With its homicide rates higher than ever in 2019 and 2020, Barbados is now confronting a difficult situation: Will it be able to bring the violence down or will it catch up with some of its Caribbean neighbors?

On May 22, police officer Newton Lewis responded to a robbery in progress near his home in Barbados’ northern parish of Saint Peter. He was shot dead on arrival at the scene, and his service weapon was taken, according to Barbados Today.

Lewis, who had been the driver of Barbados’ police commissioner, was the first police officer to be killed in at least 20 years in the country.

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His death came as the island nation struggles with a rising homicide rate and the increasing presence of illegal guns.

The numbers can seem paltry when compared to some of its Caribbean neighbors. In 2019, the island saw a record 49 murders, dropping to 42 in 2020. But homicides have still more than doubled since 2012.

The government has pointed to the influx of illegal guns as helping to facilitate the increase in violence. While it has a much smaller population, the country sees the most gun-related crimes among English-speaking Caribbean nations after Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, according to a report by the Caribbean Financial Action Task Force.

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Barbados has so far avoided the major risk factors that have seen homicides soar in other Caribbean nations. But these advantages do come with some important caveats.

Firstly, it has little presence of international organized crime. Its gangs are highly localized and involved primarily in microtrafficking, as the island is not part of any significant overseas drug trafficking routes, a major cause of violence in Jamaica or the Dominican Republic.

However, these gangs are far from harmless. They are behind many of the country’s homicides and members reportedly rent guns to each other for 10,000 Barbadian dollars ($5,000), according to Cheryl Willoughby, director of Barbados’ National Task Force on Crime Prevention.

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Secondly, the country has been a regional leader for having low rates of official corruption, police brutality and criminal impunity, according to a 2020 US State Department report.

But its response to gang violence has seemed inconsistent, with sweeping pledges for tougher sentencing laws often failing to pass Parliament or containing loopholes.

In 2017, anti-gang legislation was proposed by the Attorney General’s Office, pledging sentences of 20 years for gang members and 25 years for gang leaders. In 2018, this was dropped by the new government of Prime Minister Mia Mottley. The current administration then began considering its own version of anti-gang laws, which also were never implemented. In late 2020, one of the country’s top prosecutors called for a life sentence for a gang member on trial for murder.

In July 2020, Barbados did pass the Integrity in Public Life Bill, seeking to enforce similar standards of conduct for public officials and private entrepreneurs. This was motivated by several reports of officials facilitating criminal acts. In 2019, border officials were caught accepting bribes to allow illegal guns into the country, according to the country’s police commissioner.

However, the bill came in for criticism. One controversial clause stated that no investigations into alleged acts of corruption could take place if an official had left public service for more than two years.

Thirdly, most murders do not involve firearms. Guns are only used in around 40 percent of murders in Barbados, as opposed to over 70 percent in Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica, according to a report by the Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance.

But the problem of illegal firearms appears to be on the rise. The country has regularly held amnesty periods where unregistered guns can be surrendered without consequences. But with only a few dozen guns turned in each time, this is not a long-term solution to bring in Barbados’ estimated 7,000 illegal firearms, according to Small Arms Survey.

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