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Jomo Thomas

Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. (iWN file photo)

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By *Jomo Sanga Thomas

(“Plain Talk” Nov. 11, 2022)

With 50 days left in 2022, SVG has recorded 36 homicides, most of them through gun violence. Grenada, by contrast, has seven homicides so far, and only three were committed with a firearm. Both countries make an interesting comparison since they are less than 100 miles apart.

According to PM Gonsalves, the southern cone of the Caribbean is a “bad neighbourhood” because of its proximity to the South American mainland, where drugs, especially cocaine, can be found in abundance. They say guns and violence follow drugs.

An interesting explanation for the scarcity of gun violence/homicides in Grenada has been its recent violent past. The reference is to March 13, 1979, Grenada Revolution led by Maurice Bishop’s New Jewel Movement, the implosion of the revolution with the execution of PM Maurice Bishop and some of his colleagues on Oct. 19, 1983, and the illegal U.S. invasion of Grenada on October 25, 1983. Forced to experience the physical, emotional and psychological trauma of those events, Grenadians, to their credit, swore off guns and violence.

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What explains the persistent violence, crime and rising homicides in our country?

Recently, our top cop, Colin John, pointed to a cocaine drug deal that went bad some years ago as the genesis for the continuing spate of homes. Over the last 15 years, SVG has averaged about 30 homicides per year, most of them through the use of a firearm.   

A few days ago, PM Gonsalves called on Commissioner John and his officers to control the spiralling situation where handguns kill our young men. SVG is said to be ranked 8 in the world for homicide. Internationally, the statistic is measured by the number of homicides to 100,000 persons. 

Gonsalves called on the police top brass to gather and use “more actionable intelligence” to fight crime. Amazingly, Gonsalves, noted for describing our police officers as “angels”, said our notoriously brutal police force “cannot rely on brute force alone”.

In demanding that the police use more actionable intelligence, Gonsalves, the minister of national security, noted that he was not speaking about the “use of electronic surveillance”. 

This statement by our law and order minister immediately drew applause from some in the media. Gonsalves was commended for finally speaking up and offering ideas that would lead to solutions to violent crime. 

From a security standpoint, the statement was empty to the point of being meaningless. In plain meaning, actionable intelligence means timely, reliable information from which the security forces can act to prevent, arrest, charge, try, convict and jail criminal elements.

If this is the laudable goal of actionable intelligence, why is Gonsalves disclosing that by actionable intelligence, he does not mean electronic surveillance? What’s intrinsically wrong with electronic surveillance if it helps to control, crack down on and put away criminals who wreak havoc and bring pain and suffering to our communities?

Modern-day societies use a variety of ways, including electronic surveillance, to combat crime. To do so, those that cherish democratic norms take their wiretapping application to a judge, just as police take a search warrant to a justice of the peace or magistrate for a stamp of approval. Is Gonsalves concerned about a possible tsunami of disapproval from concerned citizens that such tools may be directed against them?

Many persons, Plan Talk among them, are convinced that such illegal methods are already directed at perceived opponents of the governing political elite. This begs the question of why the public disavowal by Gonsalves that electronic surveillance is not a suggested method for combatting dangerous, life-threatening crime. Already police confiscate and rummage through citizens’ electronic devices in clear violation of the constitutionally protected right against illegal search and seizure. They invade the homes of the poor and disadvantaged without bothering to show a search warrant.

After his triumphant climb to the corridors of power in 2001, Gonsalves promised to be tough on crime and the causes of crime. Very little has been achieved on both counts. Violent crime continues to spiral out of control. Like the ostrich whose head is buried in the sand, the state’s singular attempt at toughness is to increase the sentence. The starting sentence for one convicted of murder is between 35 and 40 years. These sentences may soon require the construction of another prison but make no dent in violent crime.

Precious little has been systematically done to seriously address the causes of crime. Unemployment, poverty, and society’s projection of what constitutes the “good life” are significant drivers of crime. Youth unemployment is over 40%. Three out of every 10 Vincentians live in poverty. And three of the remaining seven eke out a living just above the poverty threshold. Those with jobs are compelled to engage in a side hustle to make ends meet. With this stark reality, corruption eats away at every section of society. Many government officials feed at the trough by forming front companies through which largesse is funnelled.

Corruption leads to crime. When leaders flash the good life in neon and do not provide the wherewithal for the rest of society to live that life, many, especially young males, commit to getting rich or die trying. Crime to them becomes an attractive lure.

Drugs routinely disappear from police custody, and it’s business as usual. The person arrested for the drug goes to jail. The police officers who steal the drugs remain in the force. Police officers who get convicted of crimes are allowed to stay as lawmen. Those who brutalise, shoot, maim and kill citizens smile their way to promotion and security of tenure.  Coroners’ inquests into state action that led to the death of citizens are few and far between. Police officers are derisively called green beasts and black hawks.

Improved police-citizen relations will go a long way towards providing actionable intelligence necessary to combat crime. Some eyewitnesses are afraid to come forward for fear of retaliation from criminals. A witness protection programme for severe crimes involving suspected gang-related violence would help deter suspected criminals.

Most citizens concede that our society’s very base and superstructure need refurbishing. The body politic is rotten to the core. Crime cannot be effectively fought in such an atmosphere. If Gonsalves is seriously interested in tackling crime and violence, his first order of business is to demand that police mend their relationship with villagers across SVG. A campaign against official corruption will send a clear signal that SVG is a country of laws.

*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected].

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