NASSAU, Bahamas – The Bahamas are known for their white sand beaches, azure ocean waters, famed snorkeling, scuba diving and lively, local culture.
But in this 700-island nation located south of Florida, life has not been as pretty as the postcards in recent years.
The Bahamas were home to a record-high 127 murders in 2011, ending a five-year period in which killings increased 30% from 2007, when 98 murders were reported. There was also a record-high 107 reported rapes last year, a 37% increase compared to the 78 reported in 2010, according to the Royal Bahamas Police Force, which hasn’t released crime figures for 2012.
In 1991, 28 murders were documented nationwide, according to Royal Bahamas Police Force.
The 127 murders appear to be relatively low, but considering the islands have a population of 353,000, they caused the homicide rate to surge to 36 per 100,000 residents. That’s a major increase for country that had a murder rate of 28 in 2010 and 25.1 in 2009, according to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime’s 2011 Global Study on Homicide.
The Bahamas’ murder rate of 28 in 2010 ranked fourth among 22 Caribbean nations, trailing only Jamaica (52), Trinidad and Tobago (35.2) and St. Kitts and Nevis (38.2), according to the report.
“I don’t see my country in the same way I did 10 years ago,” Jerome Sawyer, a renowned national TV reporter and social commentator, said in April. “We sell it as a paradise, but that’s a sales pitch.”
Drug-related disputes and “unresolved conflicts” accounted for more than 50% of homicides last year in the Bahamas, where 74% of all murders involved a firearm, according to the government.
“Last year was an extremely challenging year for the Royal Bahamas Police Force,” Ellison Greenslade, the commissioner of the Royal Bahamas Police Force, said in January. “The high number of murders committed coupled with the increases in most categories of crimes against persons and our taxed-out resources significantly tested our resolve.”
Prime Minister Perry Christie, who was elected in early May largely because he promised to drastically increase the government’s fight against crime, called the Bahamas a “nation under siege” in his final speech before voters went to the polls.
“There have been hundreds upon hundreds of rapes, thousands of assaults and armed robberies, and drugs and guns are flooding across our borders and into our communities,” he said. “We need to bring the nation together to address this problem. The police, Defense Force and law enforcement experts are on the front lines. But we also need to bring the clergy, private sector, teachers, community leaders and youth leaders together for a common purpose.”
Christie, who vowed to “make Bahamians feel safe again in their own homes,” has a five-point security plan to make the tropical paradise safer:
- ::Project Safe Bahamas intends to improve safety by giving prosecutors more training and giving judges the ability to hand down stiffer sentences. It also calls for the bolstering of the country’s rehabilitation centers, which could be used to help convicted addicts. The plan mandates tougher sentences for weapons possessions, stations police officers at schools, improves the witness protection program and increases border patrols;
- ::Swift Justice mandates all murder cases be tried within 12 months, as current defendants, on average, wait between 18 months and three years for their day in court, said Attorney General Allyson Maynard-Gibson;
- :: Operation Cease Fire will place more police and activists in the most crime-ridden pockets of the islands, namely New Providence, the nation’s biggest island, where 110 of 127 murders were committed last year. The plan also calls for the creation of laws that mandate stiffer penalties for repeat offenders;
- ::Urban Renewal 2.0 is an initiative to promote community involvement, such as Crime Watch associations, and the creation of school programs to educate youth on drugs and violence and provide extracurricular activities;
- ::The Safe Bahamas Initiative aims to reduce drug and gun interdiction at ports, as well as employ the Marco Archer Act, named after an 11-year-old boy murdered in 2011. The initiative calls for tougher penalties for child molesters and kidnappers.
Christie said the Swift Justice plan will begin with a pilot program of 80 cases and strive to “integrate justice by improving collaboration among the justice system’s agencies such as probation offices, police, the courts, the prison system, the Attorney General’s Office and victims.”
“We plan to coordinate police, prosecutors, and all those involved in the administration of justice so that criminals are swiftly caught, swiftly tried, and swiftly punished,” he added. Maynard-Gibson said the plan is a step in the right direction.
“The consequence of the ineffective delivery of justice is increased crime,” she added. “We cannot afford to allow a perception to take root that the justice system can be easily undermined. The Bahamas is our country and we are all responsible for protecting and preserving our legacy.”
Drugs the root of the problem Sawyer said today’s violent crime wave started with the arrival of the drug trade 30 years ago, causing “a sort of gangster lifestyle to take root.”
While cocaine seizures have increased throughout the Caribbean, they’ve decreased in the Bahamas, where an average of 5,250 pounds of cocaine was seized annually from 2005-2010 after 13,761 pounds were seized annually from 1985-1990, according to the Security Ministry.
However, marijuana seizures have increased in the Bahamas, as an average of 60,000 pounds were seized annually from 2005-2010 after 48,857 were seized annually from 1985-1990, according to the Security Ministry.
“The market for cocaine as a drug of abuse has collapsed and with it a significant decrease in the abuse of cocaine and crack,” the Security Ministry wrote in a report this year. “Since 2000, marijuana has steadily become the narcotic drug of choice, as well as ‘club drugs’ such as ecstasy.” Christie said he’s going to make the Bahamas safer.
“We are at a crossroads,” Christie said days after his election. “No one should have to live in a neighborhood where fear and menace rule the streets. We are going to flood these areas with police and give them the resources and support to succeed.”