The Caribbean region has a “uniquely high level of violent crime,” according to a new report that offers a rare insight into the root causes of criminal activity in the region, with the aim of helping to build more strategic security policies.

A recent study by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) reveals that on average, 13 percent of residents in five Caribbean countries were victims of common crime over the past year.

The report examined user victimization surveys from 2014 and 2015 in the Bahamas, Barbados, Jamaica, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago, focusing on five crimes: car theft, burglary, robbery, personal theft, and assault or threats of assault. (See the executive summary embedded at the bottom of this article.)

Table 2.1 IADB Caribbean report

(Graphic courtesy of IDB)

The report emphasised the prevalence of violence in these Caribbean nations, finding that almost one in three people surveyed had lost someone close to them to violence. But such trends were more pronounced in some countries — and their capital cities in particular — than in others.

While murder rates in the Bahamas, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago were “comparable to countries in armed conflict,” with a rate of over 30 homicides per 100,000 citizens in 2013, Suriname and Barbados have kept relatively low homicide rates.

“The Caribbean does not have a crime problem, it has a violence problem” – IDB report author Heather Sutton

Murder rates corresponded to the prevalence of common crime: In the capital cities of the three most murderous countries, residents were also most likely to be victimized, while in Suriname and Barbados robbery and assault indicators were lower.

The strongest common trend between all countries was the abnormally high rates of assault and threat of assault, which are higher in the Caribbean than any other region, according to similar surveys.

Table 2.3 IADB Caribbean report

(Graphic courtesy of IDB)

Yet for almost all theft-related crimes, these Caribbean countries ranked below the global average. This stands in contrast to the rest of Latin America, which had above-average prevalence of theft.

According to the report, victimization surveys such as those used by the authors offer a more complete image of Caribbean security dynamics than crime studies that are often based on police reports, seeing as only around half of all crimes are reported to police.

InSight Crime Analysis

The report identifies some key characteristics that have contributed to violence in these five Caribbean countries, and it calls for a better characterization of the region’s distinct public security problems.

“As some would put it, the Caribbean does not have a crime problem, it has a violence problem,” Heather Sutton, one of the report’s authors, told InSight Crime.

This at least partly explains the prevalence of aggressive infractions like assault over the personal possession crimes like robbery. And this prevalence of violence comes down to a number of factors, in particular gang presence and gun possession.

“Gangs are greatly responsible for crime and violence in the Caribbean,” the report reads. Statistics showed that people living in gang neighborhoods were more likely to be victimized, especially by assaults or threats. Worst affected was the capital of Trinidad and Tobago, Port of Spain, were around 60 percent of victims also reported gang presence where they lived.

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Still, this correlation between gangs and violence is not straightforward. Gang characteristics vary from country to country.

In the particular case of the Bahamas, Sutton explained, gang presence is not as pronounced as in the other countries studied. But the island nation’s murder rate has soared to record heights over the past few years, and it had the highest prevalence of crime among all Caribbean countries surveyed.

The availability of firearms also plays a key role. In the countries with the highest homicide and common crime rates, the greatest percentage of murders involved firearms. Latin American and the Caribbean is the region with the greatest handgun ownership after Africa, according to surveys studied.

But while it is still hard to pin down the causal relationship between violence and firearm possession, the report identified root causes that set these Caribbean communities apart from those in other regions.

Violence is believed to begin in the home, Sutton said, and it was found that Caribbean inhabitants had a higher tolerance of violence against women and children compared to Latin America. And “early problem behaviours” that spur violence in later life — such as youth engagement in sexual behaviour and drinking alcohol — were also higher observed at higher rates in the Caribbean.

Perhaps what most surprised Sutton and her team, she said, was the sheer magnitude of the violence, which helps perpetuate the problem. The fact that a third of people had been affected by the murder of someone close — in Kingston, Jamaica, it may be as much as half of the population — increases chances of aggressive retaliation, leading to cycles of violence.

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The main shortcoming of Caribbean governments in inhibiting violence has been not finding the right “balance between prevention and control,” including disproportionate spending on police, Sutton told InSight Crime.

Despite countries having a fair amount of resources at their disposal, Sutton said, these resources may not be allocated in an optimal way. For example, only two cents are spent on crime prevention for every dollar spent on addressing crime after it has occurred, the author said. Imprisonment is also favoured over rehabilitation, a trend that is mirrored across Latin America. This tends to raise the rate of repeat offenders within the most vulnerable communities, which Sutton describes as a “revolving door” system.

Sutton and her team encourages Caribbean governments to try to replicate successful violence prevention initiatives from other countries. These include “smart” policing methods such as one in Trinidad and Tobago that is supported by the United Kingdom’s University of Cambridge, which focuses patrols on high-risk areas and times of day. Results showed a 44 percent decrease in violence in target areas, offering potential lessons to be learnt in neighboring islands.

IDB report executive summary:

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