Carnival goers in Trinidad say they will fight crime if they band together

In Trinidad, Allison Fredericks appeared in costume

In San Fernando, a city southwest of Trinidad, Eunice Peters enters the stage singing, "Forget the hate and spite, if we unite, we could put up a fight.".

Although this year's festivities in this carnival-crazed twin island nation are taking place against the backdrop of spiraling crime, the lyrics may not be what you would typically expect to hear in a calypso song.

2022 was the deadliest year in Trinidad and Tobago's history with 605 recorded murders in the country of 1.3m inhabitants, according to police figures.

Ms. Peters croons from the Skinner Park stage during the National Calypso Monarch competition's semifinals, "Close them borders to stop the inflow of guns, it's time to modernize our educational system.".

Wendell Wallace, a criminologist, attributes the recent crime wave to the growth of gangs.

We have a gang problem in Trinidad and Tobago, where there are turf wars. That, in my opinion, is a major factor in both the rise in crime and the rise in murders we are experiencing, he says.

Dr. Wallace adds that Trinidad and Tobago's porous borders are also a factor, sounding almost like he was paraphrasing Ms. Peters' calypso song's lyrics. According to him, this results in the entry of illegal drugs and then guns.

Amrit Samaroo is making an effort to keep a group of young people occupied with constructive activities in the lush Surrey Village neighborhood in north Trinidad.

Mr Samaroo is the musical arranger for the First Citizens Supernovas Steel Orchestra.

In preparation for the National Panorama competition final, the steelpan ensemble, which includes a large number of young players, is practicing furiously.

Allison Fredericks in costume in Trinidad
Although this year's carnival is being hailed as "the mother of all carnivals," some carnival goers are concerned about a crime wave.

Mr. Samaroo describes the advantages of playing in the orchestra as "it instills values of discipline, hard work, patience, and also working towards a common goal."

Cheriese Pierre started playing steelpan when she was 10.  Sixteen years on, she still gets a thrill from being in the Supernovas pan yard.

"Being amongst young people motivates me because I see people around my age, and younger, who I could also motivate and work along," she says.

Meanwhile, at the Queens Park Savannah - home of the main carnival parade stage in the capital Port of Spain - gang crime is also getting a mention as Ruth Adams Mendez is showing off her Carnival Queen costume.

"At a time when our communities are in turmoil due to gang warfare and environmental changes, this costume represents a beacon of hope and a call for peace," the narrator says of the costume, which is modelled on the Maraval lily, a flower native to Trinidad.

Ruth Adams Mendez in her costume representing a Maraval lily
A costume symbolising the Maraval lily is meant to be a sign of hope.

The Savannah is considered the mecca of carnival and it is where the majority of official events - which this year fall on 20 and 21 February - are held.

Tens of thousands of masqueraders, entertainers and spectators are expected to join in the revelry and the rising level of crime is causing major concern.

With 2023 off to a bloody start after police recorded at least 85 homicides as of 17 February, veteran soca music artist Ronnie McIntosh is leaving nothing to chance.

Mr McIntosh and his wife Caroline lead the eponymous Ronnie and Caro mas band.  Parades by mas [short for masquerade] bands and their costumed revellers make up the beating heart of carnival in Trinidad and Tobago.

But with dancers and spectators expected to pack the area as the celebrations return in full after two years of Covid restrictions, keeping everyone safe has become part of Mr McIntosh's duties.

Laura Rampersad in a lavish costume
Most eyes will be on the lavish costumes, but security will also be out in force.

He has organised at least 100 officers to guard the more than 1,000 revellers who have registered to join his band this year.

"Who I'm responsible for, which are Ronnie and Caro masqueraders, when they're in my zone, I will make sure that we do our job and make sure we're safe," Mr McIntosh explains.

And it is not just the security guards hired by Mr McIntosh who will be on duty.

Police officials say officers have been called out from holiday leave to help secure carnival activities.  Over 300 soldiers will provide additional support.

"We will be there, out and about, on foot, mobile, aerial patrols, on the sea," Assistant Commissioner of Police Collis Hazel said at a news briefing.

Ronnie McIntosh of Ronnie and Caro's Mas band
Ronnie McIntosh wants to make sure revellers are safe.

The CEO for Trinidad Tourism, Carla Cupid, says the police service has been a "valuable partner" in the tourism board's efforts to promote Trinidad as a destination for overseas visitors.

Ms Cupid says visitor numbers have not been affected by the crime wave and are up this year compared to 2020, the last year the carnival was held in full before Covid restrictions kicked in.  Some hotels were completely booked up before and during carnival, she said.

"Generally, there are very few crimes against visitors," she says.

Dane Durham, who sells drinks at a seasonal stall at the Savannah, is also keen to tell visitors that a few bad apples should not be allowed to put a dampener on carnival.

"The crime has nothing to do with Trinidad and Tobago, it has to do with the individuals who commit the crimes," he argues.  "Trinidad is a beautiful place, we love people, we love to entertain. ".

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