Sun, Jan 28, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Trinidad shuts down 95 percent of the country's economy to denounce crime

STRONG REACTION A high-profile kidnapping has provoked public reaction strong enough for the British Foreign Office to warn tourists for the cricket World Cup

THE GUARDIAN , PORT OF SPAIN

Businesses and schools across Trinidad were shut down on Friday in a protest against soaring crime rates and a spate of high-profile kidnappings that have propelled the twin-island republic up the international league table of crime hotspots.

The British Foreign Office has issued a warning to tourists traveling to the island as it gears up for carnival -- the biggest in the Caribbean -- and the cricket World Cup beginning in March of this year.

In central and south Trinidad people stayed away from work, in some areas affecting 95 percent of the country's booming economy, according to local reports.

While the capital, Port of Spain, was relatively unaffected, the shutdown's organizer, businessman Inshan Ishmael, was detained by police and held under anti-terror legislation before being released.

The shutdown was sparked by the kidnapping of Trinidad and Tobago's most high-profile businesswoman last month.

Vindra Naipaul-Coolman, the multi-millionaire 51-year-old chief executive of supermarket chain Xtra Foods, was snatched from her driveway at her home in a middle-class suburb by two men on the evening of Dec. 19.

The kidnap stunned the island and brought an unprecedented response. Supermarket workers marched, pleading for her release.

Her family has paid the equivalent of US$211,000, half the ransom demanded, and hired a Venezuelan psychic to find her.

The police hunt, involving 300 officers, is the most extensive -- and expensive -- the force has ever operated.

Trinidad is a country with sudden wealth from record oil prices that fuel the island's growing GDP.

It also saw around 245 kidnappings last year, an increase of more than 100 percent over five years.

While the vast majority are "quickie kidnappings" where the victim is taken to a cashpoint, around 22 were followed by ransom demands.

At about 30 killings per 100,000 islanders the murder rate is 19 times that in England and Wales.

But the chances of being caught are so low that the death penalty does not serve as a deterrent.

Lange Park, where Naipaul-Coolman lives, has seen seven kidnappings and five attempted kidnappings.

An Indo-Trinidadian area, locals distrust the predominantly Afro-Trinidadian police force and hire their own security.

Kamal Singh's wife was kidnapped last year. She was tied up and dumped, alive but shaken.

"These people create fear in our hearts, they bully us," he said.

Politics have become more ethnically divided between the evenly split residents of African and Indian descent.

"People perceive the Indian population to be more wealthy. Most importantly, they are seen to be weak and soft targets who will not fight back," says Kumar Mahabir, an anthropologist at the University of Trinidad and Tobago who has analyzed the kidnappings.

He points out that 75 percent of those kidnapped are of Indian origin.

The republic was practically crime-free in the 1970s, but the trade in cocaine has led to it being used in the supply of drugs to the US.

The security services have spent millions of dollars on hi-tech law enforcement and have set up an anti-kidnapping squad bringing in overseas police officers, including some from Scotland Yard and the US.

The security services have spent millions of dollars on hi- tech law enforcement -- such as a giant, much-derided, surveillance airship -- and have set up an anti-kidnapping squad bringing in overseas police officers, including some from Scotland Yard and the US.

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