Latin America & Caribbean

Can sport reduce Trinidad’s high murder rate?

In a bid to tackle Trinidad and Tobago's high crime rate, the government is investing hundreds of millions of dollars on sports projects and upgrading sports facilities. Will involving more young people in sport discourage them from joining gangs?

On a basketball court in Trinidad's capital city of Port of Spain, young men shoot hoops as a way to let out their frustrations and fill their spare time. But the government is hoping that sport can be used to deliver a lot more than exercise.

Life is cheap on the streets of some of Trinidad's urban crime hotspots. One area notorious for drug gangs is Laventille.

Image caption Trinidad has become ridden with drug and gang-related violence

"I got shot in my arm twice two months ago," says a 19-year-old man who does not want to give his name.

"You will hear gunshots at night - they even fly into people's apartment windows. People know not to come out at night. That's how life is."

According to the UN, murders in Trinidad and Tobago increased five-fold in the decade up to 2008 - the porous coastline led to drugs and guns seeping into communities.

In August 2011, the government declared a state of emergency in six areas in Trinidad as a response to a spate of killings and spike in gang activity.

'Healthy lifestyle'

The new man in charge of leading the fight against crime in Trinidad and Tobago is Jack Warner, who was the former vice-president of the international footballing body, Fifa.

Image caption Jack Warner is confident he can reduce Trinidad's murder rate

He resigned from that post last year amid allegations of bribery and corruption.

Mr Warner now holds one of the most powerful cabinet posts in the Trinidad and Tobago government, as the country's National Security Minister.

And he believes investing in sport is key to tackling the country's high crime rate.

"Besides giving people a healthy lifestyle... [sport] gives young people a chance on the field of sport and not in some drug den," he says.

That is why the government is spending 1.8bn Trinidad and Tobago dollars ($300m) over the next two years to build recreation centres around the country, he says.

"The whole object[ive] is getting young people involved because we believe quite sincerely that there is this positive relationship between sport and crime."

Mr Warner brushes off any allegations surrounding him from his time at Fifa and says is confident that he is the man who can reduce Trinidad's murder rate.

"These [Fifa] allegations have been following me around for the last 20 years and I still ask them to prove what they have said.

"I sleep very soundly at night because my hands are clean and my conscience is very clear."

Glamour

But not everyone is convinced that Mr Warner's new emphasis on sport in the fight against crime will be money well spent.

Sherma Wilson is a spokeswoman for the Beetham Gardens community, a poor neighbourhood in the capital where Mr Warner recently launched a new multi-million dollar sports project.

Image caption Ms Wilson is sceptical about the government's plans

The street basketball league, Hoop of Life, was launched with more than a touch of glamour - it included a surprise visit by American NBA basketball star Shaquille O'Neal.

"I blinked my eyes, I blinked again and I rubbed them a bit and I said my gosh - Shaq!" says Ms Wilson.

But her surprise turned to dismay when she found out how $1.5m had been spent bringing him to Trinidad.

Mr Warner insists the fee was paid for by "private enterprise", but Ms Wilson says she is worried that money is not being spent wisely.

"He was here for a day and now he's gone... was it really worth it? We could have used that money to fund a basketball clinic.

"Sport is such a wonderful thing, a wonderful experience. We really shouldn't be using it conveniently for our own political interests."

Others in Trinidad also believe that sport is being used as a smokescreen to grab headlines rather than tackling the deep-rooted causes of crime.

Prize money

Wayne Chance works to rehabilitate ex-prisoners by providing accommodation, help with jobs and counselling.

"In this country, whatever fiddle the government plays, you will find that a lot of people jump and follow suit. If the truth be told, criminals are exposed to sports, they have the opportunity to play. But they don't want to."

Mr Chance believes that much more than investment in sport needs to be done to reduce crime.

"Those individuals who end up in gangs come from certain backgrounds which lack family bonds and this is what attracts them. In sport there is a team spirit but there are limitations [to it]. A different kind of energy drives the gangs," he says.

It's too early to see whether sports projects like Hoop of Life will take young people out of gangs and into teams. But another sports league which has been running for over a year across the country works along similar lines - the anti-crime football league.

It's a league which covers all the 41 constituencies of Trinidad and Tobago with a total of between five and 12 teams within each community.

Ian Syrus is in charge of running it and believes that during the few months that games are played, the prospect of winning the $24,500 prize money regulates the behaviour of players on the pitch.

"The money has a lot to do with it. They know it is 150,000 T&T dollars at stake so that alone will deter them from doing anything that could spoil their chances of winning that kind of money," he says.

But he admits that he doesn't know how last year's winners spent their personal prize money. In communities where a lot of money is made selling drugs, there is no monitoring of players to see what they are doing for the rest of the year when the league is not in play. Therefore there is no way of knowing for sure, if sport is continuing to have an impact on deterring crime.

Police youth clubs

A match between two teams is underway in Beetham Gardens at night, under the floodlights of a small tarmacked pitch. The sound system is blaring Jamaican dance-hall music and locals are gathered around the sides to watch.

When a police car comes around the corner briefly, one of the players runs to hide. Sherma Wilson says he is known to the police. "We wish it were different here," she says.

"The relationship between the community and police is very stand-offish. Do you know the police look upon each one of us as though we are criminals?"

Curtis Paul, the superintendent of police community relations in Trinidad, says police youth clubs are "one of the main crime prevention tools for young people".

He says the police are expanding the number of police youth clubs next year from 50 to 70 to organise more sport and cultural activities.

He believes this will create "harmony and bring the police and people closer together".

After the police drive off, the match gets under way and passes off peacefully without any gang disputes spilling out onto the pitch.

Nina Robinson's Assignment Sport and Crime in Trinidad and Tobago will be broadcast on 22 November at 09:05GMT on BBC World Service. Listen via i-player or download a podcast.

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