BRIDGETOWN — A bloody few weeks of violence has sent Barbados into a weekend of prayer and reflection, even as the government there has called on its army to help maintain law and order.
A worrying spike in murders for 2019 (reaching nine, by the end of January) now matches the island’s homicide totals for the first quarter of 2018, with several more non-fatal shooting and stabbing incidents since the year began.
The spate of crime has put enormous pressure on the island’s Prime Minister, Mia Mottley, to respond as cries from the public and her political opposition intensified. In a forceful national address on January 25, flanked by the officers of the Regional Security System, the Royal Barbados Police Force (RBPF) and the Barbados Defence Force, Mottley announced that she would augment police patrols with up to 80 soldiers, and ramp up surveillance in hot spots around the island.
Violent crime has plagued Barbados and the Caribbean for years, and the proliferation of guns has only spurred the epidemic. A recent study by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), ‘Restoring Paradise in the Caribbean’, found that the Caribbean sub-region had one of the highest rates of violent crime in the world, with an average assault rate of 6.8%. Guns, the report said, are also used twice as often in robberies, and three times as often in assaults, when compared to the global average.
“Firearms are now responsible for most murders and many injuries resulting from assaults or armed robberies in the region… The fact that one in three Caribbean adults has lost someone close to violence in their lifetime has significant implications in terms of the trauma experienced by these populations.”
It is yet unclear whether any connections exist between the various murders, but allusions have been made to turf wars between local gangs. Sources close to the situation have also told AMG that the political instability in neighbouring Venezuela has spurred a new wave of narcotics and firearm movement within the Caribbean region.
For her part, Mottley has not fully expanded on her government’s crime response strategy, telling her political critics that it would be unwise to put such strategic tactics into the public domain. But she also added that she would not countenance elevated gunplay as the new normal for the island:
“We are not prepared under any circumstances to admit that it is business as usual when eight people can lose their lives in this country in the month of January. We are not prepared under any circumstances for people to believe that they can use and walk around with guns like if they are toys, like if they are badges of honour.”
— Mia Mottley, Prime Minister of Barbados
On a policy level, Mottley also revealed that the island would move to establish an anti-corruption and counter-terrorism entity within the Ministry of National Security to assist with the work of the RBPF. A former Commissioner of Police has also been controversially appointed as a consultant to help his successor. And plans were also announced to improve container scanning at ports of entry, and to increase resources for the Director of Public Prosecutions and the judiciary, to address a growing backlog of criminal cases.
Ultimately, experts believe that Caribbean governments should focus less on crime suppression and more on crime prevention. The IDB report found that community policing, neighbourhood watches and door-to-door policing were highly effective crime-fighting tools, along with the consistent rehabilitation of prisoners to prevent reoffending.
In addition, drug courts and rehabilitative drug treatment programmes were cited as global success stories in curbing drug-related crime. Mottley’s government, for its part, is favourable to developing a medical marijuana industry, but laws on the recreational use of the drug — which carry extensive incarceration terms — will be subjected to a national referendum.
Like most of the countries of the Caribbean, Barbados relies heavily on foreign investment and tourism revenues. Its IMF-backed structural adjustment plan, in addition to increasing taxes on the tourism sector and imposing harsh austerity measures, makes big bets on meeting new revenue targets. Still, a recent report from the island’s Central Bank shows that the tourism and financial services sectors have experienced their worst decline in five years.
“This [crime] could really damage investor confidence in the long term”, said local economist Jeremy Stephen. “People believe that Barbados is still a safe place, but if this issue persists it definitely can undermine any efforts to attract foreign direct investment in any sustainable manner.”
It remains to be seen whether the government’s measures will lead to a significant reduction in gun crime and murder. But for the sake of Barbadians and the island’s struggling economy, there is little room for error.
Image credit: File photo, Regional Defense Forces participate in Tradewinds 2017 (US Coast Guard/Melissa Leake)