Caribbean islands struggling to dismantle gangs

BASSETERRE, St. Kitts (AP) -- When Dudley Williams was a police commander in the mid-1980s, law enforcement in St. Kitts and Nevis was a leisurely occupation. Violent crime was rare on the sleepy specks of land in the eastern Caribbean.

"If fellows got into a heated dispute at a rum bar, things were settled with fists, a piece of stick, a knife at the worst," said Williams, now 79. "You'd get a shooting once every five years."

Times have changed here and for many islands across the Caribbean, where an escalating arms race among criminal gangs has turned once-peaceful neighborhoods into battle zones.

St. Kitts and Nevis, a two-island federation of nearly 50,000 people, has tallied 31 homicides so far in 2011, already making it the bloodiest year on record. Police blame gangs with names like Killer Mafia Soldiers and Tek Life for the escalating violence.

Usually far from the view of sunbathing tourists, tit-for-tat shootings by trigger-happy gangsters have become common in the Caribbean, according to a new report on global homicides by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.

Alarmed citizens are putting pressure on politicians throughout the region to attack the problem. In Trinidad and Tobago, which is off Venezuela's coast along a prime drug shipment route, the government has declared a state of emergency, imposing nightly curfews and giving police and soldiers broad powers to conduct searches and seizures.

Little of the violence so far has affected tourists to the Caribbean, where about 6 million Americans visit each year. Many stick to all-inclusive resorts, and those who don't rarely stray into the gritty slums where the violence flares up.

Still, there are isolated cases: A vacationing U.S. Army sergeant was killed during a robbery in Trinidad last year. A Welsh couple was butchered in an Antigua vacation cottage on the last day of their two-week honeymoon in 2008. In St. Kitts, bandits held up a small bus of tourists last year, prompting two cruise lines to briefly suspend stops there. Two British women were raped on a remote beach in St. Lucia earlier this year.

Drug traffickers have helped drive up the crime rates by introducing firearms and narcotics with a street value exceeding the size of the Caribbean's legal economy.

Although the islands remain near-perfect conduits for drug shipments, with their numerous unpoliced islets and barely monitored coasts, the U.N. crime office says Caribbean drug seizures actually diminished 71 percent between 1997 and 2009 as more contraband shifted to Central American routes.

According to the agency, the increase in the Caribbean's lethal violence can partly be traced to frenzied competition between underworld groups fighting for turf in a diminished drug smuggling market.

Caribbean experts worry a culture of violence has become entrenched on the islands, where nearly 70 percent of homicides are committed by 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 Marcus Day, director of the Caribbean Drug & Alcohol Research Institute in St. Lucia.

Comparisons with other parts of the world can be stark. Jamaica, an island of roughly 3 million people that has been hit hard by drug and extortion gangs for years, chalked up 1,428 killings in 2010. Chicago, a city of nearly 3 million, reported 435 homicides last year.

Statistics from the U.N. crime office show homicide rates nearly doubling in a number of Caribbean countries since 1995. In St. Kitts and Nevis, slayings have increased sixfold since 2002, when there were just five killings.

Ivelaw Griffith, an expert on Caribbean security at City University of New York, said outmaneuvered and outgunned law enforcement agencies on the islands have a limited ability to cope with the problem on their own.

He said the spread of cable television and popular music has raised expectations among youths by depicting the easy life even as the rough global economy is making pockets of poverty grow deeper and wider. It's "really creating a very unholy and unhealthy recipe for these small societies," Griffith said.

To counter the gang culture, the Bahamas is toughening crime and bail laws, building more courts, trying to round up unlicensed guns and funding programs to steer at-risk youth away from crime.

The archipelago off Florida's east coast has seen 104 people killed so far this year, easily topping the previous full-year record of 94 set just last year.