Law enforcement authorities throughout the Eastern Caribbean are struggling to control a wave of violent crime as drug traffickers — meeting resistance in Mexico and Central America — turn their attention towards the region’s English-speaking islands.
The effects are being felt from Antigua to St. Kitts to Grenada, where traffickers flush with illicit cash have established themselves, spreading their culture of violence. Some islands have become transshipment points due to their proximity to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Once cocaine reaches either of those two U.S. jurisdictions, it can be transported to the U.S. mainland without undergoing customs inspections.
“We’ve seen an upsurge in the amount of cocaine trafficking in the last three years,” said Lauston Percival, a constable in the Royal St. Kitts & Nevis Police Force.
Drug trafficking in the Eastern Caribbean imposes a double whammy on island societies, say analysts. Not only does it threaten democratic institutions and the rule of law, but since traffickers pay their surrogates in kind, rather than in currency, a local market is created for cocaine and crack, with all the accompanying social and public health problems that entails.
Fighting an uphill battle
With limited resources at their disposal, local law enforcement and criminal justice systems must battle an industry that worldwide earns upwards of $600 billion per year, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
By comparison, an entry-level policeman in St. Lucia earns about $500 a month. That makes for low morale among police officers, said Marcus Day, director of the St. Lucia-based Caribbean Drug and Alcohol Research Institute.
The low price of crack cocaine — $5 a rock — has fueled the proliferation of its use, said Day.
“We’re seeing a growing use of crack cocaine, accompanied by a high level of violence,” he said, adding that “the level of frustration in the police force is enormous and common throughout the islands.”
With help from the U.S. Coast Guard, Kittitian authorities have made significant drug busts in the last several years.
Programs such as microfinancing and business development “offer alternatives to youths who otherwise get involved in drug trafficking” and are key to saving at-risk kids from low-income neighborhoods who shy away from formal education but don’t lack in youthful energy, said Day.
“With kids like this, the only people who will give them credit are drug dealers,” he noted.
The rise of gangs has been fueled in part by images in popular media glamorizing gang culture and seducing many of the islands’ youth, said Percival. Other problems facing law enforcement include a thriving guns-for-drugs trade, as well as the repatriation of gang members who may have gone to the United States with their parents as children years ago.
“When they come home, they pick up where they left off and involve local youth in crime,” he said.
In 2011, St. Kitts & Nevis reported 34 murders, most of them drug-related. Though that number may sound small, it isn’t, considering that the twin-island nation is home to just over 50,000 people. That translates into a homicide rate of 64 per 100,000 inhabitants.
UNDP: Murder rates rising throughout Caribbbean
In fact, with the exception of Barbados and Suriname, homicide rates including gang-related killings have increased substantially in the last 12 years across the Caribbean, while they have been falling or stabilizing in other parts of the world, according to a new report issued Feb. 8 by the United Nations Development Program.
The report, “Human Development and the Shift to Better Citizen Security,” said that Caribbean governments can reverse the trend, calling for regional governments to beef up public institutions to tackle crime and violence — including the criminal justice system—while boosting preventive measures.
“Violence limits people’s choices, threatens their physical integrity, and disrupts their daily lives,” said UNDP Administrator Helen Clark at the report’s launch ceremony in Trinidad. “This report stresses the need to rethink our approaches to tackling crime and violence and providing security on the ground. We need to follow approaches that are centered on citizen security and address the causes of this recent increase in violent crime, including social, economic, and political exclusion.”
Because of their country’s small size and sense of community, the people of St. Kitts mourn every single murder victim. Local authorities have responded by creating Operation Future, a prevention program run by the police force that seeks to steer youngsters away from drugs and trafficking from a very early age.
The program also involves at-risk youths in outdoor activities, and introduces kids to former gang members now in prison who deglamorize the drug business.
Among other things, the children learn that the drug business is not nearly as lucrative for the street-level operator as is popularly believed.
“Drug trafficking isn’t going to make you rich. Kids think [dealing drugs] is better than growing up to be old and poor, but they find out that it’s really about being young and poor and dead,” said Dan MacMullin, an attorney and former Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman who relocated 12 years ago to St. Kitts and volunteers in Operation Future.
A number of gang members have come to authorities asking to be extracted from the drug trade, said MacMullin.
In addition to education, said Day, the solution to the drug problem ultimately lies in offering a substitute to the gangster lifestyle. “We’re talking about semi-literate, unemployed youth,” he said. “How do we supply them with an alternative?”