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This growing crime scourge we don’t need

Within the space of seven days earlier this month, normally tranquil St Lucia was hit by an unprecedented crime wave in which five young men were senselessly gunned down in a section of the capital Castries, amidst reports of rising feuds among rival gangs. Up to the time, the island had recorded no homicides for the year.

In Jamaica, long regarded as the murder capital of the English-speaking Caribbean, a similar killing spree over a seven-day period in January claimed more than 21 lives, prompting a baffled newspaper commentator to remark: “Wish I were that guru who could tell you I definitely know what is the cause of most murders in Jamaica.”

In oil-rich Trinidad and Tobago, where there has also been a sharp upsurge in criminal activity in recent years, the latest murder count for the year stood at 108 up to the time of writing.

“A significant and growing portion of this violence is attributed to the influence of gangs, illegal narcotics, and firearms,” said the US State Department’s 2014 Crime And Safety Report on the twin island republic.

Every Caribbean country is grappling in some way with the vexing problem of violent crime. Coming out of last week’s CARICOM-United States summit in Jamaica, attended by America’s President Barack Obama and regional prime ministers, was the news that Caribbean commissioners of police had estimated that as many as 1.6 million illegal guns were currently in circulation within
the region.

“This is a significant cause for concern as we are all aware that guns are the most instrumental factor for the high murder rates in the Caribbean,” Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister Kamla Persaud-Bissessar told the half-day summit.

Violent crime in Barbados has thankfully not reached the alarming levels of some neighbouring countries, but this is neither cause for celebration nor complacency. While we recognize and applaud the good work of the Royal Barbados Police Force, we remain mindful of the warning contained in an old saying that when a neighbour’s house is on fire, you had better safeguard your own.

Given the transnational nature of crime, especially in the context of a thriving illegal drug trade, the tragedy which has befallen some neighbouring countries can easily happen here, especially in the context where people are moving now more freely from one country to another under CARICOM arrangements related to the Single Market And Economy (CSME).

It is against this worrying backdrop that a forthcoming United States-CARICOM conference dealing exclusively with nagging security issues in the region is welcome. To effectively fight crime in the region requires a multilateral approach. Securing the full support of the United States, which has considerably more resources than the region combined, can make a difference.

This special conference is a decision which has come out of the United States-CARICOM summit in response to a proposal put on the table by Prime Minister Persaud-Bissessar, who also raised concern about the new threat posed to the region posed by reported recruitment of fighters for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The conference is likely to be held as early as June.

The crime wave has already seriously tarnished the traditional image of the Caribbean as a tranquil, easy-going paradise where visitors and investors happily go about their business in relative safety. The region’s ugly portrayal by the international media, plus decisions by Britain, Canada and the United States to issue crime advisories to citizens visiting some countries, are cause for considerable unease, given the dire implications for our struggling economies.

A report on crime in the region published in 2007 by the World Bank and the United Nations Office On Drugs And Crime (UNODC) drew attention to these issues. It noted: “Crime drives away investment, both foreign and domestic, and consequently slows growth . . . . It is clear that crime is impeding the development of the Caribbean.”

United States participation in the search for more effective solutions to the crime problem through the forthcoming special conference is welcome for another reason. The United States represents a major consumer market for narcotic drugs, which are trans-shipped from producing countries in the south through the open waters of the Caribbean into America. A lot is at stake, therefore, in this special conference.

Caribbean citizens are looking to the authorities for effective solutions to the crime problem. However, they need to appreciate that they too have a critical role to play. Crime is not an issue only for national police forces or governments, but for society as a whole. Everyone is affected in some way.

Either we conquer crime, or crime eventually will conquer us.

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