Nine murders in 29 days, with four victims, who were allegedly connected to ‘gang wars’ associated with the drug trade dying as a result of gunshot wounds. Our sympathy goes out to the families of these victims, but in all honesty, we have swept the issue of gun violence under the proverbial carpet for way too long. We either denied its existence or took comfort in saying, “well, at least we aren’t like Jamaica or Trinidad.” However, we might get there if we keep going at this rate!
The tide of gang-related gun violence did not start on January 1 this year, or as a consequence of the Barbados Economic Reform and Transformation programme and the financial challenges it brought with regard to the layoffs that affected some Barbadian families. As far back as 1990 during the (Sir Lloyd) Erskine Sandiford regime, Barbadians were talking about two gangs named “CNN” and “STV” who were causing trouble throughout the country. The minister responsible for law enforcement at that time downplayed the activity by boldly declaring “There are no gangs in Barbados.” Yet, people complained about constant gunshots in their neighbourhoods, and in 1991 MADD highlighted this in a song called “Cowboys” featuring PC Broomes and Daddy Plume, which stated, “Got to put on your bulletproof vest, Barbados getting like de Wild West.”
Then, a few years later, when the late David Thompson said during the 1999 General Elections campaign that if elected, he would make combating “crime and violence” a priority, the ruling party made fun of it in their campaign advertising. Denial once again from those in authority, but obviously the problem was becoming more serious.
Now, almost 30 years later, we are doing the same thing we always did. “Increasing the number of police officers, having joint patrols with the Barbados Defence Force, random searches of people passing through volatile areas”; all of these methods were tried before, but how successful were they really?
As we all know, the ‘guys on the street’ fighting among themselves are essentially the smaller fish in a big pond. As MADD asked in their song, “Where all de guns come from?” Late last year, as he addressed a training session for law enforcement officers, Commandant at the Regional Police Training Centre, Sylvester Louis, made the point that “No firearms are manufactured in Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad or anywhere else in the Caribbean, yet they are arriving in these countries. Now we honestly believe that ninety-eight percent of all border security officers are doing their jobs, but an intractable two percent are giving us a bad name, either in collaboration with the criminal elements or they at the very least turn a blind eye. Now how would they feel if their colleagues’ negligence resulted in a weapon ending up in the hands of a criminal who might end up killing their parents, spouse or children?”
Cameras have been installed at the major ports of entry, a move which generated some opposition when it was first proposed, but do those cameras still work? Have they been upgraded over the years to use more modern technology? Who checks the footage and how often is it done? Are there whistleblowing procedures in place if whoever reviews the video sees an officer indulging in a questionable activity? Has any law enforcement officer, whether Customs, Police, Coast Guard or Immigration, been charged before the courts or otherwise disciplined for their involvement in clandestine operations at a port of entry? How well are containers and their inventory inspected on site and at their eventual destination? And do we have the manpower to monitor the illicit ports of entry all over the country effectively?
Roger Husbands, who has gathered a lot of intelligence on the gang situation in Barbados over the past decade, recently revealed that guns are for hire depending on the type of ‘job’ people want to do. Who are these “gun rental agencies”, and whom do they work for? To quote MADD again, “Nobody don’t know!” In some cases, people probably do not know, but in others, there is the mantra “All informers must die”, or dare we say it, it may be that the “dons,” as they call them in Jamaica, have a considerable amount of influence within their communities as well as at the highest levels of society.
As the debate on the Integrity in Public Life Bill began in Parliament last July, Leader of the Opposition, Bishop Joseph Atherley, expressed concern about a practice he observed on the campaign trail. “As far back as 2003, I noticed that some of the people seeking political office seemed to be developing linkages with the criminal element in their constituencies, looking for votes as well as financial support. Now it is dangerous when politicians are in the pockets of legitimate businessmen, but even worse when they are on the payroll of criminals who corrupt our democratic institutions.” Let us pray this is not the case here, but if it is, we cannot take it lightly.
Yes, the dirt started seeping out from under the carpet ages ago and is creating problems for us all. While we welcome any efforts made to combat the problem on the ground, it is high time we go further and not only pass the legislation that can bring the kingpins and their enablers to justice, but to actually enforce it and show we are serious about taking back our communities from the gangsters whose existence we can no longer deny.