Crime's curse on the Caribbean
Writing about the threat that soaring levels of crime pose to Caribbean stability, in a week in which most columnists are offering their opinion on rising sea levels may seem perverse.

However, unlike climate change and the very public exchanges just beginning in Copenhagen, crime, despite its insidious nature, is an issue that is being allowed to fester.

For the last two and a half decades, the incidence of murder, armed robbery, kidnapping, organised crime, narcotics trafficking, the sale and smuggling of arms, piracy, money laundering, people trafficking, extortion and corruption have emerged in almost every nation in the Caribbean. So much so that statistics produced by some international agencies suggest that the region is, on a per capita basis, in certain categories, one of the most crime-prone in the world.

Key transit point

Why levels of crime should have risen so rapidly is the subject of debate, but primary among the causes is the manner in which the narcotics-trafficking networks and those that support them have exploited urban deprivation and middle-class greed.

The consequence is that not only has the Caribbean become a key transit point for a commodity that vastly exceeds in value the entire legal economy of the region, but such sums have made it increasingly possible to suborn youth at one end of the spectrum, to judicial systems, police forces, politicians and legitimate business at the other.

What is certain is that beyond those who suffer as victims, crime is in danger of becoming embedded in Caribbean society, changing the quality of Caribbean life and engendering a fear, albeit suppressed into a kind of silent complicity, that will in time enable those involved to challenge legitimate economic growth and development.

While no nation has been immune from crime and violence, events this year in some countries have taken on particularly grim characteristics.

In Guyana there has been a spate of largely unexplained murders, bombings, arson, and levels of lawlessness by a small group using high-powered weapons.

In Jamaica, where the murder rate and policing failures continue to multiply, many are watching to see how Government handles an extradition request by the United States.

This involves a well-known Jamaican figure variously described as a west Kingston businessman or by the United States as a narcotics and gun trafficker, who, it is said, controls a politically important 'garrison' in Kingston.

In the Dominican Republic, month after month, senior members of the armed forces, the police and others involved in supporting narcotics trafficking continue to find ways to escape justice.

And in Curaçao, persons arrested on narcotics-trafficking charges have been linked to criminal networks financing Hezbollah through Middle Eastern banks and traced to the shipment of arms to South America.

If all of this and offences against Caribbean citizens was not bad enough, there are indications of a trend towards serious crime against visitors.

The most recent incident to be reported was an attack on 18 passengers from a cruise ship who were held at gunpoint and robbed in Nassau.

Sadly, this may be the tip of an iceberg. Diplomats suggest that while incidents like this are still small in number, there has been an increase in crimes, such as rape, that go unreported as the visitors concerned wish to return home rapidly, often with the support of the authorities who are scared that the attendant publicity would damage their tourism product.

While all of this needs to be kept in perspective and for it to be stated and restated that such events are rare, most Caribbean governments still have not understood the need for a timely, joined up, carefully crafted and honest response to all such events for both a domestic and overseas audience.

An element of present problems revolves around seriously under-resourced, undertrained and sometimes corrupt individuals in police forces that are simply not equipped - in every sense of the word - to address the growing range of crimes against nationals and foreigners that cause actual and reputational damage.

Inadequate number of uniformed police

Recent reports from the United Nations and others indicate that in many Caribbean nations, the numbers of uniformed police are inadequate to have a substantial influence on deterrence, and their response to emergency calls is too slow.

Much the same message about the inadequacies of Caribbean policing is now appearing in the media, whether it relates to unsolved homophobic murders in Jamaica, tourists talking about police failings in The Bahamas on YouTube, or the New York Times writing about the inadequacy of the police response to crime in the Caribbean.

But policing is of course just a part of the problem. Alarmingly, in some states, organised crime has been able to develop political influence and deliver social and other programmes in a manner that suggests the emergence of a state within a state.

This, and the failure of governments to find ways of isolating or legally removing those engaged in criminal activity, threatens to have an impact on the support offered by the region's external partners. So much so that in the region's closest allies serious questions are being asked about aspects of their security and other forms of cooperation.

There are few easy answers to the burgeoning problem of crime. Moreover, addressing these issues during an economic downturn and rising unemployment is far from easy.

While those beyond the region have to do more to reduce demand for the narcotics trafficking that fuels criminality in the Caribbean, perhaps the only real answer lies in the public demonstration of moral leadership by those in politics, the Church, the media and business who can see the longer-term consequence of inaction.

David Jessop is director of the Caribbean Council. Email: david.jessop@caribbean-council.org

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Go back | Date: 06 Dec 2009
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