Comments by St Vincent and Grenadine’s (SVG) prime minister, Dr Ralph E. Gonsalves, and Senator Julian Francis regarding the mid-2017 spate of murders in their formerly peaceful country – eight over a six-day period for a total of 32 since the beginning of last year – focused on the role of interpersonal conflict, gang warfare, interdicted substances (marijuana and cocaine), access to guns, and law enforcement.
Neither mentioned the role of poverty – the chronic but specious New Democratic Party (NDP) fallback explanation for every affliction in Vinciland under Unity Labour Party rule – presumably because they were unwilling to give the opposition a cheap shot on this issue.
Indeed, there has been an inverse relation between the poverty and murder rates in SVG over the past 50 years: as poverty has gone down, the murder rate has gone up. Conversely, many countries all over the world that are far poorer than SVG have lower murder rates.
Part of the inverse correlation between poverty and murder levels in SVG and elsewhere in the Caribbean is because there is far more wealth to fight and kill over – especially the proceeds of illegal drugs – than ever before.
Although the NDP and many ordinary people have been critical of the inability of the police to prevent these murders, this criticism is also misplaced.
Like their counterparts elsewhere in the Caribbean, Vincentians have been traditionally reluctant to act as police informants, let alone undercover agents, often subverting police efforts to capture suspected criminals by warning them of the approach of “Babylon,” as the heavily armed and allegedly unaccountable Black Squad is disparagingly called, whenever their presence is detected.
They also habitually avoid testifying in court against accused persons, either to protect them or out of fear of post-trial retaliation. Under such conditions, all the skill, training, and equipment in the world would still make it difficult for the authorities to proactively prevent extra-legal homicide.
The only alternative would be a free-wheeling police state, including constant police surveillance and harassment, arbitrary search and seizure, unobstructed wiretapping, habitual curfews, and military-type trials where those charged would be presumed guilty unless proven innocent. As elsewhere in the region, neither public opinion nor the constitution would allow this to happen.
Still, most murders related to marijuana and cocaine would disappear overnight if the government could afford to expend all its political capital antagonizing most of the populace and many foreign entities by legalizing these substances, spending their scarce enforcement resources on the rehabilitation of cocaine addicts – and alcoholics – instead.
As for access to guns, this certainly makes it easier – and safer – to kill someone. But it is certainly not the “cause” of the growing murder rate.
When considered from a global perspective, there is no correlation between the number of guns per capita in a country and the number of firearm-related murders. The United States has, by far, the most guns in the world per capita, at 89 per 100 people, but a firearm murder rate of only 3 per 100,000 people. Compare that to Honduras, which has only 6.2 guns per 100 people but the world’s highest murder by firearm rate of 68 per 100,000 people.
Meanwhile SVG, has over eight times the illegal homicide rate of the United States at 27 per 100,000, most of them using firearms – regrettably the 15th highest in the world – but a very low per person rate of legal or illegal firearm possession. (I could find no hard data but my best estimate, based on my knowledge of gun ownership in my home community, is that there are less than five firearms per 100 people).
The conclusion? Guns don’t kill. People kill.
The role of interpersonal relations and gang warfare, a phenomenon that has spread here slowly but surely from black America and urban Jamaica, are both rooted in issues not mentioned by Dr Gonsalves or Mr Francis, namely the role played by history, culture, society, community, and family.
Like the Caribbean as a whole, SVG has a hodge-podge culture made up of disconnected and contradictory bits and pieces of African, slave-society, and European beliefs, values, and norms, not a good recipe for a unified word view and moral system.
The society is also fragmented by the rampant individualism, hedonism, degradation of women, and family disintegration created by slavery and its aftermath which has resulted in incompetent parenting, the sexual exploitation and murder of females, low community solidarity, and a dog-eat-dog mentality.
Neighbourhood and community solidarity are generally very low. Even relations between so-called friends, especially between females, are more often than not characterized by gossip, envy, and spite. There is also a widespread antipathy among neighbours, villagers, and community members balanced only by a greater aversion to life in other communities.
A house or yard is not of home for too many of Vincentians as well. Regularly, when someone dies, family fights over the burial society money. If there is no will, family “fight down” each other over the property left by the deceased. If there is a will, some family claim that it was forged or otherwise choose to subvert it. The most “war” we have these days is between close kin followed by revenge, hate, and greed killings among gang members alienated from their broken families.
Overall, the only constant elements that unite many Vincentians, apart from a superficial understanding of Christianity and lackadaisical allegiance to Christian values, is party or gang affiliation, hardly forces for binding people together as a single unit.
From a traditional sociological perspective, the root of the murder problem lies in widespread dysfunctional family organization, exacerbated by a low level of community cohesion, a dumbed-down state education system inappropriate to the country’s economic needs, and a lack of recreational facilities and programmes culminating in rampant idleness and excruciating boredom among young male school leavers.
Still, it is hard to accept the NDP claim that unemployment and political victimization is at the heart of the growing rate of murder when SVG’s unemployment rate was just as high and political patronage just as rampant when their party was last in power, a period when murder rates were much lower. And what evidence is there that any of the past or present murders were politically motivated?
While the government has control over the public education system, and could do much more to match it to the realities of the society, it can do little to change family structure or community organization.
With all these maladaptive features of contemporary life in SVG, compounded by the sociopathic gangsta culture internalized by the youth via local and overseas media, how could the country expect anything other than a high and growing murder rate?
This is the first in a series of essays on the extent and causes of crime, especially murder, in the Caribbean with special reference to SVG.