Inter-Island Crime Links in the Western Caribbean
Gangs are effective at collaborating across jurisdictions, but police forces and civil society aren’t.
Recent reviews have documented that crime and violence are the greatest threats to democracy and sustainable development in the Bahamas, Haiti, Dominican Republic, and Jamaica (BHDJ), the four countries of the Western Caribbean. The 2017 Caribbean Crime Victimization Survey documented that 28 percent of respondents reported a gang presence in their neighborhood, with more than half saying that gangs interfere with everyday activities.
Brazil’s Igarapé Institute, one of Latin America’s leading think tanks, lists Jamaica and Bahamas among the top twenty countries in the world for homicide by population. Four of the largest Caribbean countries, Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Bahamas, represent the greatest problems with human trafficking, narcotics, and small weapons in the region.
In these four countries international activities are executed by gangs that, unlike the other Caribbean countries, have operatives often residing in each other’s countries as well as in the United States. For example, police reported that an escaped convict who had been sentenced to life in prison in Jamaica was killed in a gang clash in Haiti in October 2019, and that Delano Wilmot, Jamaica’s most wanted criminal, runs his operations in Jamaica’s Westmoreland Parish from Haiti. In late 2019 Jamaica’s Prime Minister Andrew Holness claimed that plans for the creation of a Zone of Special Operations (ZOSO) in Western Jamaica was on hold due to the heavily armed and well-financed gangs and Jamaican gangsters such as Wilmot, who are able to hide out in Haiti from where they control the “guns for drugs” market between Port-au- Prince and Jamaica. (Jamaica Observer Oct 23, 2019). The Jamaican Clansman Gang boss, Tesha Miller, was arrested as he entered the US illegally- from the Bahamas- and was deported in 2016 to Jamaica. The Clansman gang is known for its beheadings and for running a multi-million dollar extortion racket in Spanish Town, Jamaica.
The Political and Social Problem
Police forces are overwhelmed, under resourced, and ill equipped to address the root causes of the youth crime and violence problem. They also lack the capacity to develop and implement the wide strategies and partnerships that are needed to make transformational change.
With a homicide rate of 47 per 100,000 of the population, Jamaica’s persistent problem of violent crime puts it among the top ten countries with the highest murder rates in the world. According to the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) data, the country recorded 1,647 murders in 2017, a 21.6 percent increase from 2016. In spite of extraordinary security measures in 2018 that give law enforcement extraordinary powers to detain without trial for extended periods of time and provides the military with policing powers of arrest, a continued upswing between January 1 and November 30, 2019 has been responsible for 1,223 murders, a 1.8 per cent increase over the corresponding period for 2018. In Haiti gangs now control several important neighborhoods and communities and have engaged in open warfare with the police. On more than one occasion since May 2020 the Haiti National Police in the community of Cité Soleil abandoned their police station to gang control.
Youth lack the skills, tools and support to manage their economic and social needs
The primary (but not only) source of social violence is related to gangs and youth violence. Within this context, boys are the main perpetrators as well as victims of violence in the four countries. Communities that are more violent also provide greater protection for the perpetrators. The significant incidence of violence occurs from disputes and rivalries, both within and between gangs. Retaliatory gun violence is the predominant feature of this community violence. Psychosocial services, school counselors, and life coaches are lacking. Popular culture, local as well as imported, glorifies violence and promotes the myths of quick wealth and might-makes-right. Local culture oriented civic groups have not been able to develop cultural products and programs to counter this problem.
School programs, reinforced by social class prejudices that favor “classical education”, do not prepare youths for innovation, entrepreneurship, and the realities of today’s existing labor market, and policies facilitating formal small business development and employment creation opportunities are generally not prioritized by governments. In Haiti few schools adhere to, or are even aware of, government norms or accreditation requirements.
The Jamaica Constabulary Force’s National Intelligence Bureau gang assessment figures for 2014 revealed that 60 percent of the murder victims in 2013 aged between 15 and 24 years and were either unemployed or unskilled laborers. The figures also revealed that 60 percent of murders were committed by youth between 15 to 24 years. Other features included interpersonal, domestic and sexual violence; assault and battery; as well as juvenile delinquency including substance abuse. Poor urban and rural communities where violence and crime are prevalent continue to be plagued by high youth unemployment and low education levels. The same is true for Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and to a lesser extent, Bahamas.
Political instability and social unrest fuel youth frustration and create opportunities for youth to be exploited and manipulated
Political instability favors gang violence. In its Crime and Safety Report dated March 29, 2019, the Overseas Security Advisory Council of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security reported that groups of criminals take advantage of social unrest. The Haiti National Police has a limited response capability, which hinders the deterrent effect on criminals, who operate without fear of the uniformed or traffic police. Investigations are frequently limited by a lack of resources. In 2018, 18 HNP officers were murdered and 54 injured in the line of duty.
Large gangs and criminal enterprises are big business, and they manage the contexts in which youth gangs, crews and street gangs operate.
With their own genesis and evolution, the gangs in the BHDJ countries have developed their own unique structures and business models. Some were created in US prisons and spread to the home island when members or founders were deported (DR). Others were created in their home island as an outcome of corrupt political behavior (Jamaica) or to protect their neighborhoods from political actors seeking revenge or retribution against local residents (Haiti). In spite of their diversity many have business relations with each other and collaborate on intelligence, money laundering and logistics as they buy and sell persons, drugs and guns across jurisdictions, and develop into sophisticated criminal enterprises able to use extortion and corruption to intervene in the state’s legislative and law enforcement bodies. Small street gangs and youth gangs are most often swept up into relationships with larger gangs and criminal enterprises.
Addressing the Crime-Governance Problem
Gangs and criminal enterprises threaten democratic governance. Civic institutions have a critical role to play. This needs to be recognized by law enforcement agencies.
Civil society, the public sector, and the police forces in all four countries have generally been slow to forge crime prevention partnerships at the required level and intensity. As criminal attitudes insinuate themselves in all walks of life, good citizenship partnerships should be encouraged in every area of social and economic life. Such partnerships should also target sensational glorification of physical, psychological and gender violence in popular culture that normalize misogyny, anti-social behavior and trafficking in persons.
The Christian Science Monitor’s regional exposé on democracy published January 13, 2020 reports that popular uprisings in the region are exposing deep and growing discontent with democracy and demanding better services including corruption and murder rates. The disturbing trends in youth violence seen in the early 2000’s have continued to grow and now threaten to make inroads in democratic governance building. The serious local, national and regional security threats can only be successfully addressed through major vertical (civil-state) and horizontal (civil and state across jurisdictions) collaborative efforts, and greater involvement of the private sector.
Addressing the Information Problem
Public perception and attitudes in the four countries are ill informed and hamper effective civic engagement.
The media in the BHDJ countries constantly vilify their neighboring countries with inaccurate stories, outright misinformation, and unfounded theories about each other. At its worst, such hysterical and finger-pointing “otherism” provides a political fig leaf behind which exasperated local security leaders, fearful of political retribution, can hide their strategic and operational shortcomings. This problem reflects policy makers’ lack of responsibility toward public education, and it serves only to thwart both horizontal and vertical relationships, i.e. civil society partnerships with each other, across jurisdictions, and with law enforcement. Besides adding to the problem, it reflects a limited understanding on the part of the governments of the need to involve community based groups in the solution.
Many law enforcement policies in the region are severely hampered by woefully outdated notions and attitudes about the arguments and methods to build serious citizen engagement, in spite of years of data from effective strategies in other regions. Jamaica made a number of significant attempts at community based policing since the 1990’s and more intensively during 2005-2011. These need to be further strengthened. In Haiti three quarters of the police officers are located in the capital. Most communities do not have the means to report crimes and the Haiti National Police has limited capability to respond or investigate crimes, which hinders the deterrent effect on criminals. This strongly suggests that police-citizen partnerships to identify and address the causes of crime, the real definition of community policing, should be strongly supported. The Bahamas and the Dominican Republic have also made efforts at community oriented policing.
While the civic attitudes toward crime prevention and the cumulative experiences in this domain reflect the structure and history of law enforcement in the four countries, their cumulative experience holds many lessons for improvement and collaboration.
An independent technical research, analysis and professional development organization, free of political or national bias, involving law enforcement and civil society, is clearly the only way to collect and share ideas for working together and to learn from best practices.
But those are big concepts that require thinking outside the box, and that conversation is not yet on the horizon.
The author is a specialist in Caribbean governance, resilience and youth crime reduction