Sixty-Nine people ranging from the ages of 19 to 70 years have been found locked away in cages at a church located along the Eastern Main Road in Arouca on Wednesday morning.
These people both men and women are believed to be victims of "modern day slavery" and "human trafficking" according to Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith who spoke to the Guardian Media Limited's Lead Investigative desk Mark Bassant earlier on Wednesday just outside the Transformed Life Ministry Rehabilitation Centre.
"What we believe is that we have cracked what we believe is the biggest human trafficking ring in the country...some of them said they have been here for years...this is a much bigger picture and we have to investigate each and every case...this relates to virtual slavery with what we have seen here. Some of them say they have been tortured. It is such a bigger picture with profit being made out of this...family members deliberately sending their loved ones here and extracting the profits from the families," Griffith said.
He described the scenes as "barbaric".
"Persons are seen in cages, handcuffed...persons were being tortured. We saw tasers and batons...and again this is a situation of virtual modern day slavery," Griffith said.
During a sting operation coordinated by Griffith and executed by the Special Operation Response Team (SORT), the T&T Police Service (TTPS) rescued the 69 T&T citizens (65 men and 4 women). They were all held captive, where most of them were in cages and some handcuffs.
The operation commenced at about 12:15 am on Wednesday, at the prominent church.
According to the TTPS search warrants were issued pursuant to Section 13 Chap. 12:10 of the Trafficking in Persons Act, after a period of monitoring and investigations.
Griffith, Deputy Commissioner of Police Operations (Ag.) Jayson Forde, the TTPS’s Victim and Witness Support Unit, Northern Division C.I.D. are also on the scene, assisted by a medical unit comprising of doctors, nurses and ambulance attendants from the North Central Regional Health Authority, who are also conducting initial on-scene examinations of the rescued nationals.
Six people were arrested at the church, including the Pastor.
In an immediate defense of the church and its pastor, a committed member claimed "lies."
Speaking on strict anonymity, she said it is a rehabilitation home for people who want to come out of drug addiction.
"It is not human trafficking. It is a rehab so the pastor have the place gated to prevent them from running away. These people's parents sign contracts and agree. They also view the places...So why would families put there love one there if they saw it? Nobody there is in chains etc they are lying. God hear me it is a lie, " the church member said.
Guardian media was told that family members pay from $5,000 and more for their loved ones to be in the centre.
Griffith said he was told by senior police officers that reports were made about the organisation a few months ago and added that it is alleged that they were aware of false imprisonment. He added that he is appalled that they did not do a thorough search where they would have seen persons being held in cages, some of them for years, "and then being aware that they were in cages and nothing was being done so this matter has gone a bit further where it is actually expanding into a possible investigation taking place with police officers."
Minister of National Security, Stuart Young said he was contacted at about 2:30 am by Griffith and briefed on the ongoing police operation taking place, "where the TTPS had uncovered approximately 70 persons being held in very disturbing circumstances at what was being described as a rehabilitation centre."
Young said he was also in communication with the Minister of Health Terrence Deyalsingh and the Director of the Counter Trafficking Unit of the Ministry of National Security, to ensure that necessary support was provided for an unfolding situation.
Young said he is shocked and disturbed on hearing the news, "From the preliminary information provided to me, I am shocked and disturbed at the circumstances under which humans were being held and I strongly condemn same."
"I remind persons that this is now an active and unfolding police investigation and I am certain that facts surrounding this disturbing matter will begin to be uncovered. Accordingly, it is prudent for little more to be said at this time and the TTPS should be permitted to do their work," he added.
Young has thanked all those involved in the operation of finding and freeing the victims who he said may have been held against their will and subject to inhumane and degrading treatment.
Investigations are continuing.
Story by: RHONDOR DOWLAT-ROSTANT