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Rise in Bloodshed Beclouds Caribbean Paradise

Homicides in Jamaica, Trinidad and elsewhere spur revenge killings and calls for broad use of the death penalty. Tourism could suffer.

April 04, 2006|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

KINGSTON, Jamaica — After Calesia Porter's relatives found her bludgeoned corpse in the house of her boyfriend last month, police were quickly overtaken in their pursuit of the suspect. His body was found hanging from a tree the next morning.

When two Carnival revelers were slain in February in Trinidad and Tobago, one suspect gave himself up to escape the bereaved families' threats of deadly vengeance.

In St. Lucia, parliament member Cyprian Lansiquot caused only a brief political stir in January when he called for the lynching of the confessed perpetrator of a gruesome double killing. "I don't even think that any trial is needed," Lansiquot told a TV interviewer. "I think immediate hanging is what's needed."

Contrary to the islands' laid-back, reggae-rocked, calypso-serenaded image, the Caribbean is awash in murderous anger.

Homicide rates have soared -- Jamaica last year achieved the alarming distinction of being called the homicide capital of the world, and Trinidad isn't far behind. With suspects walking free because of ineffectual courts and corrupt law enforcement, vigilante justice is also on the rise.

The killings and revenge attacks have the once-idyllic islands in a chokehold, and threaten to taint their allure to the millions who visit.

Although the roots of the violence differ from island to island, some striving to contain it point to the region's shared afflictions of poverty, social inequity and racial resentment stemming from its history of slavery and colonization.

"This is not just about people losing confidence in law enforcement. This is an eye-for-an-eye society," said Deputy Commissioner Mark Shields of the Jamaican Constabulary Force. "Even if you had an effective system of criminal justice, when children are murdered, you'd have mob rule."

He was alluding to one of the more grisly recent slayings, the Feb. 25 suspected revenge attack for a failed drug deal that left a Morant Bay woman, her aunt and four children with their throats cut and the neighborhood enraged. Residents of the quiet community east of Kingston, the capital, stormed the police station demanding, "Give him to us!" after the suspect turned himself in for his own protection.

Carolyn Gomes, head of the Jamaicans for Justice human rights group, says people's sense of security is in "a complete spiral." But she said the brutality was shaking some Jamaicans out of their paralysis and creating greater awareness of the need for change.

Others contend that the shock value of the most violent attacks diminishes with repetition.

"You read about it in the newspapers every day and you think, how can people do this? But by the next day you go on to something else," tour operator Paul Fisher said as he scanned a newspaper account of six children being slain in a week.

So far, the violence has only whipped up a public lather for broader use of the death penalty. In the English-speaking Caribbean, a hunger for hanging convicts has driven a wedge between islanders and the court of last resort in Britain, their former colonial power, where the Privy Council has repeatedly struck down death sentences on technicalities. Jamaicans, Trinidadians and citizens of the Windward Islands accuse the British high court of imposing Europeans' moral repugnance for executions on societies that have no such compunction.

Jamaica has been tabbed the world's most homicidal country since reporting 1,674 killings last year, a rate of 62 per 100,000 residents. The country had ranked third in the most recent U.N. global assessment, in 2000, with 32 per 100,000, behind Colombia's 61 and South Africa's 49. By contrast, anarchic Haiti, usually seen as the most unstable country in the Caribbean, had fewer than 20 homicides per 100,000 last year.

Jamaica's shootings, stabbings and rapes mostly occur in Kingston, but bystanders and even tourists may be at greater risk as the incidence increases.

"No one in his right mind goes to Kingston," said Rensselaer Lee, a security analyst and senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Washington, who has long studied crime in the Caribbean. "People can be shot walking down the streets. The violence is mainly turned inward, poor people killing each other. But increasingly people are getting caught in the cross hairs of these gangs and getting killed."

Jamaica's reputed homicide title coincided, surprisingly, with a record year for tourism, with 2.5 million foreign visitors to the island. Only two of the homicide victims were tourists, but analysts say the violence, even if largely confined to the capital, threatens to take a toll on the island's image.

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