Caribbean isles struggle with crime wave
By Linda Hutchinson-Jafar
PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad (Reuters) – Soaring murder rates, kidnappings and exploding trash bins have two Caribbean tourist playgrounds on edge, with business owners pleading for police protection and foreign governments warning travelers to be wary.
The important tourism sectors in Trinidad and Tobago and in Jamaica could be hard hit if governments do not act soon, business leaders say. But so far Caribbean residents, not tourists, have borne the brunt of the crime surge.
“The situation of crime in the region today scares the living daylights out of every one of us,” the president of the Caribbean Hotel Association, Bethia Parle, said recently in Trinidad.
In Jamaica, owners shut their businesses for a day in May to protest the high crime rate. The island of 2.7 million people has had more than 1,400 murders so far this year, already outnumbering the total for all of last year.
In Trinidad and Tobago, the violent-death toll is edging toward a record 300 and a surge in kidnappings plagues the twin-island nation.
The U.S. State Department has warned Americans to avoid Trinidad’s capital on certain days because of trash bin bombings that have occurred on the 10th and 11th of the month for the last three months, injuring more than a dozen people.
Britain, Canada and Australia have also warned their citizens about robberies, violent attacks and kidnappings in Trinidad and Tobago.
At the urging of business groups, Prime Minister Patrick Manning is negotiating with Scotland Yard and the FBI to set up units in Port of Spain to help local police fight crime.
Businesses are closing in Trinidad and families are emigrating or sending their children abroad, according to opposition leader and former Prime Minister Basdeo Panday.
“We have a nation of frightened people,” Panday said.
HANG HEADS IN SHAME
Businessman Nicholas Galt said crime is foremost on the mind of every citizen, every business person and every investor in the nation of 1.3 million.
“Trinidad and Tobago can hang its head in shame on a count of over 280 murders, over 160 kidnappings, and over 11,300 serious reported crimes to date for 2005,” said Galt, president of the American Chamber of Commerce of Trinidad and Tobago.
“Pit this against a (crime) detection rate of approximately 22 percent and a conviction rate of below 10 percent. The result: failure.”
Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and other Caribbean countries blame the problem in part on their location, along shipping routes linking the major cocaine producers of South America with the major consumers of North America and Western Europe.
Authorities have seized 6 tons of cocaine in Trinidad’s territorial waters since August and believe that represents less than 10 percent of the amount shipped annually. Jamaica’s national security minister, Peter Phillips, estimated 100 to 120 metric tons of cocaine are transshipped through Jamaica annually.
Drug proceeds are used to buy illegal arms and put sophisticated arsenals in the hands of competing gangs, in turn fueling the murder rate and driving the wave of kidnappings, Trinidad’s prime minister said. Drugs also feed corruption.
“There can be no doubt as to the debilitating effect of kidnapping on the law-abiding majority, the fear and anxiety it creates and the extent to which it contributes to the perception that our country is not safe,” Manning said.
Jamaica’s Phillips called the international drug trade “the tap root of violent crime in Jamaica.”
“Narcotics trafficking has spawned a criminal elite that is fighting to control a budget the same size as that presented in Parliament by our minister of finance, but without any of the obligations for debt, employment and services, which is placed on the elected government,” Phillips said.
The problem is compounded by criminals deported to their Caribbean homelands from the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States, Manning and Phillips both believe.
In the last decade, 23,703 Jamaicans were returned to Jamaica from overseas. The majority — 16,833 — were deported for criminal offenses, and drug crimes were the most prevalent, Phillips said.
“We believe these individuals may help to facilitate the illegal drug trade through the establishment of transnational criminal networks. So, in essence deportations facilitate and worsen the problems linked to the trade in drugs and guns,” Phillips said.