Pubdate: Sat, 02 Feb 2008
Source: Economist, The (UK)
Copyright: 2008 The Economist Newspaper Limited


Here, Too, Drug-Trafficking Is To Blame

ELEVEN people, including five children, were shot dead  in Guyana 
last weekend when unidentified gunmen went on  the rampage in the 
village of Lusignan. A couple clung  to their 11-year-old 
grand-daughter as bullets were  pumped into them; a little boy 
clutched his mother's night-dress as she tried to crawl under her 
bed.  Furious villagers later set up barricades, 
demanding  protection and justice.

Police suspect it was the work of a gang acting on the  orders of 
Rondell "Fineman" Rawlins, Guyana's most  wanted man with a $150,000 
bounty on his head. He is  said to blame the government for the 
disappearance  eight days earlier of his pregnant girlfriend, on her 
way to the nearby capital of Georgetown to give birth.  But racial 
hatred provided the target. Like Guyana's  government and half the 
population, Lusignan is mostly  ethnic Indian, while Rawlins and his 
gang are ethnic  Africans.

Many of Guyana's neighbours suffer even worse violence.  Indeed, the 
Caribbean, better known for its blue skies,  cricket and rum punch, 
is the world leader in violent  crime. According to a joint UN-World 
Bank study last  year, it has a murder rate of 30 per 100,000 
inhabitants-four times the North American figure and 15  times the 
West/Central European average.

Jamaica is the world's most murderous country, followed  by El 
Salvador, Guatemala and Venezuela. But some  smaller Caribbean 
islands are catching up fast,  irrespective of size or wealth. Pretty 
little St Kitts,  with just 40,000 inhabitants, suffered three 
murders in four days last November. The prosperous Bahamas are 
far  more dangerous than impoverished Guyana. In Trinidad  and 
Tobago, the murder rate has quadrupled over the  past decade, despite 
a fall in unemployment from 18% in  1994 to 5% last year.

The common factor behind this violence is the illegal  drugs trade, 
which provides gangs with cash and  weapons. But the link with 
narcotics is not simple.  Since the 1990s, cocaine shipments in the 
Caribbean  have stabilised while murder rates have soared.  Suriname, 
no slouch in the drugs business, has the  region's safest streets. 
Violence surges when gang  politics are unsettled. Fights break out 
over turf, bad  debts or deals gone sour. Rivalries peak when 
supplies run dry, and when arrests or deaths create a leadership  vacuum.

More than 6m tourists visited the English-speaking  Caribbean last 
year. Few ran into serious trouble. Most  of the bullets hit young 
working-class men with the  wrong networking skills, or their 
families and  neighbours. But armed robbery, ending sometimes 
in  murder, has a wider social reach. In some islands, a  climate of 
fear curtails everyday routines. Many  Jamaicans no longer risk a 
night-time drive to  Kingston's airport. Catholic churches in 
Trinidad have  moved their Christmas midnight mass to an earlier hour.

Public reaction varies. Crime barely featured in last  year's 
elections in the Bahamas and Jamaica, nor is it  an issue in Belize's 
current campaign. But in Trinidad  and Guyana, political polarisation 
has brought calls  for get-tough policies such as "zero tolerance", 
the  enforcement of the death penalty, and the imposition of  a state 
of emergency. The region's prisons are already  crowded. Of 31 
countries with more than three out of  every thousand citizens behind 
bars, 17 are in the  Caribbean.

Trinidad, Jamaica and Barbados are now strengthening  their 
coastguards to choke the influx of drugs and  guns-though this may 
simply force the drug barons to  shift their trade elsewhere. On 
land, where police  services are creaky and their staff sometimes 
corrupt, reform is under way, but will be a long haul. Even 
when  arrests are made, it can be years before the culprits  are 
brought to trial. Removing the glamour of gangland  crime for the 
region's disaffected youth will take even  longer.
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MAP posted-by: Keith Brilhart