Port of Spain, Trinidad, used to be known for Calypso music, steel drums and wild parties during Carnival. Then, when the price of natural gas skyrocketed, it enjoyed all the fruits of a boom town. The standard of living improved. Shiny glass skyscrapers began to fill downtown, and the economic gap between the island's Indians — who tended to be the merchant class — and blacks widened.
Crime is endemic in Trinidad today. Gangs rule the slums, and, for a time, kidnappings, often targeting Indians, became an easy way to make a fast buck.
Debbie Ali became one of the scourge's victims late last year as she was cleaning the gutters outside her house one morning shortly before Christmas. She says she was aware that there were plenty of people out, potentially witnesses, when she started cleaning. When the outside traffic began to thin, she prepared to go back inside, knowing it was unsafe to be alone and that she was a prime target for a kidnapping. Then the phone rang, and she ran inside to get it.
"I picked up the phone. I had my keys in my hand," she describes. "I was just moving to hit the button for the garage door to close and just as I turned around, these two men came in ... masked."
Ali lives about an hour outside Port of Spain in an upper-middle-class neighborhood of two-story stucco houses, two-car garages and manicured lawns. It looks more like a suburb of Houston than an area right outside of Port of Spain.
Ali, who stands at just 5 feet tall and weighs about 80 pounds, says that when she saw the men behind her, she couldn't move.
"Your reaction is not snap, to run inside and lock the door, whatever," she says. "You just freeze — and that is sheer shock and sheer terror. You literally go cold. I felt like I had no blood in my body."
At first, Ali was hoping that it would just be a robbery, that the men would ransack the house, take jewelry and money, and then leave. But when they started to look for things to tie her up, she realized that it was going to be much more.
"They came with my husband's ties, and they tied my hands and feet. And they put a pillowcase over my head, and that's when I knew," Ali says.
She knew she was about to be kidnapped.
In 2001, there were just 10 kidnappings in Trinidad. Just four years later, in 2005, almost 60 people were held for ransom. The stories dominated the headlines on this island of 1.2 million people, and for a time, Trinidad held the dubious distinction of being the kidnapping capital of the world. The Indian community felt terrorized. Kidnappers snatched the wife of a supermarket magnate as she tried to pull into her garage. A former U.S. Marine of Indian descent was kidnapped outside a local bar.
"What happened in 2005 with 58 kidnappings was totally unacceptable," says Glen Hackett, an investigator with the anti-kidnapping unit of the Trinidad and Tobago police department. Local police were working on the problem, but they just couldn't solve the cases fast enough.
When former Marine Baja Maharaj was snatched outside a local bar in 2005, the landscape changed. The FBI entered the picture and worked with the Trinidad and Tobago police, an investigation that eventually led to the arrest of 11 people — an actual kidnapping ring.
"That was the turning point," Hackett says. "The kidnappers, they realized that it is no longer, 'Here we can kidnap, get a ransom and live happily ever after.' The police, they may not get us [in] 24 hours but they will get us."
The gang included four members of the National Defense Force — army officers who left the barracks at night to kidnap unsuspecting victims.
Hackett says he was stunned. "Surprise is an understatement," he says. "I was shocked."
Almost immediately, the high-profile arrests had a chilling effect on Trinidad's kidnapping industry. So far this year, there have only been seven kidnappings, and the good working relationship the FBI developed with the Trinidad police during the kidnapping scourge meant that when the JFK plot appeared to have an island connection, FBI agents already knew who to call.
Ali's kidnapping story has a slightly less-satisfying ending. She was held, bound and blindfolded, for two weeks until her family paid a $150,000 ransom. The police still haven't caught her captors. Ali says she still has nightmares, and the family just bought a dog — a Rottweiler puppy.