Gang members have joined forces with rustlers creating misery for the farming community of Wallerfield. In the past two months, thousands of dollars in livestock have been carted away by criminals, crippling the livelihood of many dairy farmers. The situation has become so grave that some farmers are tying their animals onto themselves, as they claimed the Praedial Larceny Squad and Arima police have not been responding to their complaints.
Guardian Media was told that when the Government instituted the stay-at-home order during the COVID-19 pandemic, gang members in the community linked up with rustlers to steal animals from the farms. Police believe that with the closure of our borders curbing the firearms and drugs coming into the country, criminals were starved for cash and sought other ways to get money. Some of them started stealing from the farmers and engaging in other types of petty crimes.
‘People in the community involved’
Known for its dairy and agricultural productions, Wallerfield is one of Trinidad’s popular food baskets.
At Mexico Road, dairy farmer Yvette Thomas, 67, was left frustrated after losing $32,000 in animals. The thieves first struck Thomas’ farm on June 19 by cutting her fence, taking with them two pregnant female goats valued $6,000. Two days later, the rustlers returned and stole eight rams totalling $26,000. Thomas’ two dogs were also poisoned.
She said the thieves had a set pattern–they would gain entry at the back of the farms, tie the mouths of the animals and then lift them into getaway vehicles.
“When would it all end?” the woman asked. “We are really suffering. Wallerfield farmers are crying out. Our animals are disappearing. God is in control. He never gives you more than you can carry. But it’s time somebody help.”
Thomas hopes her cries fall on the ears of Police Commissioner Gary Griffith so he can help flush out the criminal elements who have been making their lives miserable.
This was not the first time Thomas has been targeted.
Angered by the turn of events, Thomas said when she dialled two of the Praedial Larceny Squad’s numbers they were not in service, while the Arima Police said the matter was out of their hands.
When Thomas finally contacted the squad, she claimed they visited the crime scene four days later but never arrested anyone. She said even when farmers stumbled upon fresh evidence on their farms, the squad does not respond.
“I don’t know who to turn to. I am at a loss. It’s frustrating. This is what farmers have been facing years and nobody is lifting a finger,” Thomas complained.
Thomas concluded that people in the community are behind the crime. The constant attacks, she said, has forced some farmers to abandon their fields.
“Imagine I still have to pay the Agricultural Development Bank over $4,000 every quarter for the animals that were stolen from us. This is a heavy blow for me. It’s crippling my business.”
Tying animals to their bodies
As the Muslim festival Eid-Ul-Adha draws closer, Thomas said the thieves have intensified their illegal activities. “A lot of Muslims are buying stolen animals. Not because they want to, they just don’t know.”
To safeguard their remaining goats and sheep, Thomas’ son Lennox Jobe ties his grazing animals onto his legs during the day. At nights, Jobe would sleep with the livestock at the back of his home.
“We started bringing the animals inside our yard rather than leave them out in the pasture at nights. It’s a lot of sleepless nights we have to endure,” Jobe said.
It is with a sense of trepidation that Jobe takes such extreme measures to protect their animals. He admitted that he longer feels safe on the farm.
“I am living in fear because you don’t know what they are capable of doing. In addition, our labour is going in vain and we are not getting any satisfaction from the law.”
Jobe believes that people in the community have teamed up with external forces to conduct their illegal operations.
Two suspects questioned
Guardian Media was told that gang members would drive by in strange cars to scope out the farmers’ herds and later pounce on them. A man who worked with the gang members and wanted to get out of the illegal activities was gunned down recently for speaking out, residents said.
On Thursday, officers of the Praedial Larceny Squad visited Thomas’ farm and interrogated two suspects in the community, one of whom was a deportee.
“An investigation is ongoing. I just hope they can bring an end to this ring,” Thomas said.
In April, dairy farmer Samuel Buchan was relieved of eight sheep valued $8,000. Buchan, 87, said he never reported the matter to the squad. He described them as “unreliable”.
Buchan said the last time the squad patrolled the area was last year. “I stop going to the station to make reports,” he said.
Last year, thieves invaded Buchan’s sprawling farm, taking with them one of his expensive bulls.
The animal was slaughtered and its carcass pitched a stone’s throw from his farm.
“If you in your house and you hear ruction going on there, well partner you cannot come out. You might be dead before you reach there because they have guns. Me ain’t have none.”
Recently, Buchan said strange men entered his farm pretending to hunt for iguanas.
“I know better than that. Is not iguanas they hunting. They checking out your animals and watching how they could enter and exit your farms”
Living in fear, Buchan said he wants to call it a day.
“I worked hard for years, developed this land and raised ten children and this is what we have to put up with today. This place was never so before.”
While milking his cows, farmer Dan Cassie was held up at gunpoint and robbed of $200.
The bandits also stole 16 pigs from farmer Kerwin Perez which were never recovered.
Police ridicule farmers making report
President of the Wallerfield Farmers and Allied Welfare Association Lisa Perez sai praedial larceny has spiked in the area, bringing an uneasy feeling to the farming community.
In the last three months, Perez said she has received numerous reports of animals being stolen.
In years gone by, Perez said the squad was very effective. Lately, Perez said, they have not been patrolling and the criminals are having a field day.
Perez said certain individuals in the community have been monitoring the farmers’ movements.
“What I am saying there must be some sort of organised group of people. It is really hard because we all know that farmers have been struggling on their own. It’s sad to know we do not have the support of no one. We are facing an upward battle.”
She said the farmers are sometimes ridiculed by the police when they go to the station to report their animals stolen.
“The police would ask the farmer how they could identify their cows or goats and would laugh at them.”
She said the association has been encouraging the farmers to install cameras in their fields and establish a community watch group.
Perez also suggested the farmers retain the services of a security firm to patrol their farms, which could be a costly exercise.
“We are looking at different measures to ease the farmers’ pressure.”
Perez said many of the streets in the community remain unnamed which makes it difficult for the police to respond swiftly.
“Government come government go, no one is protecting us. We have to take a stand to fend for ourselves.”
Praedial Larceny Squad director promises help for farmers
On Wednesday, director of the Praedial Larceny Squad acting Supt Murchisson Alexis admitted that the surge of praedial larceny in Wallerfield could have started during the COVID-19 pandemic and closure of our borders.
“There wasn’t much crime in terms of new firearms and drugs. So people who were not studying to thief are now turning to praedial larceny.”
He said the squad has some “undercover investigations” taking place which would assist the farmers soon.
Alexis also stood in defence of his 53-man squad, stating they have been working.
“We do check all reports that come in,” Alexis insisted, during a telephone interview with Guardian Media.
He said the squad, which operates with five vehicles, is mandated to patrol certain farming communities in Trinidad.
These farming communities have over 10,000 farmers.
He said east Trinidad alone has a farming population of 2,800.
Alexis promised to host a meeting with the farmers to bring some measure of relief. “We will put something in place.”
Alexis said citizens with reports of praedial larceny ought not to be turned away from a police station.
“At times we will take over with an investigation if we have to.”
Asked if the squad lacked manpower and vehicles, Alexis said they can always do with more.
He said he had submitted recommendations for the squad to be strengthened from 53 to 125 officers, while they needed 11 additional vehicles.
Alexis said the farmers can tag their animals with GPS to track them when stolen, secure their fences, establish a WhatsApp chat to communicate with each other when a crime is in progress, while they had the option of installing cameras in their farms to monitor their crops and livestock.
A senior police officer who requested anonymity said the farmers can reach out to the police for help.
“We have officers from the Cumuto Police Station, Highway Patrol and the Arima Station making regular patrols in Wallerfield. We will follow up on it a little more.”