The secret in paradise: Violence mars Caribbean life

Members of the Mobile Reserve, an arm of the national police, patrol the neighborhood of Dunkirk in Kingston, Jamaica, June 6, 2013.
Members of the Mobile Reserve, an arm of the national police, patrol the neighborhood of Dunkirk in Kingston, Jamaica, June 6, 2013. NYT

Caribbean countries laud themselves on offering idyllic settings where sandy beaches, calming calypso and a laid-back lifestyle beckon.

But behind the happy-go-lucky image, the region also harbors a darker side: violent crime and a tolerance for domestic violence.

According to a new study, “Restoring Paradise in the Caribbean: Combatting Violence with Numbers,” the region has some of the lowest victimization by property crime in the world but one of the world’s highest violent crime rates. Nearly 1 in 3 citizens has lost someone to violence, and individuals are more likely to be a victim of assault or a threat than anywhere else in the hemisphere.

“Tourists, who are not targets of this violent crime in the Caribbean, may be completely unaware that Caribbean citizens are becoming increasingly concerned, and for valid reasons, about violence,” said Heather Sutton, the lead researcher behind the Inter-American Development Bank study based on victimization surveys and released Tuesday during an Inter-American Dialogue panel discussion in Washington, D.C. “Caribbean governments are making significant efforts and spending robust amounts of their budgets trying to solve this problem.”

The study focuses on five Caribbean countries — the Bahamas, Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Suriname. Some 3,000 individuals living in each country’s capital were surveyed. Rather than rely solely on police homicide reports, researchers questioned the victims of crime, 47 percent of whom don’t report incidents to law enforcement.

Rising crime rates, especially soaring homicide rates in a country like Jamaica, have long been a leading concern in the region and remain a persistent challenge. Another Inter-American Development Bank study, for example, found that one in four Bahamian businesses had been victimized by crime in 2013-14 and crime was a major concern for Bahamians, who last week kicked out the ruling government of the past five years in a general election and ushered in the opposition.

This week, the chamber of commerce president in Clarendon, Jamaica, complained that an increase in reports of murders, robberies, extortion, and other unlawful activities in the parish were scaring off investors. The parish was cited earlier this month by Jamaica’s National Security Minister Robert Montague as one of the places where fear of victimization remained high despite a 2016 Jamaican crime survey showing victimization levels declining nationally.

Members of the Mobile Reserve, an arm of the national police, patrol the neighborhood of Dunkirk in Kingston, Jamaica, June 6, 2013. ANDREA BRUCE NYT

Dr. David Allen, a psychiatrist who studies crime in the Bahamas and examines the stories behind the incidents, said the findings of the Caribbean Crime Victimization Survey correspond to what he’s uncovered during his decade of research. Allen has blamed the island-nation’s increase in violence on the Bahamas’s crack cocaine crisis of the 1980s and the country’s economic downturn. It has led, he said, to a breakdown of family values and the formation of youth gangs.

“Crime is a public health problem,” he said. “Public health means it cannot be solved just by law enforcement.”

Allen says what is needed, not only in the Bahamas but throughout the Caribbean, is an anti-crime or citizens’ protection council, where victims and even perpetrators of crime join with clergy, businesses owners, government ministers, police and other law enforcement personnel to study the problem and come up with solutions. One place where they can start is with the victims, he said, who are often forgotten. The victims, in turn, victimize others because of their anger resulting from their trauma.

“There is a high traumatization rate,” Allen said. “If a person is traumatized, particularly a child, they will go into more violence.”

Sutton said researchers not only found that revenge attacks were a common motivation behind homicides in the Bahamas, but children who are either victims of violence or witnessed violence in their homes risk becoming perpetrators of violence.

“This is a red flag and this is one of the drivers of the high levels of crime we are seeing — exposure to violence,” she said.

The Caribbean, she noted, has a high level of tolerance for violence in the home, violence against women and physical discipline. For example, a majority, 66 percent, of Caribbean respondents supported physically disciplining a child who misbehaved, while one in three Caribbean adults — more so than those in Latin America or the United States — had no issues with wife-beating if a woman is unfaithful.

But while rising crime threatens to taint the Caribbean’s image , Sutton noted that the crime is not everywhere and is often far from the luxurious, tourists resorts that the region has become dependent on. Still, crime is costly, with the survey estimating that it costs the Caribbean 3 percent of Gross Domestic Product, with Barbados being the country least affected and the Bahamas most affected.

Meanwhile, the region’s crime victims are often concentrated in poorer communities where graffiti, trash and abandoned buildings are the norm, trust among neighbors is low and gangs are aplenty.

“Overall, most violent crimes were committed in victims’ neighborhoods or homes,” the study found. “Residents are more likely to be attacked or threatened by someone they know than to be robbed by a stranger.”

The survey found that in Port of Spain, Trinidad, for example, crime is also highly concentrated in certain street segments within neighborhoods.

“Three percent of street segments concentrated 50 percent of all crimes,” the study found.

Though their prevalence and power vary from country to country, gangs are responsible for most of the crime and violence in the Caribbean, according to the study.

Some 28 percent of the Caribbean Crime Victimization Survey respondents reported a gang presence in their neighborhood. Gang presence was highest in the capital areas of the countries with the highest rates of homicide, assault and threat: Port of Spain (49 percent), New Providence (39 percent), and Kingston (32 percent). Among respondents with gangs in their neighborhood, more than half said that gangs interfere with everyday activities.

We’ve got kids having to go through different turfs owned by different gangs to go to school,” said Allen, the psychiatrist.

“Life has become cheap,” Allen added. “Before we had to bring in killers to do the dirty work. Now we have local killers. Before they killed in the dark, now they kill in the daylight and they kill anywhere.”

And they are doing it with guns in the Bahamas, where the survey found that firearms are involved in 82 percent of the homicides, compared to 73 percent in Jamaica and 73 percent in Trinidad and Tobago.

“Greater use of firearms in assaults and robberies leadsto a higher rate of homicides levels,” said Sutton, noting that Barbados and Suriname had relatively low homicide rates compared to the other countries and half of the violent crimes were committed with knives.

Sutton said the hope is that the study will help Caribbean governments, which now spend more on policing than justice, to better use their limited resources to fight violent crime. Among some of the initiatives already taking place is “hot spot” policing in Trinidad and Tobago. Using data, police have figured out what hours of the day and what streets a crime is likely to take place and as a result, increase patrols in those areas.

“They found in fact a 44 percent reduction in crime in those neighborhoods where they are doing increased patrolling,” Sutton said.

But she cautioned that policing is not the only solution to this problem.

“You really need need to have stronger prevention initiatives,” she said.