With an all-time record of 56 homicides in the territory last year, the U.S. Virgin Islands was not spared by the Caribbean-wide surge in violent crime in 2009 that experts say was fueled by drug trafficking, the proliferation of gangs and an influx of guns.
An average homicide rate of more than 30 per 100,000 residents already made the Caribbean and Latin America the most violent region in the world, according to the World Bank and the United Nations.
For a population of between 100,000 and 110,000 residents, the 56 homicides committed in the U.S. Virgin Islands last year pushed the territory alongside Jamaica and Trinidad, which have jockeyed several years running for the dubious title of “murder capital of the world.”
“The number is totally unacceptable,” V.I. Police Commissioner Novelle Francis told the Source.
“Whether it’s one or it’s 56, it’s too much,” he said, describing a confluence of factors that came together last year in a sort of perfect storm.
The self-destructive cycle strangling the territory and the region should be viewed in the context of bad economic times that leave little room for hope on the streets, he said. And, as the United Nations has noted, he said the territory sits in a vulnerable spot —at the intersection of northbound drugs and southbound guns.
“The fact is that the Virgin Islands is a major drug transshipment point,” Francis said. “And where there are drugs, there are guns. And these guys have proven that they are willing to fight and willing to use violence for their turf.”
A troubled region
The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime has linked the recent bloodshed to the surge in regional drug traffic, estimating that as much as 50 percent of all cocaine bound for the U.S. and European markets from South America transits the Caribbean.
Fighting over that commerce has spilled beyond the cartels and into the streets in places like the Bahamas, where 82 people were slain last year; and Puerto Rico, where more than 890 people were killed in 2009, according to the Associated Press.
From the Bahamas to Trinidad and Tobago, leaders in almost every island nation and territory of the Caribbean have been sounding the alarm as they’ve faced skyrocketing rates of murder and other violent crimes.
Francis, who took the commissioner’s seat in August after James McCall left the job, said he’s been working with officials from other Caribbean countries and territories who are battling similar problems.
Good communication is vital, he said, because crime and criminals are often transnational.
“We have a serious open ports issue,” Francis said. “We have people coming from neighboring islands like Puerto Rico, the B.V.I., Dominica. And we’ve experienced cases where they are able to commit acts of violence here and are able to get back out.”
Likewise, he said, homegrown criminals have fled this territory and live as fugitives in neighboring islands, possibly committing more crimes.
Francis pointed to the recent case of a St. Thomas man wanted for assault here. He was captured by authorities in St. Lucia, who identified him in the “Most Wanted” page on the VIPD website.
“I’m in contact almost daily with the B.V.I. commissioner,” Francis said. “We share DNA and forensics information because it’s often the case that individuals involved in crimes go here and there.”
Turf wars begun elsewhere in the region have also been playing out in the territory’s streets. At least four murders last year could be traced to an ongoing feud within the local community from the island of Dominica, Francis said. Similarly, a turf war among recent Haitian immigrants and another feud that originated in the Dominican Republic continue to vex his officers and loom as potential hotspots for more violence.
“We don’t really have an understanding of what’s going on in these cases, and they are difficult to intervene in,” he said, adding that the melting-pot character of St. Thomas, especially, makes cooperation with other regional players more important than ever.
“In places like Antigua, St. Lucia, Dominica, and St. Kitts, we have people now that we can just pick up the phone and call,” Francis said, adding that he was looking forward to the upcoming conference of Caribbean police commissioners on St. Thomas as an opportunity to share.
Guns, guns and more guns
Alongside drugs and poverty, Francis said the biggest problems shared by the U.S. Virgin Islands and populations across the Caribbean are guns and gangs.
Darwin Dottin, the chairman of the Association of Caribbean Police Chiefs, recently estimated that there were as many as 1.6 million illegal guns in the region.
Last summer at least nine Caribbean nations signed a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to participate in the “e-trace” ballistics tracking system as regional police leaders identified the United States as the source of most of the guns.
Jamaican officials have said that 80 percent of the guns they confiscate each year can be traced back to the U.S. mainland, according to the Associated Press. Likewise, the Bahamas last year reported that 73 percent of the guns they confiscated had come from the United States. Similar percentages were also reported in St. Kitts.
Francis said the proliferation of guns from illegal and legal sources is now a scourge in the territory.
“We don’t manufacture guns here in the Virgin Islands, but obviously guns are coming into our ports on airplanes, in sailboats, in containers,” he said.
“We’ve recently been successful in interdicting several caches of weapons,” Francis said. “But to be honest, that’s the tip of the iceberg. We’ve got weapons flowing into the territory every day in all kinds of ways.”
Ironically, as other Caribbean nations have been reaching out to the ATF for help, that same agency is conspicuously absent from the U.S. Virgin Islands. The ATF officially abandoned the territory in October 2008. A battle over the federal jurisdiction in local crimes has stunted collaboration at the time needed most.
The ATF is waiting for local legislation to clarify its jurisdiction. Until then, Francis said the bureau is helping out by stepping up gun interdiction efforts on the mainland, in Miami and Atlanta, where many of the weapons bound for the territory come from.
He said the VIPD in 2009 enjoyed healthy collaboration with other federal agencies interdicting drugs and fighting gangs.
The federally-funded Safe Streets Task Force, and a new affiliation with Florida-based DNA Laboratories that was funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, are just a couple examples of recent federal help to fight crime on V.I. streets, Francis said.
With additional money from the federal economic stimulus plan, Francis said the VIPD has recently ordered new equipment, including technology to help enhance the image quality of video taken by surveillance cameras, cell phones and handheld cameras, and forensics equipment, such as microscopes and other tools for analyzing weapons and ammunition.
He was also able to renew the contract of a special ballistics examiner whose stint with the VIPD had expired late last year.
Gangs thrive on V.I. streets
Where Francis said the department could have used more help in 2009 was in the fight against gangs, which he said have sprouted up everywhere.
It’s a region-wide phenomenon underscored in many recent reports by international organizations including the U.N.
Gangs flourish in conditions of poverty and especially around the drug trade, taking over local distribution and fighting over scraps.
A recent article in the Harvard International Review cited gangs as the main cause of soaring homicide rates in the Caribbean, listing Jamaica, Guyana, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Trinidad and Tobago as the countries affected the most.
The territory's gang problem is part import, part homegrown, Francis said.
VIPD officers have recently told the Source that some local gangs are offshoots of mainland groups such as the Bloods and the Crips, franchises established in the territory after youth have moved back.
A recent report by the V.I. Department of Education said some of the territory’s youth get involved in gangs as early as middle school, and that the influence of gang culture is on the rise throughout the public school system.
“Gang-related activities have become part of the fiber of some of our junior highs and have threatened to undermine the social fabric of our schools and our society as a whole,” the report said.
Another study cited by Project Safe Neighborhoods USVI showed that 47 percent of local students have seen a weapon at school and 25 percent had been part of a posse or gang.
Francis said many, if not most, of the deaths and other assaults last year were perpetrated by members of gangs, better known throughout the Caribbean as posses.
“Now we have some serious gangs and organizations that are starting here in the Virgin Islands,” he said.
While adults run many of them, “on the street it’s the youth,” he said. “When they are inducted or trying to be accepted they commit violent crimes just to get in.”
Francis drew a fine line between the perpetrators of the violence and many of the victims, saying that many victims are “involved in crimes and street life” themselves.
“A lot of what we’re seeing is retaliation-type stuff,” he said.
Anti-Gang efforts barely under way
Francis said the gang phenomenon took root so quickly in the territory that the police have only been able to react and are far from getting ahead of it.
Upon taking the job as commissioner, Francis had promised to battle the problem head on. He announced the creation of a new anti-gang squad headed by a “tactical anti-gang intervention coordinator.”
That squad has only been together for the last three months of 2009.
“We’ve made very small headway,” Francis said.
“There are some serious socio-economic problems that we have here. We have a very high unemployment rate, and opportunities are often limited,” Francis said. “What we have to do first, whether it’s with the youth or some of those adults, is redirect them into something positive. We are at a loss if we can’t provide a new opportunity.”
In order to eradicate the gangs in the schools, public housing communities and other niches where they’ve taken root, Francis said his officers need more enforcement authority to cut them down at the source. He said he supports legislation that would make it illegal just to be in a gang.
“Right now, if we see an individual who is displaying the signs, like colors or bandanas or whatever, all we can do is profile that individual,” he said. “If we are going to have an impact on this, we have to have the legislation and the authority to do this. That way we’ll be able to nip it in the bud before it really begins.”
Steps in the right direction
Saying he hoped that anyone judging his progress battling the violent crime wave in the territory remembers that he took the job more than half way into 2009, Francis cited some positive first steps.
During his tenure he has established a cold-case unit that has already claimed two arrests in two murders. He doubled the size and strength of the major crimes unit, and established the gang squad that is just starting to feel its way.
Also, through Crime Stoppers and through tips made directly to the police, Francis said the general public has been participating like never before.
“I’ve seen a lot more cooperation,” he said. “And you’re seeing it in the increased number of arrests.”
Police have made 12 arrests in 11 of the 20 homicides committed on St. Croix and seven arrests in six of the 36 homicides committed on St. Thomas and St. John. VIPD spokeswoman Melody Rames said two additional cases, one from each district, were also closed because the suspects killed themselves in apparent murder-suicides.
“We need to make it clear that most of these are targeted violence and turf wars,” Francis said. “It’s not tourists walking down our streets” that are being affected, he said.
But even one murder, Francis conceded, whether solved or unsolved, can affect the entire community.
In recent years, other island territories that depend on tourism for livelihoods had their reputations sullied and economies affected when turf wars and other violence spilled over into the tourism sector.
In July 2008, when two British honeymooners were shot and killed in their hotel room during a robbery on St. Lucia, tourism, especially British tourism, took a dive, fueled by headlines such as “Beware the Perils of Paradise.”
And last year’s rape and killing of a pregnant American tourist in Puerto Rico sent chills through the tourism industry there.
Francis agreed that the serious problem of violent crime in the territory and throughout the Caribbean region is difficult to even talk about without scaring the tourists away.
It could get worse
Looking ahead, Francis warned that although the Stars and Stripes fly over the U.S. Virgin Islands, the territory shares less with U.S. mainland communities in terms of demographics, culture and economy, and shares more with its Caribbean neighbors who are also struggling with bad economies and violent crime.
Experts say things throughout the region could worsen in coming years.
Citing the so-called “toothpaste effect,” some have suggested that part of the rise in violence could be the first signs that the drug war in Mexico is spilling over into the Caribbean, as major organizations seek the path of least resistance.
Vance Callender, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement official in Jamaica who was recently quoted by the Associated Press, said U.S. counter-drug operations in Mexico and along the U.S.–Mexico border would “push a lot of that trade back toward the Caribbean, like it was back in the ‘80s.”
Others have expressed similar concerns.
“If the problem is not addressed now, traffickers will continue to expand operations throughout the region by exploiting these vulnerable transit routes, undermining local governments and increasing the likelihood of political instability,” U.S. State Department official Julissa Reynoso told Congress last month.
After visiting Trinidad last summer for the Summit of the Americas, President Obama acknowledged the unintended consequences of his push in Mexico and asked Congress for $45 million to help Caribbean islands offset any spillover.
For the U.S. Virgin Islands, such regional trends make it clear that looking to the mainland for comparisons or solutions may not be the only bet, Francis said.
Collaboration with the federal government and with other Caribbean nations and territories will be vital, he said, pointing ahead to St. Thomas' upcoming conference of Caribbean Police Commissioners as a place to start.
“We’ll be looking at our problems in the region collectively,” Francis said, “and coming up with a game plan and some strategies to help solve this.”