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‘National anxiety’ over crime travel advisory

The United States Embassy in Nassau closely monitors the crime situation in The Bahamas, noting the potential for a “high-profile violent crime tragedy” and resultant media disaster as a result of the high rate of crime in the country. It is also very aware of the immense fear many Bahamians have of the issuance of a travel advisory by the U.S. government, according to several cables in the WikiLeaks cache obtained by The Nassau Guardian.

“Against the background of economic crisis, the crime numbers, trends, and daily headlines, as well as the expressions of concern about the state of society, all indicate that no end is in sight to high crime rates in The Bahamas,” said the February 2009 confidential cable titled, “Bahamas: Crime concerns simmer as economy softens”.

There have been three homicide records in The Bahamas the last four years, and in 2011 the country is on pace for a fourth such record in five years.

Over the last five years, armed robberies have trended up towards the highs of the mid-1990s.  In the property crime category the 2010 police report reveals other disturbing trends. The 3,120 housebreakings recorded were the most in the country since 1998 (3,165).

The Free National Movement (FNM) administration has done much to try to fix the crime problem.  Along with refurbishing the courts, there have been three commissioners of police, two chief justices, four attorneys general and two directors of public prosecutions during this term.

The government has also spent millions of dollars buying new equipment for police; it has introduced a plea bargaining system; it has amended the Juries Act reducing the number of jurors from 12 to nine in non-capital cases; and it has put in place an electronic monitoring system for accused offenders.

Despite all of these measures, the crime problem has not improved.

In the December 2007 unclassified/for official use only cable, ‘Bahamas grapples with sharp rise in violent crime’, the embassy noted that that Juries Act amendment alone, which was implemented before the other measures mentioned, would not fix the Bahamian crime problem.

“No recent initiative, including the Juries Act amendment, is likely to make an immediate impact on the crime rate as long as the criminal justice system effectively puts indicted criminals back on the street to commit more crimes,” said the cable.

“Without introducing specific measures to monitor suspected offenders out on bail, break the logjam in the courts, or increase or optimize space in the prison to keep violent offenders in and others out, the GCOB (Government of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas) is unlikely to make much progress in addressing the underlying causes of the latest ‘crime wave’ to shake The Bahamas.”

The government has increasingly made statements indicating that it is working to improve the prosecution system.

Recently, Attorney General John Delaney and Director of Public Prosecutions Vinette-Graham Allen held a news conference explaining that the establishment of a case management unit at their office is expected to result in significant improvements in the administration of justice.

Recent public focus on the crime problem in The Bahamas has shifted to the quality of cases being produced by police and the quality of prosecution by the AG’s Office.

In his new book, “Reducing Murders in The Bahamas: A strategic plan based on empirical research,” police researcher Sergeant Chaswell Hanna reveals that from 2005 to 2009 there were 349 murders recorded and only 10 murder convictions and eight manslaughter convictions.

The Americans realized, based on the cable, that as long as The Bahamas is unable to prosecute and convict those it suspects of committing crimes, the crime problem in the country will continue to worsen.

Effects of the crime problem

The cables reveal that the U.S. does not think The Bahamas is that safe a place.

In a February 2006 unclassified cable, “Country Clearance: For consular management assistance team (CMAT) visit,” the embassy advised its visiting team to be careful in this country.

“Threat analysis: The threat against Americans from political activity is considered low.  The threat from criminal elements is high.  Incidents of violent crime have risen significantly in The Bahamas during the past few years,” said the cable.

“Travelers should use caution and common sense when moving about the island of New Providence.  Visitors should travel in pairs, avoid areas prone to higher crime such as the Over-the-Hill area, and avoid isolated, deserted and/or poorly illuminated areas.”

In a January 2006 unclassified/for official use only cable, the embassy again expressed concern for the safety of its citizens in The Bahamas.

“During Spring Break, sexual assaults against American tourists are extremely high,” said the cable, which added that its Regional Security Office has also stressed the growing pattern of violence to embassy personnel, reminding employees to always be vigilant about their surroundings.

The fear of the American response

There have been several high profile criminal acts in New Providence in recent years, in tourism areas, which have alarmed Bahamians.

The November 2009 robbery of a group of tourists on tour at Earth Village; Sunday’s armed robbery at John Bull in the middle of Downtown Nassau; and the January 2008 murder of teenager Deangelo Cargill at a bus stop, also in Downtown Nassau, are some of the events in such areas that attracted national attention.

Referring to the 2008 Cargill murder, the embassy said in a cable that January, “How the government meets the crime challenge will play an increasingly decisive role in how the public perceives its overall effectiveness.

“This event has brought home to the Cabinet that it has no higher priority than beating back the surge in crime before the violence begins to impact The Bahamas’ tourism-dependent economy.”

In these cables on crime the Americans do not seem to be near to taking a decision to publicly intervene and apply full pressure on the Bahamian government to accelerate worthwhile reforms to the local criminal justice system.

The U.S. already assists The Bahamas in significant ways regarding law enforcement — most noticeably through funding and manpower via Operation Bahamas, Turks and Caicos Islands.

The U.S. does understand, however, that Bahamians have an extreme fear of the issuance of a travel advisory informing Americans that The Bahamas is not a place they should travel to.

In that same 2008 cable after the murder of Cargill, listed as unclassified/for official use only, the embassy described the fear of such an advisory as a “national anxiety.”

“The downtown killing at the peak of the afternoon rush hour prompted renewed concern in the public and press about the potential issuance of a travel advisory or warning by the U.S. Embassy — an almost compulsive anxiety within the tourist-dependent island,” said the cable.

“In fact, the media have speculated for months, as the murder tally rose, over such an announcement and its potential negative effects on the all-important tourism sector, which forms the backbone of the economy in Nassau and The Bahamas.”

The embassy noted that officials had to make public statements indicating that no such advisory was imminent.  Public consular information is already available for Americans advising them of safety issues in The Bahamas.

The realization by the Americans of this Bahamian fear likely means that if The Bahamas was to become uncooperative, as it was during the ‘drug days’ of the 1970s and 1980s, the use of this punishment would at the least get the attention of the leaders of the country.

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