Sunday 2nd March, 2008

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Gangs that bling

The Government does plenty for Laventille. People have Cepep, houses, water, cable, sports facilities, trade workshops, music, cookery classes, Best Village. Vanity has them shooting. The boys want a car with big music, big guns, bling.

—Laventille resident.

If it’s a war of guns, the police will lose. Lack of amenities isn’t the problem. Nor is the absence of jobs. It’s about upward mobility. Money.

Author of Freakoconomics, Stephen Levitt has analysed the economics of a cocaine-selling street gang in Chicago. Stephen Levitt believes any street gang operates like a franchise of McDonald’s or KFC. The hierarchy is flat. At the top is the local gang leader. Below him, three people: the accountant, the adviser and an enforcer/“human relations” man.

In the next tier there are the soldiers, the men working behind the counter.

Finally, there are hangers-on, young, inexperienced tag-alongs.

Levitt found the local gang leader made ten times more than he would in regular employment. The three middle managers made more than minimum wage.

The foot soldiers made less than minimum wage. Most live at home and work part-time in regular employment, in addition to being members of gangs to survive.

Apply this to Trinidad and Tobago. Interviews suggest this scenario: The young boys who are getting shot can’t afford bling. They are wearing rubber slippers, living in shacks. They are the foot soldiers and hanger-ons.

In the early 1990s, when URP was expanding, “leaders” of the programme gained control of up to five gangs.

War pay

With this government contract, instead of 20 street soldiers, he could employ 50 more with URP money. He still paid them less than minimum wage, because he is taking his cut.

Like any businessman with an excess of labour, he looks to expand. In this case, the territory where he can sell drugs.

Unfortunately, that territory is occupied by someone just like him who also has a URP contract, and is looking to expand. Because these are criminal activities, this isn’t easy.

You can’t buy them out, can’t compete and sell better goods. So you invade their territory and hold it. That’s where the guns come in. The number of guns available is a reflection of demand.

The men who in the past smuggled whiskey will bring guns. It’s just business.

What’s in it for the young boys from the age of 15? The answer is simple. With their lack of educational qualifications they will be stuck in a minimum-wage system for the rest of their lives.

So they make a rational choice for themselves. Keep one foot in the formal system such as URP, with a reasonable income, live at home, and stay in the gang, in the hopes of rising to be a gang leader, and making ten times more than minimum wage.

The odds are high for a wage hike, since he is just competing with 35 people, most of whom will die on the job, compared to a formal economy where the possibility of rising without education is zero.

In times of war, the pay goes up. War is not the interest of the top man, since sales of drugs drop, but it is in the interest of the shooters to keep war going.

The riskier the venture, the greater the pay. The more shooters attack rival gangs the more likely the boss man will make you a senior man in that territory.

The more you kill, the more social rank and power you have amongst your peers. More pay brings girls, fancy cars, music, bling. A power they would never have otherwise.

Unless the Government can quickly educate thousands of semi-literate young men countrywide, with the hope of being powerful in the formal economy, our 90-strong, mostly illiterate gangs will continue to mushroom, flourish and kill in cold blood.

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