the southern city of San Fernando, the island's industrial capital.

"Now I can sit in my open porch in the evening," she said. "I am extremely happy and feel safe when I see only the police vehicles cruising around at night."

But a growing number of people grumbled about the restriction on civil liberties, questioning whether it was worth it to trade security for Trinidad's party culture.

"The fundamental rights of ordinary citizens are being trampled upon," Port-of-Spain Mayor Louis Lee Sing had said.

Many Trinidadians also complained that innocent people were targeted.

Michael Blackman, a 30-year-old disc jockey from Port-of-Spain, said he was detained when he tried to move his car from the street into his friend's garage just after 11 p.m.

"The police jeep pulled up and this police began screaming at me in a really aggressive manner: 'Are you aware of the time?'" Blackman said in an interview with The Associated Press.

He said he was arrested on a Friday and not released until Monday after he appeared before a judge.

Islanders had also worried about the curfew's impact on the economy.

A report by Trinidad's First Citizens Bank said a state of emergency can lead to a perception of instability that makes global investors wary and dampen business if imposed for more than three months. But the report also found that in the long run, business will likely thrive as a result of decreased crime.

The first economic woes were felt in October by those who celebrated Diwali, which Hindus consider one of the most important festivals of the year. The main celebration and fireworks show was canceled, with organizers saying the festival drew only 10 percent to 15 percent of the usual crowd.

With the holiday season and the 2012 Carnival approaching in February, Trinidadians worried about having to postpone or cancel numerous parties.

"When you start getting to affecting people's enjoyment ... you're beginning to play with the willingness of a society to support a state of emergency," said Ivelaw Griffith, an expert on Caribbean security at City University of New York.

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Associated Press writer Danica Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico.