CARIBBEAN: Crime Wave Spills Across Borders
By Bert Wilkinson
GEORGETOWN, Guyana, Mar 13 (IPS) - Two mass slayings by armed gangs in Guyana earlier this year that took 23 lives, and an overall surge in violent crime in many parts of the Caribbean, have spurred regional leaders to call a special meeting to discuss the issue next month.
A joint United Nations-World Bank study in 2007 found the Caribbean had a murder rate of 30 per 100,000 inhabitants -- four times the number for North America and 15 times that of West and Central Europe.
Next month's special leaders' summit will be held in Trinidad and Tobago, which has responsibility for crime and security in the regional trade bloc Caricom and itself racked up some 400 murders in 2007.
"The region is not losing the war on crime, nor can the region afford to lose the war on crime," insisted Trinidadian Prime Minister Patrick Manning following a Caricom summit in the Bahamas last weekend. "We are taking the discussions to a new level."
Manning said that leaders simply did not have enough time during their two-day meeting to devote to security, as they were consumed with other major issues like the cost of living increases across the trade bloc in recent months, climate change and recently concluded negotiations for a new trade and aid pact with the European Union.
However, rising rates of violence in normally quiet tourist havens like the Bahamas, which saw 75 murders in 2007 compared to 60 in 2006, have added urgency to plans for a more coordinated regional approach to tackling crime, which many ascribe to the region's role as a portal for the illegal drug industry.
The very brutal killings in Guyana, whose victims included three policemen and five children, shocked the country and prompted calls by some non-governmental organisations for international assistance in tracking down the perpetrators -- several of whom remain at large.
Guyanese vendor Lyndon Carter says he is very worried about the upsurge in violent crime, and that authorities have to recognise the transnational aspect of it.
"I have gone to Antigua and Barbados and seen some people I know are involved in crime operating there. Next few months, these same people are in Suriname or French Guiana. I believe police are missing that part of the puzzle. It is something they have to look at seriously," he told IPS.
Officials say that the geographic proximity of the Caribbean to drug-producing nations in South America as well as its mid-point status to North America makes it easy prey for powerful drug cartels, which are able to pump money into gangs and buy large amounts of weapons and ammunition.
At the same, many Caribbean nations have been criticised for police abuses and poor respect for human rights. In its annual report released this week, the U.S. State Department singled out Jamaica, Haiti and Guyana for censure, citing extrajudicial killings and kidnappings, overcrowded prisons, lengthy pretrial detention and judicial corruption.
Local security experts have advised creating rapid response teams to address regional security challenges, a proposal first raised by former Antiguan Prime Minister Lester back in 2001, but which languished when he lost his reelection bid in 2004 and governments became distracted by other political and economic issues.
The new prime minister of Barbados, David Thompson, perhaps summed up the situation by arguing that governments must come to the rescue of neighbours under siege.
"If one of our member governments is perceived as incapable of bringing criminals to justice, then what is there to stop criminals elsewhere from challenging the authority of governments? It is a matter impacting on all of us," Thompson said.
A three-page proposal discussed at the Caricom summit suggested that such a task force should be under the control of security professionals rather than governments. "It would be better to have a regional mechanism which is activated automatically and not require a political decision either at the national or regional level," the authors suggested, no doubt worried about political and national pride getting in the way of deployment.
St. Lucia and Jamaica -- which had a whopping 1,200 murders last year -- have already sought outside help, hiring experts from Britain's Scotland Yard to take up senior positions in their local police forces. The idea is to bring a fresh perspective to crime fighting and to have them undertake special investigations while regulars concentrated on day-to-day law enforcement.
Violence in schools is becoming an especially worrying problem. In Jamaica, authorities plan to swear in 300 teachers as special constables who would be empowered to make arrests.
Leaders have also considered reviving some aspects of a regional intelligence-sharing system that was successfully used during the Cricket World Cup hosted by nine nations a year ago.
Ramesh Singh, a Guyanese businessman, warned that unless the security situation improves, the region could well experience an even greater exodus of skilled workers abroad.
"People want to live in comfort, not having to look over their shoulders, not having to carry a gun to defend themselves. The middle and professional class are going to bail out if the situation is not corrected and they will go to the same Europe and the [United] States that we are trying to increase trade with," he told IPS.