SEVEN murders in four days – anywhere – is enough to warrant the prevailing level of public anxiety in Saint Lucia after the recent gangland-style killings in Vieux Fort, the island’s southernmost town, following the outing of a reputed ‘Don’.
Prime Minister Philip J. Pierre promised swift action, including inviting regional assistance, new emergency laws and more arms and vehicles for the police.
Vieux Fort was a ghost town last weekend following the killings that started on March 10, when schools and businesses shut early after family members of earlier shooting victims were targeted and executed, in what’s been officially described as retaliatory vengeance.
The Prime Minister invited the Regional Security Service (RSS) to support the police to monitor the town and maintain peace; and schools reopened Monday with a heavy police presence everywhere; the Education Minister also visiting to reassure teachers and students – and encourage students to avoid the usual after-school loitering and head for the safety of their homes after classes.
Tempers have lowered even though anxiety is still very high, but while citizens rightly demand that ‘the government’ and ‘the police’ do more, in less time, to allay public fears, both sides are caught in a Catch 22 situation: The government has a responsibility to respond, but cannot realistically publicise how it intends to confront this latest national security with the specifics citizens expect and opposition politicians loudly demand.
With over 20 broadcast media entities, the daily official police reports and crime updates are seen and heard three times daily island-wide, keeping the same story, with hardly any updates, on screens and airwaves, online through various social media platforms – and spread 24/7 by multitudes of gossip grapevines.
But this is not the island’s first national security crisis of this kind, as a similar prolonged crime wave led to a government-backed police operation between 2010 and 2011 called “Operation Restore Confidence,” in which alleged criminal elements, known to the law, were reportedly listed on a police blacklist for execution.
It was also alleged that in one such operation, also in Vieux Fort, five targeted persons were killed by the police, with the investigators also alleging efforts to cover-up and/or falsify evidence.
An investigation by CARICOM security investigative entity IMPACS turned up enough evidence to conclude that more than a dozen police officers had engaged in at least as many extra-judicial killings, following which the victims’ families and the accused officers were left in limbo.
The Trump administration and the European Union (EU) together condemned the slow pace of the national judicial response and Washington instituted sanctions against Saint Lucia under the 1997 Leahy Law, requiring ending US support for any police force or national army found to have engaged in extrajudicial killings.
The US sanctions resulted in years of Saint Lucia’s top police officers (including the Commissioner) unable to attend conferences abroad, the police force no longer receiving US financial or equipment assistance, the mainly US-armed Special Services Unit (SSU) unable to receive more guns or ammunition and the island’s Coast Guard vessels also virtually crippled for lack of spare parts needed urgently.
In 2022, Washington relaxed some sanctions against certain police departments to allow the island to combat evasive inter-island boat trips by persons evading COVID vaccines, but earlier this year it was announced that five of the police officers investigated were cleared for lack of evidence, which is unlikely to encourage a lifting of the US sanctions.
Members of the police force were also earlier accused by politicians of profitably returning illegal weapons to the streets after having been submitted in a guns-for-cash amnesty that also fell victim to politics and regime change.
In the past decade, fighting crime has been weaponised by Caribbean politicians in the fight for votes, while the armed gangs have multiplied, strengthened by untold numbers of “deportees” sent to the region by the Obama and Trump administrations, worsened by extended gang warfare and continuing proliferation of more illegal weapons.
The sophistry of today’s multinational inter-island criminal operations has also resulted in the gangs having access to more deadly weapons than the police, which some gunmen don’t even hide, displaying their hardware on social media platforms, whether firing bullets at parties or simply showing-off.
(Some) citizens have become understandably unwilling to finger the dons and gangsters who are already well-known to the police and the community out of fear of deadly reprisals.
With 72 homicides officially reported a few years ago and the Borderlais Correctional Facility (BCF) overflowing with young murder accused seemingly awaiting trail forever, more Saint Lucians are calling for a return of the death penalty, going to bed expecting another death tomorrow, only wondering who or where next.
It’s a frightening state of affairs, but the Saint Lucia experience, while different, is not dissimilar to other national security crises that have faced other CARICOM member states from time to time – from Jamaica and Haiti in the north, to Trinidad & Tobago in the south.
Suriname faced its own scary storming of parliament in mid-February, while Guyanese too-young to know about the Jonestown Massacre (in November 1978) are certainly aware of the situation surrounding the recent explosive political call for mutiny aimed at the republic’s armed forces, in the name of Freedom of Expression.
Unfortunately, regional security only seems to ignite regional reaction and international concern when events like The Grenada Revolution happen, or a hurricane, earthquake, volcano or other tropical or climate disaster causes loss of life or untold and irreparable damage.
But the increasing frequency of national crises of all kinds and urgent requests for regional military support is worthy of more and better response than has been the norm, especially with more criminals in more places behaving as if the Caribbean is the world’s newest Gangsters Paradise.
Yesterday was elsewhere and tomorrow will definitely be somewhere else, so all CARICOM governments have an equal stake in tending to this growing regional headache.
Meanwhile, as if to underscore the above, the Royal Saint Lucia Police Force is appealing for public information after the island registered two more gun-related killings on March 19, when two men on a motorcycle – one 53, the other 32 and both known to the police – were shot dead in the dark (after 8 pm) in Bananes Bay in South Castries, in what residents who heard have described as “a hail of bullets”.