The Caribbean nation of St. Lucia is known for many things, including the stunning Pitons, its jazz festival, and being the birthplace of Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott, but in mid-March, after a series of homicides occurred in the town of Vieux Fort in the southern part of the island, it is also garnering attention for gang violence, allegedly linked to the drug trade.
Prime Minister Philip J. Pierre, who also holds the portfolio of national security minister, has called on the Regional Security System (RSS), which includes the member states of Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, St. Kitts and Nevis, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, for assistance in managing the situation:
Vincentian police will assist St Lucia in its fight against gang violence – https://t.co/QEkx3x6BLt pic.twitter.com/MmSjl1z2o1
— St. Vincent Times (@stvincenttimes) March 17, 2023
The government has also implemented round-the-clock police patrols in response to the seven murders, which were all gun-related, and plans to engage civil society and business leaders to brainstorm possible solutions to the problem, even as neighbouring islands call for peace.
The efforts of the St. Lucian police are reportedly being met with confidence, both by Leader of the Opposition Allen Chastanet and, according to Deputy Police Commissioner Ronald Phillip, residents of the Vieux Fort community. However, columnist Earl Bousquet, writing for the Guyana Chronicle, noted:
[T]his 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 [Caribbean Community Implementation Agency for Crime and Security] 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.
Bousquet believes that this action, more than a decade ago, has contributed to the situation in which St. Lucia now finds itself. After the police killings, the then-Trump administration, along with the European Union (EU), “condemned the slow pace of the national judicial response.” Next came sanctions against the island under the Leahy Law, which halts U.S. support for any police force or army found to have acted extrajudicially.
The ripple effects of this measure meant that Saint Lucia’s law enforcement officers were barred from participating in international conferences, and could no longer receive funding or equipment assistance from the United States. The effectiveness of their policing, including border patrols by the coast guard, naturally fell off.
Just about a year ago, in March 2022, five of the police officers investigated in the “Operation Restore Confidence” controversy were cleared for lack of evidence, but this has not, thus far, convinced the United States to lift the sanctions. Bousquet noted that the St. Lucian police have also been “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.
Since the murders this month, the Vieux Fort area has been designated as an escalated crime zone, which expands police powers to deal with criminal activity.
According to a 2022 report by InSight Crime, a think tank and media organisation that seeks to deepen and inform the debate around organised crime and citizen security in the Americas, recent spikes in violence have taken St. Lucia's murder rate to the point where, per capita, it equals that of larger regional territories like Jamaican and Trinidad and Tobago.
Back in 2021, Kenny Anthony, minister of parliament for the Vieux Fort area, posted on Facebook that his constituency had “virtually become a war zone.” InSight Crime's 2022 Homicide Roundup, which expanded its remit to include smaller Caribbean nations (many of which have been experiencing a spike in murder rates), painted an even bleaker picture:
A total of 76 murders may not sound like a lot. But for a country the size of St. Lucia, with a population of just under 180,000 people, this places it near the top of regional rankings.
In 2021, St. Lucia registered 74 murders, a record at that time. The increase in 2022 to 76 murders means that the country has broken its homicide record for a second consecutive year, and led to calls from the United Workers Party for Prime Minister Philip J. Pierre to step down from his role as National Security Minister.
The country’s street gangs are increasingly at each other’s throats as the island nation has become a transit hub for South American cocaine going to the US and Europe. […]
Elected officials have condemned “anarchy in our country” and promised “draconian penalties,” but few details have been forthcoming.
The tiny British Overseas Territory of Turks and Caicos led the Caribbean's homicide rate in 2022 at 77.6 percent, the highest per capita throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It was followed by Jamaica (52.9 percent), then St. Lucia, which tied with neighbouring St. Vincent and the Grenadines at 40.3 percent.
The crime situation in St. Lucia has also taken a bite out of commerce, with some businesses in the affected areas deciding to shorten their operating hours out of concern for the safety of their customers and staff.
According to Bousquet:
Vieux Fort was a ghost town […] 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.
Some social media users have been vocal about the situation. Seeing the pressure mounting since last year, Twitter user Rhyesa Joseph posted a cryptic thread aimed at inspiring citizens to do their part and speak out against wrongdoing:
Someone knows who is bringing illegal guns into St Lucia.
Someone knows of teenaged boys and girls who are part of gangs.
Someone knows who is stealing people's vehicles.
Someone knows the mechanics that are facilitating it.
Someone knows when the hit is going to take place.
— Rhyesa Joseph (@RhyesaJ) December 4, 2022
Others were simply stunned at the level of violence:
St Lucia really wilding with that gang war.
— 👑 King R. (@DeMightyOne) March 20, 2023
Of great concern is the cause, as the violence has been linked not only with the drug trade but also with arms and human trafficking. Like many other regional territories, St. Lucia will continue to grapple with these security challenges, which many smaller island nations often are not well poised to fix, either from a cultural or financial point of view.