Gangster’s Paradise Part 1
By Ian G. Strachan
Crime and the political class
There is no greater problem facing The Bahamas, as far as the average Bahamian is concerned, than violent crime. Unfortunately, violent crime is itself merely a manifestation, a symptom of deeper problems, troubling weaknesses in our systems, institutions, communities, families, psyches. Some of the weaknesses are beyond our control – such as our size, our geographical fragmentation and proximity to the largest consumer society in the world. Others exist because of our own neglect, incompetence, complicity, fear and ignorance.
It seems sometimes as if we want with all our hearts to do away with the shameful symptoms of our disease: Murder, rape, armed robbery, as if these were ugly, painful lesions on a pretty face, but we have no matching zeal to cure ourselves of the disease that lurks deep within, creating these conspicuous eruptions.
Over the next few weeks we will explore the vexing matter of crime in The Bahamas. We will try to be guided by the research and considered thoughts of those who have already dedicated time and effort to these problems (because I have no interest in re-inventing the wheel).
Where we are
First, let us put our current situation in The Bahamas in perspective – regional perspective. Here, we are alarmed at our murder rate. I don’t wish to say that the alarm is misplaced, but I’d like to look at the murder rate for a moment as a regional phenomenon. Where do we stack up? In 2010, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Trinidad and Tobago had 472 murders or 35 per 100,000 people. The Dominican Republic had 2,472 murders or 24 per 100,000. St. Lucia had 44 or 25.2 per 100,000. Puerto Rico had 983 murders or 26 per 100,000. Jamaica had 1,428 or 52 per 100,000; Dominica 15 or 22 per 100,000 and The Bahamas 96, or 28 per 100,000 people. (Police now say we only had 94 in 2010.)
The Caribbean nation most like our own demographically and historically, Barbados, had 31 murders in 2010. By comparison, the U.S. had five murders per 100,000 people, Canada had 1.8 per 100,000 people, Japan and Singapore had 0.5 murders per 100,000 people and Germany 0.8 per 100,000. You can see then that as a region we are recording very high murder rates compared to the industrialized countries. In fact, the Caribbean has many of the highest murder rates in the world. I could not find murder rates higher than The Bahamas’ anywhere outside of the Caribbean, Africa and Latin America. Before this series is done I shall have discussed that phenomenon with some of our criminologists and sociologists.
Crime is much, much broader than murder, as we know, but murder captures everyone’s attention because it is the most serious, most shocking of crimes. A 2007 World Bank report on crime and its impact on development in the Caribbean noted that: “The high rates of crime and violence in the region have both direct effects on human welfare in the short-run and longer run effects on economic growth and social development.”
That should sober us. Crime and violence have deep seated economic impacts. The report also noted that “the strongest explanation for the relatively high rates of crime and violence rates in the region – and their apparent rise in recent years – is narcotics trafficking.”
The drug trade drives crime in a number of ways: Through violence tied to trafficking, by normalizing illegal behavior, by diverting criminal justice resources from other activities, by provoking property crime related to addiction, by contributing to the widespread availability of firearms, and by undermining and corrupting societal institutions.
Perhaps most importantly, the report warned that in trying to reduce crime, violent crime especially, “There is no one ‘ideal’ approach. The common denominator is that successful interventions are evidence-based, starting with a clear diagnostic about types of violence and risk factors, and ending with a careful evaluation of the intervention’s impact which will inform future actions.”
Whose side are the legislators on?
Over the next few weeks we’ll discuss a variety of crime fighting strategies available to us in this country. But I wish to begin by discussing the role lawmakers and aspiring lawmakers have played in sanctioning, enabling and rewarding criminality in this country. To put it bluntly, our politicians must choose sides: Either they are on the side of those who are accused of committing crimes or they are on the side of the rest of society. They should no longer be able to have it both ways. What do I mean?
We have sitting members of our Parliament and men aspiring to sit there, who have represented and continue to represent, accused drug dealers, accused rapists, accused operators of illegal gambling houses, accused murderers. I distinctly remember interviewing a very accomplished politician once, a man at the center of many of the nation’s most important political events of the last 50 years. This gentleman boasted to me of the number of accused murderers he had gotten off (it was close to 30 if I recall correctly). His intention was to convince me of his legal prowess. Instead I was chilled at the thought that this legislator, this champion of our democratic achievements, had also possibly had a hand in freeing nearly 30 cold-blooded murderers. Someone’s got to do that job; I understand that. But I cannot accept that it must be my elected representatives.
I have mentioned on a number of occasions the troubling fact that the Member for Cat Island, Rum Cay and San Salvador, and now deputy leader of the PLP, Philip “Brave” Davis, was the lawyer for the most wanted drug trafficker in this country, Samuel “Ninety” Knowles. But Davis is not special, nor is he unique. We simply happen to remember the name of his most famous client. What about Carl Bethel, Desmond Bannister, Dion Foulkes, Alfred Sears, Glenys Hanna-Martin, Branville McCartney, Damien Gomez, Allyson Maynard-Gibson and Wayne Munroe? Who have they defended over the course of their careers? How many people accused of violent crime, or of brazenly flouting our laws, have they defended for a handsome fee?
These men and women will no doubt defend themselves by insisting they are not doing anything that is contrary to the rules of our Westminster system. They will no doubt ask why they should be singled out and denied a living while physicians, accountants, engineers, businessmen are allowed to conduct their affairs and are subject to no such criticism if they serve or aspire to serve in Parliament.
I believe all MPs should be full time and should not be allowed to work for anybody else while they serve the people, first of all. But that aside, the practice of law must in my view be treated differently, since the business of the parliamentarian is to create laws. Doctors make a living making people sick (they’re not supposed to anyway). But the criminal defense attorney makes a living helping men and women evade punishment who are, in the considered opinion of police, guilty of violent crimes. I repeat: Someone’s got to do it. But if you do, how dare you then ask me to make you attorney general, or minister of this or that, or member of Parliament. And how dare you give speeches about how you feel for suffering victims. What kind of country is this?
What is the message you send to the street thug, the murderer, the drug lord, the rapist, the arm marauder, or to the impressionable admirer of such people, or to the victims of such people, when you choose to represent them before the courts and potentially help guilty men escape justice – not just before you run for political office, but while you hold such an office? Yes, we are all innocent until proven guilty, but with 1,000 lawyers, I think it is safe to say that criminals won’t have too much trouble finding legal representation.
The 41 men and women who sit in the lower house and those who sit in the Senate should be people who have spent their whole careers defending and building us up, not defending and assisting those who are tearing us down.
The marriage of politics and crime
There’s more. The marriage of politics and crime is a long standing one shrouded in silence. Remember the 1967 Commission of Inquiry into the connections between organized crime in the U.S., casinos and the Bahamian government? Remember the 1984 Commission of Inquiry into drug trafficking and governmental corruption? How many arrests and incarcerations of Bahamian politicians on charges of corruption have occurred in the last 50 years? What has become of the so-called investigation into the handling of Crown Land for instance?
And what connection has existed between politics and the numbers business? How far back does that connection go? To the very heyday of the majority rule struggle? And how many politicians, FNM and PLP, walk the streets campaigning with accused criminals on bail, or ex-cons or men “known to the police”? Do their services as campaign generals buy them immunity? Free legal help? In the fight against crime, we must strike at the root. Zero tolerance begins in our own house – the House in Parliament Square.
Oct 24, 2011