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Violent crime rates soaring in the Caribbean

The Americas Post - Jamaican soldiers frisk for weapons at a checkpoint. Photo credit: AP

Times are changing for many islands across the Caribbean, where escalating arms races between criminal gangs are turning previously peaceful neighborhoods into free-fire zones.

The two-island nation of St. Kitts and Nevis, with a population of 50,000 people, has tallied 31 homicides already in 2011, marking their deadliest year on record. Gangs with names like Killer Mafia Soldiers and Tek Life are blamed by police for the increase in violence.

Usually out of the sight of tourists, revenge shootings by heavily armed gangmembers are now common in the Caribbean, according to a new U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime report on global homicides.

Politicians across the Caribbean are under pressure to attack the problem. In Trinidad and Tobago, located off Venezuela’s coast on a major drug shipment route, the government has declared a state of emergency, imposed nightly curfews and given police and the military wide authority for conducting search and seizure.

So far the violence has had little effect on Caribbean tourism, which relies on about 6 million American visitors each year. Many stay at all-inclusive resorts, and few venture into poverty-stricken slums where the violence is concentrated.

Drug traffickers have driven up crime rates with firearms and narcotics whose street value exceeds the size of the Caribbean’s entire legal economy.

Although with miles of isolated coastline the islands remain ideal for drug shipments, the U.N. crime office reports Caribbean drug seizures actually diminished 71 percent between 1997 and 2009, as traffic shifted to Central American routes.   According to the agency, the increase in violence is the result of fierce competition between criminal groups fighting over their share of the shrinking drug smuggling market.

Caribbean experts are concerned about the growing culture of violence on the islands, where almost 70 percent of homicides are now committed with firearms.

“Until fairly recently, we had an innocence about ourselves in the Caribbean, but that’s been lost. This thing is a Pandora’s Box and I’m not sure you can ever close it again,” said  Caribbean Drug & Alcohol Research Institute director Marcus Day, in St. Lucia.

Jamaica, with roughly 3 million people and hit hard by drugs and extortion  for years, had 1,428 killings in 2010.   In comparison Chicago, a city with almost the same population, reported 435 homicides last year.

U.N. crime office statistics show homicide rates increasing by nearly 100% in numerous Caribbean countries since 1995.  In St. Kitts and Nevis, slayings have increased by a factor of six since 2002, when there were just five murders.