Letters & Opinion

Is Saint Lucia a Caribbean Gangsters Paradise?

Earl Bousquet
Chronicles Of A Chronic Caribbean Chronicler By Earl Bousquet

That’s the question being asked and impression being created by media coverage of the latest recent upsurge in gang violence that’s largely contributed to a death rate of 23 killings in less than three months, which, admittedly — anywhere — is enough to warrant the levels of public anxiety in Saint Lucia gangland-style killings in Vieux Fort and Castries of reputed Gang Leaders.

Calm has essentially returned to Vieux Fort after the Government invited regional assistance and passed new emergency laws, offered more sophisticated equipment to the police (including bulletproof jackets, drones and scanners), more new vehicles, etc.

Vieux Fort is no longer a ghost-town, with schools and businesses reopened and residents expressing feeling safer with armed local police and Regional Security System (RSS) officers patrolling streets and neighbourhoods, backed by the Suppression of Escalated Crime (Police Powers) Act introduced in the House of Assembly on March 16 and approved by the Senate the next day.

The Police Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner have both this week acknowledged that the introduction of new emergency powers legislation and provision of new and additional crime fighting equipment has contributed to bringing Vieux Fort back to a state or relative normalcy.

But both also repeated the constant call by all their predecessors for more public assistance by way of making use of toll-free Hotlines to provide the police with information from communities and neighbourhoods concerned, by persons in the know — and the wider public — on criminal activities and those behind them.

Human Rights activists have sounded alarm bells about possible violations under the new laws extending police powers, but supporters of the emergency legislation say that’s the nature of emergency legislation all depends on those implementing the new measures to be respectful of everyone’s rights.

But the Police Top Brass has been assuring that officers and the SSU detachment will act “in good faith” in all circumstances, as well as that there are systems in place for registering complaints of abuse if necessary, including the Police Complaints Unit.

The police also reported arresting a 22-year-old suspect in a suspected Vieux Fort vengeance killing involving a woman, but no word or leads yet on the March 19 double-homicide involving a “ride-by” killing of two men on a motorcycle – one 53 and the other 32 and both known to the police – shot dead in the dark of night in Bananes Bay in South Castries, in what residents who heard described as “a hail of bullets”.

The police have not acknowledged reports that they are indeed getting tips from knowledgeable sources, or that gang leaders have deserted their homes and communities while members are abandoning ship, but continue to invite persons-in-the-know to trust their promises that the hotlines are safe and their identities are and will be protected.

But the word out of affected communities is that most who know prefer to remain silent for fear of reprisals and in the absence clear guarantees of “witness protection”.

Prime Minister Philip J. Pierre attended the RSS annual conference in Grenada last week, accompanied by St. Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves and host Prime Minister Dickon Mitchell, where technocrats and decision makers exchanged views on how to take new approaches to repeated old problems.

Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) President Dr Hyginus ‘Gene’ Leon encouraged the RSS and regional governments to adopt more regional and less bilateral approaches that will also be “robust and collective”, as well as “transformational”.

However, regional press coverage and online exchanges continue to accentuate the negative and continue to highlight the fears and anxieties of a fortnight ago when Vieux Fort experienced seven deaths in four days.

Indeed, during his address to the opening ceremony of the RSS meeting, Prime Minister Mitchell said the host nation was riled-up with similar national anxiety after a shooting, days earlier, involving use of a high-powered weapon and discharge of at least six bullets that left one man dead, with the killer suspected to be a non-national.

But since good news hardly make headlines in such situations, the emphasis of regional and international coverage and concern by and among Saint Lucians abroad, continues to focus on the killings and not on the progress made in restoring a sense of a state of normalcy.

It’s all understandable from a human standpoint as each of the 23 deaths has left relatives, extended family and friends in mourning, in a situation where many are naturally afraid to attend funerals of victims of gang violence for fear of being caught in crossfire or shot at gravesides.

In such circumstances, even the media tend to forget that those involved in the gang violence and their relatives and friends are also citizens, as are the police officers expected to confront the gangsters – and media personnel too – all of who also have a responsibility to not just report and comment, observe and vent, but to also help search for solutions.

But that’s certainly not the case in a country where nightly and daily news will lead and continue with repeated items about deaths and reprisals and featuring sorrows of fallen victims’ parents at the cost of everything and anything else relating to national development, even politics, as per the usual norm.

Yet, even in claiming Freedom of Speech and Press Freedom and Information Rights, reporters and media houses are extremely guarded about referring to certain slayings, depending on the level of established public and community fear of the individuals concerned, even though dead…

Plain-clothed local and regional police are reportedly entering established or designated hotspots incognito, resulting in persons known to the police or fingered as suspects either fleeing or singing, depending on circumstances.

However, there’s still a level of suspended anxiety about what tomorrow will bring, as this is not the island’s first national security crisis of this kind.

A similar killing spree led to the ‘Operation Restore Confidence’ government-backed police operation between 2010 and 2011, in which alleged criminal elements were reportedly named on a police ‘blacklist’ for execution.

In one such operation, also in Vieux Fort, five targeted persons were killed by the police, investigators also alleging efforts to cover-up and/or falsify evidence.

CARICOM’s IMPACS investigating unit uncovered sufficient evidence to recommend action against name officers for specified deaths, but later politicization of the process, affected too by regime change, leaving the dead victims’ families and accused police officers in limbo.

The Trump administration and European Union (EU) condemned the slow pace of the national judicial response and Washington instituted sanctions against Saint Lucia under the 1997 Leahy Law, requiring ending US support for any police force or national army found to have engaged in extrajudicial killings.

The US sanctions have remained in place, even though, in 2022 Washington relaxed some measures, but earlier this year it was announced that five of the officers identified in the IMPACS investigation were cleared for lack of evidence – a situation unlikely to encourage lifting of the US sanctions.

In the past decade, fighting crime has been weaponized by Caribbean politicians in the fight for votes, while the armed gangs have multiplied, strengthened by untold numbers of ‘Deportees’ sent to the region by the Obama and Trump administrations, worsened by extended gang warfare and continuing proliferation of more illegal weapons.

The sophistry of today’s multinational inter-island criminal operations has also resulted in the gangs having access to more deadly weapons than the police, which some gunmen don’t even hide, displaying their hardware on social media platforms, whether firing bullets at parties or simply showing-off.

With as many as 72 homicides officially reported a few years ago, many are speculating and wondering, even predicting, what this year’s figure will be.

It’s a frightening state of affairs, but the Saint Lucia experience, while different, is not dissimilar to other national security crises that have faced other CARICOM member-states from time to time — from Jamaica and Haiti in the north, to Trinidad & Tobago in the south.

Unfortunately, Regional Security only seems to ignite regional reaction and international concern when events like The Grenada Revolution happen, or a hurricane, earthquake, volcano or other tropical or climate disaster causes loss of life or untold and irreparable damage.

But the increasing frequency of national crises of all kinds and urgent requests for regional military support is worthy of more and better response than has been the norm, especially with more criminals in more places behaving as if the Caribbean is the world’s newest Gangsters Paradise.

Yesterday was elsewhere and tomorrow will definitely be somewhere else, so all CARICOM governments and people have an equal stake in tending to this never-ending regional headache of migraine proportions.

That includes the media and different rights advocates, as such national crises also call for necessary adjustments in personal considerations, from the individual right to the collective national good, as every right comes with equal related duties and responsibilities.

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