Caribbean drug violence islands pushes islands’ murder rates to near-record levels for 2009

By Mike Melia, AP
Friday, January 1, 2010

Drug violence sends Caribbean murder rates soaring

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Caribbean islands battling drug-fueled crime had one of their bloodiest years on record in 2009, with Jamaica, the Bahamas and Puerto Rico hitting or coming close to all-time highs for homicides.

The violence reflects the drug trade’s deep entrenchment in the region, with high murder rates becoming a fact of life at tourist havens that traffickers use as transit points for South American drugs bound for Europe and the United States.

In countries including the Bahamas, which set a record with more than 82 slayings, officials say they are contending with turf battles between rival drug gangs and an increased willingness to resort to violence.

“You’re finding that even kids, I’m talking teenagers, rather than arguing a point, they pick up a knife and it escalates to that type of level,” said Bahamas National Security Minister Tommy Turnquest.

Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory of 4 million people, had its third-worst year on record with more than 890 people slain.

Police in Jamaica, the Caribbean nation with the highest murder rate, say the island had about 1,660 homicides in 2009, close to the record of 1,674 set in 2005. Trinidad and Tobago recorded at least 489 homicides, down from 538 in 2008, but still the second-worst year on record.

That contrasts with a drop in violent crime in the U.S. mainland, where the FBI says the number of homicides fell 10 percent in the first half of 2009.

Meanwhile, drug trafficking could soon intensify in the Caribbean. With Washington focusing its anti-drug efforts on the border with Mexico — where narcotics-related killings also have soared — traffickers are expected to begin sending more drugs through the Caribbean.

“If the problem is not addressed now, traffickers will continue to expand operations throughout the region by exploiting these vulnerable transit routes, undermining local governments and increasing the likelihood of political instability,” U.S. State Department official Julissa Reynoso told a U.S. House committee last month. The Obama administration has asked Congress for $45 million to help Caribbean islands counter any spillover of violence from Mexico.

As crime mounts, the caseload can overwhelm justice systems on the poor, developing islands.

Police say killers have little chance of being held accountable in Jamaica. The island of 2.7 million people recorded more than three times as many slayings this year as New York City, which has triple the population.

“We ’solve’ about 40 percent of murders, however only 4 percent end up with convictions and most trials take about 4-5 years,” Leslie Green, an assistant police commissioner, said in an e-mail. Witnesses, he said, are often too scared of retaliation to testify.

In Trinidad and Tobago, Deputy Police Commissioner Gilbert Reyes said police have increased cooperation with the community in gang-violence plagued Laventille and are seeing some results.

Violent crime rarely affects foreigners in the Caribbean, where an estimated 6 million Americans visit annually. But a few high-profile attacks last year sent ripples through the tourism industry, such as the rape and killing in Puerto Rico of pregnant American tourist Sara Kuszak, who was abducted while jogging in February.

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