The Trinidad Express’ headline this morning said it all in just one word.
The question they were asking was why was the hugely respected prosecutor Dana Seetahal brutally murdered in the wee hours of Sunday morning? Like many islandistas, I woke up yesterday morning to a collective cry of anguish across my social media feeds – and not just from Trinidadians. Scores of young islandista lawyers I know from across the Caribbean who would have studied at the Hugh Wooding Law School in recent years were mourning the passing of the Express columnist, former independent senator and high profile attorney.
Seetahal was from all accounts, as beloved as she was respected for her legal knowledge and fearless prosecution of high profile cases. “We used to call her ‘Sweetahal’, ” said fellow attorney and senator Wayne Sturge (who is actually on the opposing side of a case Seetahal is prosecuting right now), adding that “she was the life of the coffee shop where the lawyers hung out during court time.” Most terrifying to all is that Seetahal’s murder has marked a new chapter in Trinidad. This was not a robbery gone wrong, nor was it one of the kidnappings gone awry that have terrorised Trinidad’s middle and upper classes. This was a hit. As Seetahal was driving home from the Ma Pau Casino, two vehicles pulled up sharply alongside her on both sides, forcing her to a sudden stop. When her body was found, her car was still idling, foot on the brake, handbrake pulled up. One of the vehicles drove quickly in front of her, blocking off the road. And from the second vehicle – reported to be a panel van – came gunfire which raked her body. 15 shots hit Seetahal, 5 hitting her in the head. They quickly drove off, leaving Trinidad in terror at the first ever murder of a prominent jurist.
The Express said:
“the first assassination of a senior member of the criminal justice system” has been “a major blow which threatens to reverberate throughout the system and strike it at its very heart.”
Is this our Caribbean? This sounds like something we would watch on TV – either news from far off, lawless places or in a mob movie. Expressions of horror have come from all over. Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar convened an emergency meeting of the National Security Council and said:
“This outrageous act of brutality cannot be concluded by mere expressions of regret and sympathy.”
Former National Security Minister Jack Warner said that the “brazen manner” in which Seetahal was killed was a “jolting reminder” that “there are very dangerous elements in our midst.”
Meanwhile, Opposition Leader Dr. Keith Rowley called Dana “a national asset” and said her killing “should scare every single citizen in the country”.
And it has. Which brings us to the deeper question in the Express’ pained cry of ‘WHY?” Why Trinidad? It is no secret that in the past 10-15 years or so, Trinidad’s crime situation has become terrifying. In fact, according to a UNDP report, Trinidad’s murder rate “increased five-fold” over the last decade. The crime-tracking website tt.crime.com lays it out in bare figures which show the problem even more starkly. Consider this. In 1998, there were 98 murders in Trinidad. By 2008, that peaked at 550. Ironically, as Trinidad has become ever more murderous, the country has become ever more prosperous as oil prices sky-rocketed in the noughties.
Admittedly, there is a significant dip at the end of the 00s but that occurred in 2009 when the global financial crisis hit – everyone dipped then. But for nearly the whole 2000s era, that line is just going up and up. And it has been reflected, at least in economic indicators. According to the UNDP, in 1988 Trinidad’s unemployment rate was 22%. In 1998 it was 14.2%. In 2008, the year murders peaked, it was a mere 4.6% – enviable for any country. Last year, it fell as low as 3.7%.
With the booming economy and low unemployment has also come social reform. In 2000, Trinidad achieved universal secondary education (a bit too late I think, considering Trinidad’s wealth in the oil-rich 70s) and in the mid-00s introduced free tertiary education.
So it’s not like this is a situation where the yutes ent got a chance – no chance of a good education, no chance of a job – at least, not compared to the rest of the Caribbean.
So we have to ask – ‘Why, Trinidad?’
These kinds of crimes seem so at odds with Trinidad’s jovial, ‘doh dig no horrors’, ‘small t’ing’, ‘we limin’ national character. Trinidadians have a well-earned reputation for being easy-going, fun-loving and good-natured so from the outside looking in, it seems so incongruous.
It is hard to square these kinds of cruel killers with the Trinis we know.
And so we have to join the Express and ask: ‘Why, Trinidad?’