(Albert Gonzalez-Farran Photo)

Negotiating with Gangs: is Mediation a useful too. For fighting crime?

(by Prof W. Andy Knight)  Trinidad and Tobago is suffering from a rampant gang problem. A South American method of gang warfare has infiltrated the twin islands. We are now witnessing ruthless beheadings, gun violence between rival gangs, fights over control of drug turf, clashes over government projects, extra-judicial slaughter and other gave atrocities.

Gangs in this country are behaving and acting like terrorist groups. They are extremist in the sense that they are quick to resort to violence as a means to an end. They strike fear in the hearts of innocent citizens, and seemingly into the hearts of the police, lawyers and judges. But worst yet, gangs in Trinidad are beginning to pose a stiff challenge to local government and, dare I say, to state sovereignty. The decision to ramp up the coercive arm of the state (police, military) in countering gangs in this country simply isn’t working. Let’s face it, this tactic is not making a dent in the gang problem. In fact, gangs seem to be morphing into societal institutions that are filling the gap in governance – providing welfare and protection to segments of the population.

It is unclear as to how many gangs there are in Trinidad and Tobago. But some observers have suggested that there are over 100 gangs in this Republic. This is a huge number for a country of 1.3 million people. It is estimated that one of the larger gangs, Jamaat al Muslimeen, is comprised of 600 members. These individuals are able to convert ill-gotten gains into legitimate businesses, such as car dealerships, and somehow convince the politicians to award them with legitimate contracts. In that way, such gangs can then buy the loyalty of community members by providing them with social services and protection that should normally be provided by the state.

In a sense, therefore, these gangs are a threat not only to their rivals but also to the state. Some may even argue that elements of gang culture have infiltrated the official government and may in fact have already produced a form of alternative governance, despite the Anti-Gang legislation of 2011. The counter-gang tactics only seem to result in an escalation of violence and intimidation.

Despite the bleak picture painted above, the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago is not yet in a condition of civil war. What we are witnessing can still be described as “low-level intensity” conflict.

I’ve done a significant amount of research on the ways in which the process of Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration/Reconciliation (DDR) can contribute to broader national recovery efforts, particularly after major civil wars, and support the twin goals of “sustainable peace” and “sustainable development”. Most of my research deals with serious high intensity civil conflicts and war affected children in places like Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, and North and South Sudan. So some might think that the DDR process (which is generally coordinated by the UN system to address high-intensity conflicts) may not be applicable to the situation in Trinidad and Tobago.

However, the purpose of my talk today is to explain the evolution of DDR processes in the context of post conflict peace-building and to show how DDR processes can in fact be applied to cases of low-level intensity conflicts where gang violence is prevalent. Although much of the DDR strategy is geared to post-conflict situation, the concept of DDR can be applied in a preventive sense –i.e. to stop low-intensity conflict from becoming full-blown civil wars.

UN Photo/Sophia Paris

UN Photo/Sophia Paris

Conceptualizing DDR

 The genesis of the DDR process is Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s conception of post-conflict peace-building as a framework for ensuring that violent conflict would not reoccur in post-conflict settings. The DDR process is also a response to the Brahimi report, which explicitly linked peacekeeping, peace-building, and socio-economic development functions of the system — something that was further elaborated by Kofi Annan.

The idea of peace-building first became part of the official discourse at the UN in 1992 when former UN Secretary General Boutros-Ghali utilized the term in his An Agenda for Peace. Peace-building was conceived by Boutros-Ghali as an activity to be undertaken immediately after the cessation of large scale violence. To use his own words, peace-building was “an action to identify and support structures which will tend to strengthen and solidify peace in order to avoid a relapse into conflict.”

In his conceptualization of peace-building one can easily discern the early outline of what later became known as the DDR process – a process that involves: disarming warring factions, restoring law and order, decommissioning and destroying weapons, repatriating refugees, reintegrating internally displaced persons into their communities, providing advisory and training support for security personnel, improving police and judicial systems, monitoring elections, de-mining and other forms of demilitarization, providing technical assistance to fledging states and communities coming out of conflict, advancing effort to protect human rights, reforming and strengthening institutions of governance, promoting formal and informal participation in the political process, and facilitating social and economic development.

DDR is therefore regarded as a multidimensional process with a reconstruction and rehabilitation function. The goal is sustainable peace aided by sustainable development. Some refer to it as a “peace support” mechanism.

UN Photo/Patricia Esteve

UN Photo/Patricia Esteve

In the Brahimi report, also known as the Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations (2000), the panel recommended an number of peace-building tools and strategies, such as: the adoption of Quick Impact Projects (QIPs), the establishment of a fund for disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR), the adoption of a doctrinal shift away from civilian policing to “rule of law” teams, the embrace of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR), the creation of pilot peace-building units, and the regularized funding for the Electoral Affairs Division at UN HDQ.

Kofi Annan, when he was UNSG, also placed emphasis on DDR. But he added to the tasks of DDR processes: the promotion of sensitization programmes within communities prone to violence, and meeting the special needs of the most vulnerable in such communities — women, children, and the disabled. One can say that the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) norm emerged from this desire to protect individuals from harm, especially when governments are either unwilling or unable to protect them.

A major concern for DDR is the proliferation of lethal weapons in communities already prone to violence. This problem of the spread of small arms and light weapons (SALW) became more acute after the end of the Cold War in 1989. The glut of weapons in developing countries since that time is noticeable and problematic. It is estimated that the number of SALW in circulation since the end of the Cold War is somewhere in the range of 100 to 500 million, with 50 to 80 million AK47 assault rifles alone. Most of these weapons have come from manufacturers in the P5 countries and found their way through black market channels into various conflicts zones, primarily in Africa. But some of these deadly weapons have found their way into the Caribbean and Latin American region. And as you know, Trinidad and Tobago is a gateway for the flow of these weapons.

Having gangs in possession of weapons poses a threat not only to individuals in the communities in which gangs operate but also to the state itself. This is why a systematic DDR programme, even in a low-intensity conflict area like Trinidad and Tobago, might prove useful because of the emphasis placed on disarmament — the removal of guns from within the community. Guns need to be removed so that recovery and development can begin.

UN Photo/Abdul Fatai

UN Photo/Abdul Fatai

Disarmament refers to the collection, documentation, control and disposal of small arms, ammunition, explosives, and light and heavy weapons being used by combatants in conflict-prone zones. It is not an easy undertaking. But there are specific measures that must be adopted in the disarmament process (e.g., establishing and initiating an arms management programme — including a programme for safe storage and eventual destruction of weapons; a period of voluntary submission of weapons; a set of inducements for individuals to give up their weapons. Only when weapons are out of circulation can one focus on creating a more secure environment in which the peace process can mature.

The next stage in the DDR process is Demobilization. In high intensity conflict zones, demobilization involves the disbandment of military organization and rebel factions. There is a noticeable shift from combatant to civilian status. This involves, inter alia: the registration and processing of individual ex-combatants in temporary centers; the massing of troops/rebel forces in cantonment sites, encampments, barracks, or other assembly areas; inducements for ex-combatants to give up their weapons (e.g., the exchange of weapons for money); the provision of transitional support/assistance packages to help them and their families meet their immediate basic needs — food, shelter, medical services, short-term remedial education, training, employment, and tools; discharge; transportation to get back to their home communities. In some cases the dividing line between reinsertion and reintegration is not all that clear. But it may be useful to view the reinsertion phase as a bridge between demobilization and reintegration.

Reintegration is a longer term socio-economic process. It has to have an open timeframe that would facilitate the assimilation of ex-combatants (gangs, rebel groups) in a way that allows them to adapt to civilian life in communities that may not be too keen on accepting them. This process might involve the provision of cash or some form of compensation package in exchange for a commitment not to return to violence, providing the individuals with long-term job or career training, initiating sustainable income-generation projects, and establishing a forum for truth and reconciliation. This stage of the DDR process in the case of high intensity conflicts is usually accompanied by efforts at rehabilitation of the war-affected individuals and reconstruction of national and local infrastructures that were damaged as a result of the violence.

In some cases, surplus militia and rebel forces have been encouraged to merge with a new national military force as part of security sector reform (SSR) during the reintegration phase of DDR. No peace can be assured unless order is maintained, and often the best way of ensuring order is to have a unified army. In any event, reintegration is sustained when indigenous capacity is enhanced, when ex-combatants and other war-affected individuals become productive members of their communities, when perpetrators of violence acknowledge their past actions and the impact of those actions of the innocent, and when post-conflict societies begin to learn how to heal and to address conflicts (which are inevitable) in non-violent ways.

The entire DDR process is geared towards encouraging rebel forces (gangs) to give up violence as a means to an end, and to provide them with sustainable livelihoods and support networks during the critical transition period from conflict to peace. DDR programmes seek to support ex-combatants’ social and economic reintegration, so that they can become stakeholders in peace and productive member of their communities.

UN Photo/Hein Macline

UN Photo/Hein Macline

Lessons from the DDR process that can be applied to Gangs

There are several lessons that can be drawn from my studies on DDR, which might have application to the situation of low-intensity conflicts in which gang violence is prevalent.

  1. The DDR process in a localized setting cannot be successful in implementation unless it is connected to a broader national process of post-conflict peacebuilding and nation-state socio-economic recovery. Thus the DDR process should contribute to the advancement of formal education, the development of agriculture, the establishment of small enterprise development, vocational training and apprenticeships, internships and externships, job placements, promotion of human rights and justice, security sector reform, and truth and reconciliation mechanisms.
  2. All conflicting parties must buy into DDR. It may take a neural (mediating) third party to step in during the early phases of peace negotiations in order to allay suspicions, build trust, and emphasize the importance of DDR to sustained peace. It might take a public demonstration of commitment and financial support for the conflicting parties to have confidence in the DDR process.
  3. A fragmented approach to DDR could undermine the success of any peace negotiation with the warring parties. So integrated planning and programming is vital for ensuring the kind of synergies that can make the DDR process a success.
  4. DDR processes must be accompanied by serious efforts at the reform of the rule of law mechanisms and the security sector.
  5. DDR will not be successful unless the glut of SALW is taken out of the community setting. To do this successfully would depend heavily on a regional approach to disarmament and arms reduction by CARICOM in collaboration with the UN system.
  6. Extract children and young adolescents from the clutches of gang leaders. Provide protection for them so that they can go to school and receive a proper education and so that they can enjoy the natural pleasures of growing up without fear for their safety.
  7. Incentives for getting guns out of communities can be tricky. Money for weapons schemes have led to instances of corruption and fraud in some cases. They may also lead to resentment by the law abiding parts of society if perpetrators of violence are seen as being rewarded for their past crimes. One lesson I drew from my research in Africa is that it is probably better to utilize in-kind assistance and other forms of material support that would benefit the community at large rather than simply benefit the individual ex-combatant. When monetary incentives are considered they should be made in small payments over a longer period of time to assure a peaceful resettlement.
  8. In some case, non-liquid incentives, such as supermarket vouchers, can be used during the weapons collection phase of DDR. Some observers of DDR programmes have recommended “weapons-for-development” schemes and the strengthening of cultural norms against possession and use of weapons as an answer to this problem.
  9. Gang leaders must be singled out and engaged during the DDR process because these individuals tend to have significant influence over their followers. Getting gang leaders to agree to a mediation process, or to a truth and reconciliation framework, might have a ricocheting impact down to line of the followers.
  10. The main lesson learned from my research on DDR is that there needs to be a dual mission when it comes to addressing conflict — i.e., the move toward sustainable peace and sustainable development. These two goals must go hand in hand for long-term peace-building.


Professor Knight made this presentation on October 22, 2015 at the Convocation Hall, Hall of Justice in Port of Spain, Trinidad. Professor Knight serves as the Director, Institute of International Relations at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine Campus, Trinidad & Professor, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada.




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