UN: Violence, Gang Activity on the Rise in Caribbean

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A new UN report paints an alarming picture of the crime surge in the Caribbean, a trend that may escalate if drug trafficking groups come under increasing pressure in Mexico and Central America.

The report (.pdf), the first one released by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to examine security in the Caribbean, is the result of survey responses from some 11,555 citizens and interviews with 450 experts and politicians.

According to the study, every Caribbean country except for two (Barbados and Suriname) saw an increase in homicide rates and gang-linked killings over the past 12 years.

The decline in security is especially evident in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago. Although Jamaica saw a seven-year low in homicides in 2011, the 1,124 homicides registered last year make the island the most violent country in the Caribbean, with the third highest homicide rate in the world (60 murders per 100,000 inhabitants).

While not as deadly, the homicide trend in Trinidad and Tobago is just as alarming. Over the past decade the island country saw its murder rate increase more than fivefold to 36 killings per 100,000 people, more than double the average homicide rate of the Americas at 15.6 per 100,000.

The rise in violence has accompanied an increase in gang-related activity, the report finds. In 2009 officials estimated that about 35 percent of killings in Trinidad and Tobago were gang-related, up from 26 percent in 2006. In Jamaica the trend was even more pronounced, increasing from 33 to 48 percent in the same period. According to UN researchers, there is a high correlation between violence and gang membership, which is reflected in Jamaica. The island has the highest number of gangs in the region, with 268 criminal bands on its streets, the report says.

One question is how much the growth in gang activity has been fed by the international drug trade. In the 1970s and ’80s, the Caribbean was the primary transit point for cocaine headed to the US, until heightened security along the coast forced traffickers to turn to Mexico and Central America. Now, it seems those days may return. Last August, the Miami Herald quoted several US anti-drug officials who predicted that security crackdowns in Mexico and Central America will increase the flow of illicit drugs through the Caribbean in the coming years. In November, the State Department’s top counternarcotics official, William Brownfield, echoed these claims. Saying Mexican groups like the Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel are “in the process of being chased out of Mexico,” he warned that the old Caribbean routes are looking more appealing to transnational drug traffickers. Law enforcement has already documented the shift in such places as Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Jamaica, where drug seizures have increased dramatically in recent years.

One concern is that Caribbean gangs will seek a piece of the action, potentially becoming major players in the hemispheric drug trade. El Salvador’s Mara Salvatrucha is reportedly attempting such a transition, and subsequently may have made itself a prime threat to security forces there. Fortunately, the UN report suggests that the region’s gangs currently lack the organization to set up their own international export routes. The exception is in Jamaica, where large scale criminal organizations have a long history. These groups, known as “posses,” are usually very hierarchical, and often associated with local politics. If the flow of drugs through the Caribbean increases dramatically, Jamaica may be the country affected first.

Still, this is likely a long way off. The likely trigger for this phenomenon, a successful security crackdown in Central America and Mexico, has not yet proved to be a deal breaker for drug traffickers. The Mexican border is still the primary entry point for drugs headed into the US, and drug cartels seem to be doubling down in Central America. While the international drug trade does represent a security threat to the Caribbean, in the near future local groups are unlikely to become players as prominent or powerful as those based in Mexico or Central America.

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