Trinidad and Tobago: The Showman

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I hadn’t been in Trinidad and Tobago more than a day before I heard about Ian Alleyne. He is unavoidable as a subject of conversation—especially one about the spiraling rate of violence in this island country. “A disgusting person,” one man told me over drinks in the lobby of the Hilton in the capital of Port-of-Spain.

Alleyne is the host of the call-in television show Crime Watch, which is notorious for broadcasting gruesome footage from crime scenes and confrontational interviews with accused killers. Alleyne also encourages anonymous callers to tattle on their neighbors on live television. Once he took a camera into a morgue filled with bodies and conspicuously ate a candy bar during the segment. Some of his videos—given to him by informants in the police department, as well as by ordinary citizens—depict murders in progress.

Popular anxiety about Trinidad’s rising crime rate—and widespread distrust of the police—has helped fuel the success of Crime Watch. Murders used to be relatively rare here, but 15 years ago, international drug cartels began using Port-of-Spain as a convenient transit point for South American cocaine on its way to Europe or the United States. The smugglers are allied with a set of rival gangs that occupy the slums of wooden shacks that ring the seaside capital, and revenge slayings occur there nightly. The past decade has brought the murder rate higher than Mexico’s. In 2013, 405 murders were reported in Trindad and Tobago—that translates to 30 murders per 100,000 residents; by comparison, the United States had a murder rate of five per 100,000—and many other suspicious deaths went unclassified. Crime Watch, which airs every weeknight, is a colorful Grand Guignol, a kind of collective steam valve. Alleyne steps into the confidence gap without hesitation, and although his loud voice may be grating to some, to others he is the most courageous man on the islands.

Curious about the appeal of such trashy fare, I tuned in to Crime Watch the following evening. The title sequence was a Miami Vice–style montage showing Alleyne as a heroic tough-guy, driving a black SUV, aiming a pistol at an unseen villain, boarding a yacht with two bikini models, and commanding heavily armed police as they enter a crime scene, all over a hip-hop chorus: “There’s a jungle out there, and the hunt is on.”

“Good evening!” Alleyne yelled, standing next to a cluttered desk. “And welcome to Crime Watch! ” He then showed a segment of ambush interviews he made in a slum where a serial killer had been caught. The graphic at the bottom of the screen bragged of how Alleyne had “solved” the crime, though it was unclear how he had done this. Another graphic read, “chopped-up child.”

I decided I had to meet him. So I went to the downtown studios of the network CNC3, which is owned by the same company that prints The Guardian, Port-of-Spain’s oldest and most respected newspaper. To the dismay of some of its staffers, corporate overseers order the paper to publish front-page promotional advertisements for Crime Watch featuring Alleyne’s grinning face in his white-rimmed glasses. But the show—though unapologetically meretricious—is immensely profitable. On any given night, about 150,000 sets are tuned in, with an estimated
10 percent of the nation watching.

“Trinis love gossip, bacchanal, and scandal,” explained Judy Raymond, the editor of The Guardian at the time of my visit, using a nickname for citizens of Trinidad and Tobago. Somewhat wearily, she then repeated the often-used defense of his bombast: “He presents a voice for the voiceless.”

The front offices of the studio—just upstairs from The Guardian’s newsroom—were jammed with people, many of them poor and unemployed, eager for a chance to tell their hard-luck stories, written down on half-sheets of paper for evaluation by Alleyne’s producer. A hulking security guard held them all at bay.

I took a seat beside a woman named Christine Paltoo, who told me her nephew had been beaten by police—the boy took off his shirt right there to show me the gashes on his back. She wanted Ian to expose this on his show. Another man, Dwayne Reid, had his Nissan Sentra stolen from his garage two months ago. “The police aren’t doing anything,” he complained. “They say the neighborhood is too hot for them. Going on this show is the only solution.”

I wrote down my interview request on the complaint slip and was quickly shown into an inner studio chamber, which was crowded with even more supplicants. The guard bade me to take a seat against the wall, where I talked with Haroon Mohammed, a former employee of the local sewerage authority whose crane had collapsed onto high-voltage wires and injured him into joblessness. Now the government was refusing to pay him disability.

“I trust Ian to drop a bomb on them—to embarrass them,” he told me. He then added hastily, “I am speaking figuratively, of course. I am a man of God, not al Qaeda.”

At about 10 minutes to show time, Alleyne’s 22-year-old sister, Danah Alleyne, then the show’s producer, came out of her office to show me the Crime Watch set: a circular desk strewn with papers in front of a garish red-and-yellow backdrop. In the corner were a mop and bucket, which she said not only symbolized the show’s mission of cleaning up this Caribbean nation but was also a visual play on the local slang word wetting, which means a public shaming.

“Nobody comes to the police anymore with their problems,” she said. “Now they come to us.”

It was at this point, five minutes to airtime, that Ian Alleyne made his entrance, barking orders. He had a ring with a blue stone roughly the size of an apricot pit. “All right, all right, all right!” he yelled. “Line them up! One at a time!”

He barely had time to put on his jacket before the clock ran down and he was talking fast and loud to the nation. The lead story was a shoplifting case out in the town of Arima, where a woman was seen on surveillance tape stuffing a dress into her bag. “Unbelievable!” cries Alleyne. “Unbelievable!” He asked the audience to call in with tips, and several anonymous listeners provided a name that Alleyne gleefully repeated.

Next he brought on Mohammed, who discussed his disability case wearing dark glasses, in an attempt at anonymity, and then Reid to talk about his missing car. But the pièce de résistance was a woman with a bandaged face named Kimberley Dennis who explained how her Jamaican boyfriend had punched her. She showed his photograph and then read the license number of his car out loud. Already excited, Alleyne went fully manic.

“Let me tell you something,” he said to the camera, addressing the boyfriend. “I have been looking for you! I am going to find you. I am going to find you. Why did you beat up a woman like that? If you know what’s good for you, surrender!”

And then: the kind of dramatic confrontation that everyone on Crime Watch lives for. A man claiming to be the boyfriend called in to the switchboard.

“I didn’t attack her,” said the man, hesitantly.

“I will hunt you down!” cried Alleyne. “I will get you kicked out of the country by Friday.” And then he closed the show on a triumphant note, using a Caribbean slang word for wreckage: “That is what you call mash up.”

Once off the air, Alleyne’s hyper-caffeinated personality mellowed. He pulled up a folding chair to talk with me. His suit was made by DKNY, he said, his shoes by Jimmy Choo, and his watch by Rolex.

I asked him about his habit of naming uncharged suspects on live television. “Every person shown on this program is innocent until proven guilty,” he said. “We have a battery of attorneys locked on every day.” His employers were on special notice after he broadcast a video in 2011 showing the rape of a 13-year-old girl, in violation of a law prohibiting the identification of rape victims. A judge fined him $4,700 for the stunt.

Though he is a highly public figure, Alleyne is also a private citizen who does not have any formal connection to any law enforcement agency. I asked him about his frequent promise to “hunt down” criminals. How is that done, exactly?

“We will find them,” he kept repeating, before acknowledging that his best method of catching criminals was to inform on them to the national police and let the authorities do the hunting.

“You can find him irritating, but I still love him,” said Sharon Holder-Fraser, who works for the tourism ministry. “People prefer to call him rather than the police. They know the police will abuse them.”

And yet, there is little doubt among Alleyne’s observers that Crime Watch does nothing to actually reduce crime. As an ombudsman of last (or first) resort, Alleyne has provided hope and comic relief. And he has made money for Guardian Media Limited. The occasional thief or barroom thug gets caught because somebody snitches accurately. But he can claim no major effect.

“What he does has so little to do with actual crime control, but has far more to do with his personality,” said Renee Cummings, a prominent criminologist in Port-of-Spain who was hired to independently assess the credibility of Guardian Media Limited after the rape broadcast scandal. “Is he reducing crime in this country? Absolutely not. But he gives you an hour of drama. He gives you Jerry Springer and Judge Judy. People want justice, and somehow they believe Ian will bring it. He shames people in a dramatic way.”

But it is the perception of Alleyne as a crime fighter that makes him so compelling in a country increasingly desperate for hope and for action. Many view the real police, sometimes accused of entering houses with guns blazing, as corrupt. Indeed, Alleyne’s authority has superseded that of the police in some quarters, perhaps because he does so little to correct the misimpression that he has genuine arrest powers or a government portfolio. To many, he seems like a real detective who must have a set of handcuffs hidden under his designer jacket. After all, who else would have license to announce on national television, “I’m going to hunt you down”?

Part of Alleyne’s genius, say observers, is his understanding of the Caribbean sense of lively conversation, which takes great delight in gossip and intrigue. Wesley Gibbings, a columnist at The Guardian, says he recognized in Alleyne’s delivery the patterns of calypso, the sly Trinidadian style of music thought to have been pioneered in the 18th century by sugar plantation slaves who passed along information about their masters’ misdeeds through song lyrics. “The most popular guy in the bar would be just like Ian Alleyne—the guy who has the easy answers and talks loud,” said Gibbings. “He is the quintessence of a rum shop kingpin. Without the rum.”

Televised snitching posts like this tend to thrive during periods of low confidence in law enforcement. The very first of them—also called Crimewatch—debuted in the United Kingdom in 1984 during an uptick in perceived mayhem. It directly inspired America’s Most Wanted, whose producers enjoyed unprecedented access to top police officials and the details of ongoing investigations. The formula was copied in Hong Kong (Police Report), Brazil (Linha Direta), Ireland (Crimecall), and Sweden (Efterlyst). The show’s success has even spawned a potent imitation in Trinidad and Tobago. Beyond the Tape, broadcast on the rival CCN TV6 network, is a particularly difficult rival for Alleyne because the cohost is a one-time friend and partner, a towering police inspector named Roger Alexander who brings a genuine badge and uniform in front of the cameras.

“It’s sad when someone who you created tries to compete with you,” is all Alleyne will say about the defection. The two no longer speak.

I went over to the CCN media house one evening to watch a filming of Beyond the Tape and was not surprised to see it had borrowed heavily from the Crime Watch formula—nasty video, tough-guy talk, lots of moralizing. The top story was the shooting of three apparent lowlifes the previous night during the execution of a search warrant.

“I want to inform the viewers that what you will see is very graphic,” said Alexander, smiling. Close-up photos of three corpses flashed on the screen. The song “House of the Rising Sun” inexplicably played in the background as the camera panned across shots of blood-smeared leaves and blood-covered linoleum inside a house.

A few callers rang in to express their thoughts, not all of them complimentary. “I want to say that I am not impressed,” said a man identifying himself as a pastor. “I have experienced brutality from the police. You cannot continue to execute people in this country like that.”

“Caller!” snapped Alexander. “Caller! As a man of the cloth, it disturbs me to hear you say that. I’m disappointed in what you just said.”

Inside the control booth, two of the producers giggled. “What was that pastor’s name?” one asked. “Pastor Stupid,” the other replied. They agreed not to put him on the air if he should call again. The next several callers ridiculed the minister’s naïveté.

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On my last night in Trinidad, I went down to Alleyne’s hometown of Chaguanas to learn more about his background. Before finding his career as a television crime impresario, he worked as an assistant in a shop that manufactured dentures. He is the adopted son of Dave Alleyne, the charismatic pastor of the Flaming Word Ministry, a giant Pentecostal church that also runs a mini-mall behind the sanctuary. Ian had told me he had vivid childhood memories of people lined up around the corner to see his famous father—he said he wanted that for himself. And in a way, he has found it.

Indeed, according to his sister, Alleyne “was always trying to impress Daddy. And he always wants to know, ‘Did Daddy see this, did Daddy see that?’ ” He gets especially pained, Danah Alleyne said, when he hears that his father has not tuned into Crime Watch on a particularly juicy night.

I was invited to dinner in an upper room at the Flaming Word Ministry and was seated next to the Reverend Alleyne. He wore his hair high. His black shirt was open three buttons down, and there were rings on eight of his fingers. Around his neck was a medallion bearing the number 613 to represent the number of laws in the Old Testament. It was easy to see where Ian had absorbed his recipe of grandeur, magnetism, and self-regard.

“In our time, I’m a prophet,” the elder Alleyne told me. “I was born a genius. I combine comedy, drama, and extemporaneous speaking. I’m quick—it’s a gift. What I see, what I hear, people are healed of their cancer. These are proven miracles.”

Like Ian, he came to his high-profile position in a roundabout way. He is a former sugar estate manager. “I have a scientific background and can see the Bible in a scientific way,” he said. “A person like me comes along maybe once in 2,000 years.”

Despite all this, I found him difficult to dislike—the same way that Ian Alleyne is innately, roguishly likeable. Father and son have both found their public voices through Trinidad’s crime spiral—the Reverend Dave preaches against crime at every single service and tries, with his congregation, to “pray it down.” He speaks with approval of the local Chaguanas police, who are known to give thugs from Port-of-Spain a direct message: “If you come here, you’ll die.”

I ask the pastor if he watches his son’s show, and he gives an equivocal answer. “When I have time,” he said. “He’s done well. His real source of power is his desire to actualize. That overrides his need for safety.” The last was a reference to the death threats that are said to routinely come over the Crime Watch telephone line.

Earlier this year, Ian Alleyne got into a contract dispute with Guardian Media. The show went off the air for nearly two weeks, to the dismay of its many followers. Then came a two-year contract renewal and Alleyne proclaimed: “It is not alleged, it is a fact that Ian Alleyne and Crime Watch is back!”

He was soon airing cellphone video of a 13-year-old child being viciously beaten by a group of female students at a school, and the murder of a tire salesman caught on a black-and-white surveillance tape. “I put this on,” he said, giggling and burping as the footage rolled, “so everybody will see what is going on. Watching this boy fight for his last breath. Watch, watch, watch!”

First published in The American Scholar.

Cover photograph by Kevin Gass.

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Tom Zoellner
Tom Zoellner is the author of five nonfiction books, including The Heartless Stone, Train, A Safeway in Arizona, and Uranium. His writing has also appeared in The Atlantic, Harper’s, Time, Foreign Policy, The Daily Beast, Slate, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle, and he has reported from Rwanda, Angola, Bolivia, Peru, Brazil, Russia, China, Japan, India, South Africa, Israel, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the United Kingdom, France, Spain, and Serbia. An associate professor of English at Chapman University, Tom lives in downtown Los Angeles.