July 31, 2006

Bermuda grapples with gangland-style shootings

HAMILTON, Bermuda (Reuters) - A drive-by shooting, a gunman spraying bullets into a bar and a teen-ager gunned down in his car in a gangland-style hit -- it's not the image that most people have of once-sedate Bermuda.

Yet the British mid-Atlantic island, long a picturesque playground for vacationing Americans, is grappling with a gang problem that some fear is heading the way of urban America or other island getaways in the nearby Caribbean.

The latest outbreak of violence saw 18-year-old Jason Lightbourne die a week ago in a hail of bullets in a back street in the central Paget parish, the fifth shooting in the last 90 days but the island's first murder this year.

It follows the unsolved shootings of three people by a gunman who ran into a Hamilton bar in April and the shooting of a bystander in a crowd outside a bar full of tourists on the South Shore last month.

Police say the incidents could be linked to Lightbourne's killing, with gang problems the likeliest motive, but they have yet to make arrests.

That doesn't surprise U.S. police officer DeLacy Davis, recruited by the government to deal with Bermuda's gang problems. The 20-year veteran of New Jersey's streets told the island's media after Lightbourne's shooting that it was naive to expect gang members to turn in their own members.

But he said police could do more to build links with the island community of 63,000 people.

"The greatest asset that the island has is everybody knows everyone on the island," Davis said.

At least Bermuda seems genuinely concerned about coming to grips with gangs, said Davis. In the United States, he said it took the government at least a decade to acknowledge the problem.

Late last year, police here revealed that at least one gang leader was openly acknowledging an affiliation with the Crips and the Bloods -- street gangs originating in Los Angeles that have become synonymous with violence and drugs.

Graffiti championing the association had begun appearing on walls in well-known gang hangouts.

Bermuda gang members have been seen sporting jewelry and tattoos declaring their respective allegiances while pictures of young men in bars making gang hand signals have been appearing on popular Web sites.


Authorities have linked the island's gang problem to its burgeoning drug trade, which police say is worth about $200 million a year.

Narcotics, with the bulk of consumption blamed on locals rather than tourists, have long been an easy way to make cash in pricey Bermuda, where the average house costs nearly $1.2 million and the average rent is more than $1,400 a month.

Prices for smuggled handguns, which often arrive with illicit drug shipments, have soared to $3,000, with owners wanting protection amid heightened violence over drug turf.

Last year Bermuda appointed a special cabinet minister for drug control, and it has just hired a top British cop as assistant commissioner with a special brief to handle crime and drugs.

The tough approach to law and order has won praise from the island's British-appointed governor who urged islanders not to panic and pointed out that violent crime in the last quarter was at the same level seen in the last seven years.

In late July, the government pledged to boost dwindling police numbers and said screaming headlines about the latest bloody gang clash are not the sort of image Bermuda is trying to sell.

A U.S. Consulate travel advisory, amid standard warnings about petty crime, now flags Bermuda's increasing gang problem, pointing out that the back streets of Hamilton are often the setting for nighttime assaults, particularly after the bars close.

Tourism Minister Ewart Brown who has fought hard to reverse Bermuda's long-term decline in visitor numbers said: "Our visitors do not come to Bermuda to find this and they will stop coming if it continues."

He is not the only one to worry. Bermuda's booming financial sector is also watching carefully.

Association for Bermuda International Business Chairman David Ezekiel said quality of life was the issue that kept the tiny, remote island ahead of its competition.

"Every time you get incidents which threaten that safety and civility Bermuda is known for it will impact every sector including international business," he said.

Despite the spate of shootings, he said context was important.

"It's a huge relative change from the way we were but compared to other countries and domiciles were are still at the top of the scale for safety. It's cause for concern but nothing more than that."