It has been almost a year since Vaughn “Sandman” Mieres – reputed drug lord and gang leader – was killed. His reign over the North Coast, which lasted decades, directly or indirectly contributed to the ever-increasing death toll associated with gang activity in TT.
But Sandman’s own “business” brought business for many others, especially on his home turf of School Street, Las Cuevas and as Newsday discovered, his death has led to financial strain for some of the people of the area.
Joyce McLean, who has lived in Las Cuevas for more 57 years, and who owns a shop on School Street, was there before Sandman’s rise, and is still there after his fall.
She told Newsday she knew Mieres as a baby – and lauded him as someone who helped the community.
She interrupted the conversation to sell in the shop, which at the time had only one other customer, who had been there since it opened at 7 am. The new customer, a light-skinned youth with a tattoo on his upper chest, came to buy cigarettes, but only had a $100 bill.
Mc Lean told him he could take the cigarettes and bring the exact change for her later – an offer he humbly accepted. She told him she didn’t have enough change; the truth was she had not made much money for the day.
She told Newsday that before Sandman died, she would have made $300-$400 by noon. On that day she was barely able to scrape together $150 from sales.
“Before he died, everything was good. People were coming to the store frequently. Everyone was buying. People had more money.
“I don’t know how they were getting it, but since he died everything changed,” she said.
She lamented that the same people who would spend by the hundreds before Sandman was killed now barely come to the store.
She is not the only one. Business owners along the North Coast admitted to seeing a difference shortly after Sandman died. They are struggling to make the money they did when there was an influx of cash into the area, albeit by questionable means.
An empire of blood
Sandman was born in a small house on School Street not far from McLean’s shop. She recalled that she and his mother, Gloria, were both pregnant at around the same time and she had held him as a baby.
Villagers said he was never interested in school growing up and would frequently skip it to go play in the sand on the nearby beach.
A popular business owner in Maracas said he knew him growing up, when he was a respectful youth, who “did not seem like a threat.”
McLean also called him a respectful person.
“Sandman grew up from a baby as a nice child,” she said.
“He is dead and gone and we never spoke to him for certain reasons. But that have nothing to do about telling you something bad about him. If I lie, God will know. He grew up as a nice boy.”
But then came his first jail term. Newsday was told he was arrested with a gun and marijuana and spent around seven years behind bars.
It was after this, villagers claim, he slowly turned into the “community leader” and alleged gang member with a drug-smuggling ring for which he’s remembered today.
Legitimately, Sandman owned about 30 fishing boats, which he used to supply his fish-processing business. He was also involved in construction and farming.
Some would even call him a philanthropist. News reports quoted people in Las Cuevas describing him as a “godsend” who would supply the area with work and money, threw Christmas parties and went through the area with bags of toys for children.
The police knew him as a drug dealer and gun smuggler with a network which spread as far as Venezuela and Colombia, and kept him at the top of a north-coast drug empire for about 20 years.
Allegations against Sandman include the murder of Selwyn “Robocop” Alexis in 2016, and the trafficking of young Venezuelan women.
He was charged with being a gang leader during the 2011 state of emergency, but was released for lack of evidence. In 2018 he was arrested and charged with possession of arms and ammunition and was released on $250,000 bail.
His empire kept people fed in his village, and gave him the means to protect those under his watch.
“All the killing of the people, we don’t know about that,” McLean said. “But we were at our business at a point in time and some people came to harass us. They were from South or somewhere and they came with stupidness behind us. He rallied the entire village and they chased them away.
“Although we don’t speak to him, he said, ‘Don’t hambug my elderly people.’
“So give Jack his jacket. No one could have come from outside to do anyone anything in the village, especially elderly people. He would stand up to them.”
But there was at least one warning sign that the end of the empire was approaching. Sandman’s daughter was put in the line of fire when gunmen attacked one of his vehicles on June 12, 2019, near Providence Girls’ School on Belmont Circular Road.
A month later, gunmen – one of whom was identified as an ex-associate of his – stormed his house and killed him and three other people.
Reports said a squad of eight attacked Sandman’s home at 2.15 am on July 25 from two directions. A team of four approached the front gate. Meanwhile another group climbed the hills and sneaked around the back of his Hernandes Trace home.
Nigel “Blood” Octim was guarding the front gate while another man was at the back of the property. When the gunmen banged on the front gate claiming to be police, Octim answered it. As soon as he opened the gate, he was shot dead. The second guard, Kadir Joseph, was shot dead as well.
When they got inside the house, the attackers shot Sandman and his wife Alita Dehere several times. His two children, four and 16, were spared.
One gunman was wounded and shortly after was dropped off at a hospital. He was later charged with the four murders.
Michael “Uncle Sam” Pierre, a lifelong resident on the North Coast and owner of Uncle Sam’s Restaurant, in a conversation with Newsday said despite Sandman’s notorious image, the people of the North Coast had nothing to fear from him. He said Sandman and associates would frequent the bar and have a good time without disrespecting him or other patrons.
He recalled a conversation with Sandman not long before his death, when Mieres hinted he might want to run his business on a strictly legitimate basis.
“He was saying something like that to me, and I told him that it would be a good thing,” Uncle Sam said. “But at the same time I recalled something someone else said – an empire built by blood must be maintained by blood, or it will fall. It resonated in me at that moment.
“So while I was telling him that it would be to get out of whatever business he was in, I knew it would be very difficult.”
CoP: Live within your means
Asked for insight into the void left by Sandman’s death, Comissioner of Police Gary Griffith said it was a phenomenon which happens all over the world.
“Major drug dealers are seen as ‘Robin Hoods’ in the community. They try to see if they could throw free money into the community to get their trust and provide security.”
He said this is one of the main ways to recruit young men as “soldiers” in gang lords’ personal militias.
“They will have youths as lookouts, they would hire people as gang members.
“But it’s not free,” Griffith said.
He pointed out that the money and resources which people in the area enjoy are usually accrued by illegal activities – and at the cost of people’s lives.
“There is a price to pay to lift the standards of a community through these people.
“Because the money a criminal is giving is usually blood money, their finances could be linked to criminal activities. It allows competitors of that criminal to target these people.”
He said Sandman was connected to several deaths, and it was through his access to funding from various sources – including government contracts – that he was able to do business that contributed to the murder toll in one way or the other.
“Other murders could have been committed because of what a gang member could have done. Other people could have been killed in other circumstances, for example being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
He said the reason there is a financial drought in the area is because the people connected to Sandman were previously living beyond their means through their ill-gotten gains.
“You can’t feel sorry for these people, because they were acquiring wealth by harming others,” Griffith said. “Most people are living through hard times. But that doesn’t mean you should engage in criminal activity.”
But one youth from School Street told Newsday things are actually easier now that Sandman is gone. He said there is no chokehold on who people can approach for work and where they can look for employment.
The youth – the same tattooed young man who visited McLean’s shop – said because of Sandman’s influence, work came through him, for the most part. And because of his business there were certain places where some people from the area could not go without suspicion.
The availability of work depended very much on who Sandman liked, and “he didn’t like everybody.”
Griffith said when alleged gang leaders like Sandman are killed it creates a void which the police have a duty to fill immediately, “through good rather than evil.
“Another criminal element will take control, unless it is controlled by other elements. We are that element.”
He said now that the criminal element has been removed police must create better opportunities for youths in sport and education.
New programmes will soon be rolled out, he said, including one called Cross Borders in which young people will be paired with a police officer for guidance, much like the Big Brother programme in the US.
“The Sandman empire has fallen and it is now dust.
“But if we don’t act quickly others will start to build.”
Griffith said while he could not give any assurance that any area could be absolutely safe, in some cases when a kingpin or gang leader is taken down, there is a spike in criminal activities as lieutenants struggle for power. But he maintained he would not let any criminal elements feel they can control an entire community.
“I intend to bring down any criminal empire.”