It’s an open secret that gangs exist in Barbados. So yesterday’s revelations at the National Consultation on Crime and Violence were not new or shocking, but a damning wake-up call.
That gangs are becoming more complex and sophisticated is discomforting.
Far worse, the warning from a criminal justice expert that the ‘Don’ culture prevalent in Jamaica’s garrison communities was beginning to take root here.
Whether or not we want to admit it, Barbados is changing and, sadly, not for the better. Our country is losing its grip on traditional values, particularly a requisite respect for the rule of law that must be upheld by any successful society.
The evidence was unveiled in a recent gang study presented at the consultation by Senior Research Officer at the Criminal Justice Research and Planning Unit Kim Ramsay.
The research shows that the gang culture in Barbados was deep and entrenched and it included people from all classes of society.
Said Ramsay: “We want to make it clear that gangs do exist in Barbados and always have.
“These men run these gangs as businesses where they engage in firearm and drug smuggling. The man on the block is not the only person who is involved in the gangs.”
Ramsay, supported by Attorney General Adriel Brathwaite, also pointed out that more women were identifying themselves as gang members and were in fact playing a role in criminal activity.
“They act as couriers, they carry the weapons and drugs, they act as lookouts, as bait by utilizing sex and feminine prowess, and they are used as recruiters. Some are the masterminds and managers, as women are more educated.”
The loud message from the data is that Barbados must change course quickly and intervention and prevention are urgently needed to arrest the problem.
Therefore, pronouncements by the AG of harsh penalties for gangs would have met the approval of most.
Among the measures, new anti-gang legislation which allows for the sentencing of gang leaders and members to lengthy jail terms of 20 years or more.
Those who would seek to lead our vulnerable youth down a path to a life of crime and violence should pay dearly.
In this respect, Brathwaite’s comments that gang leaders “Are not heroes. They belong behind bars and that is why we want to give specific legislation to deal with them”, was on point.
However, authorities must take every precaution to ensure that in their identification of gang leaders and members, citizens who may just be liming on the block in groups are not rounded up and unfairly charged.
Law enforcement tools need to be used in a targeted way and directed at gang leaders and members who commit violent crimes.
The main emphasis needs to be on effective prevention programmes that change the behaviour of our youth – getting them involved in community programmes that essentially keep them out of gangs.
The root causes of gangs are many, running the gamut from corrupt officials, the breakdown in traditional families to single mother households, an education system that leaves the non-academic student behind with too many leaving school without any skills, and poor examples from adults.
These factors, and more, provide ready traps for many of our youth. Gangs reportedly offer acceptance and security, provide an identity and a quick, though illegal way to get all the material goods that attract the young – the latest cell phones and other gadgets, brand name clothes and shoes and a big ride.
Therefore, a young man who cannot get a good job or acceptance in the home joins the gang. He is introduced to guns and drugs, life changes and he becomes a hot shot with swagger.
And this is where we need our authorities to intervene – not merely with punitive action.
Some of our communities, particularly where housing areas abound, have been ignored for too long. There are not enough community centres, recreation spaces and other avenues to harness the energy of youngsters into productive activity.
Ms Ramsay was at pains to point out that the gang study had identified at least one community that has been sidelined for years by successive governments.
She pointed out that this was the scenario which allowed the notorious Jamaica kingpin Christopher Dudus Coke to rule the garrison community of Tivoli Gardens before his incarceration in the US on federal racketeering charges.
Ramsay appealed to authorities not to allow a Dudus to spring up in Barbados because of societal exclusion and neglect.
We desperately need to listen.