You might be surprised to discover that 42 of the 50 most violent cities in the world are in Latin America and the Caribbean. After Central and South America, the Caribbean has the highest homicide rate in the world at 15.1 per 100,000 of population, overwhelmingly caused by firearms.
The conventional narrative suggests that drugs and guns flowing through transshipment countries generate violence. This is, in part, true. However, it does not explain why we see spikes in violence in some places – for example in low income neighborhoods in eastern Port of Spain, Trinidad, or Southside Belize City, Belize – and not others, along the global drug supply-chain.
This violence is overwhelmingly urban. Explosions in homicide rates are increasingly driven by armed gangs that control illegal markets on the streets. Countries along the transnational drug supply-chain between South America and the rest of the world have become key transshipment countries, located primarily in Central America and the Caribbean.
Violence is a leading political and policy concern and has such complex, historical drivers, that it feels all but intractable. In fact, these transnational-to-local processes of violence generation are linked to multiple factors which require our close attention.
My recent research with Dylan Kerrigan and Matt Bishop examines the explosion of lethal gang violence in the 1990s and 2000s in Belize and in Trinidad, a period when these countries became important drug transshipment countries. Both are porous geostrategic transit points to US and European destinations but have comparatively minor drug markets themselves.
Our research shows that low-income communities in transit points of the global drug supply chain are rarely the target markets for drugs, but their proximity and vulnerability means that they are affected collaterally. This is what we mean when we claim that residues – coined by Bishop – from the trade, including drugs, firearms, and ammunition, filter into local communities resulting in devastating consequences.
What we have seen since the 1990s is that when weapons enter into communities, they tend to stay. The guns left behind circulate with gangs and criminals, and can be found for hire or resale. They are used in numerous murders or by locals, not affiliated with gangs, looking for protection or revenge.
The flow of weapons into, but not out of, certain parts of Port of Spain and Belize City has turned them into ‘weapon sinks’ making local crime more deadly. It is not surprising that 81% of homicides in Trinidad and Tobago now involve guns, compared to 5% in the United Kingdom. When homicide booms occur, they are always driven by firearms use. This means that spikes in community violence are directly linked to guns and ammunition, and only indirectly linked to the political economy of transnational drug flows.
External flows of guns and ammunition increase the capacity for local violence in the communities. They make gang culture more lethal and reshape local criminal structures and practices. So why do some communities suffer and not others?
The potential for violence to erupt depends on the vulnerability of the ‘local social terrain’ that transnational flows interface with. The low-income communities in eastern Port of Spain and Southside Belize City are affected by a collection of local level vulnerabilities generated by colonialism and slavery, later economic policy that accentuated inequalities, and ongoing socio-economic constraints. If transnational crime operates at a macro level, at a community level these ‘social terrains’ are particularly vulnerable to violence epidemics when exposed to the influence of drug and gun trafficking.
Belize is an interesting example, because the drug transhipment involves former village fishermen and drug trafficking ‘families’, allegedly connected to influential spheres. This process keeps most drugs off the streets and the violence at bay. ‘Wet-drop’ cocaine bales are collected off-shore, passing ‘beneath the surface’ of popular tourist towns on their way up to Mexico. This process accounts for the vast majority of trafficking in Belize yet generates relatively little violence as far less drug residues find their way into Southside Belize City.
At the risk of over-simplification, white-collar control of illicit economies is non-violent; gang control of illicit economies is violent. In vulnerable communities in Port of Spain and Belize City, where there is an absence of the rule of law, street gangs are commonplace. This is not just restricted to cities, the absence of the State has contributed to community violence in far-flung Amazon frontiers, as noted by Manuel Martinez Miralles.
Before the 1990s bad Johns or base boy groups were precursors to today’s gangs in these cities, but their violence was stick, fist, knife, and machete. Later they saw their capacity for lethality radically increased by inflowing firearms and ammunition.
Of course, drugs are a significant factor and when a ‘bale’ turns up on Southside Belize city, all chaos breaks loose. But most gangs – particularly those that are intergenerational and institutionalized – run multiple illicit economies, drugs being just one. These are highly competitive illicit economies of the street, regulated by violence. This is where the inflowing firearms have led to a localized arms-race and sky-rocketing homicide rates as gangs compete for superiority. We now see disorder in street violence and it is commonplace for boys and young men in gangs to lose sight of what it is they are actually ‘at war’ over. Now, ‘Man a kill a Man for Notin’.
Homicide booms are deeply gendered processes. Girls and women have a wide range of relationships with gangs; sometimes they support gang practices, including violence, but often they are victims of sexual abuse. Here victimization is gendered as young men are up to twelve times more likely to be murdered than young women, and 93% of Trinidadian and 92% of Belizean victims are male. Whilst women are far more likely to suffer sexual violence. Clearly, gang violence is overwhelmingly ‘men’s work’. It is also well rewarded. Boys and young men in vulnerable social terrains that present them with few attractive opportunities perceive the gang as a logical ‘masculinization opportunity’ – the best ticket to manhood given the relative riches or ‘capitals’ it promises. This is a self-destructive endeavor as homicide victims and perpetrators are disproportionately poor, young, black and brown men. Middle-class boys are not faced with the same circumstances nor choices.
Implications for violence reduction
These findings imply that there is significant risk of ‘homicide boom’ within excluded urban populations located near global drug and gun trafficking routes. Simply tackling transnational drug trafficking does not reduce community violence because when disrupted in one location, networks reconfigure in another. For example, when Jamaica came under DEA scrutiny, Belize and Trinidad became new thoroughfares, and today Fiji faces challenges that worryingly parallels this pattern of violence escalation.
What can be done?
First, it is important to differentiate our responses to drugs, guns and ammunitions. Guns tend to be ‘locked-in’ to communities with significant, decades long, lifespans. Conversely, ammunition requires continuous replenishing, thus inflow routes. If we can identify and cut off the inflow of ammunition into vulnerable communities, we can starve violence of oxygen. This is in line with Alfredo Malaret’s Map the Bullet, Stop the Bleeding methodology of violence reduction and innovative studies on ammunition by UNIDIR.
Second, tackling community vulnerabilities creates resilience to the pernicious effects of the residues of the drug trade. Specifically, governments should target ‘wrap around’ safety nets for children and youths most at risk of joining gangs, including financially backed, training, internship and employment opportunities. These should be clearly and deliberately presented as alternatives to criminal opportunity structures and gang life for these young people.
Finally, research in recent years has increasingly focused on the gender dynamics of violence perpetration and victimisation. More emphasis needs to be placed on gendered approaches in policy and practice when tackling gangs, firearms use, and violent crime. Men and women have different needs, motivations, and pressures in vulnerable communities, and should be addressed accordingly. For example, one recent masculinities focused gang membership reduction program run by the UNDP in Belize found it effective to deal with issues specific to at risk boys and young men.
Lethal violence has increased dramatically across much of the Caribbean in the last two decades. To push back the homicide boom, ‘from above’ policy makers should focus their efforts on stopping ammunition flows into the most vulnerable, violent communities; then ‘from below’ support these communities from the ground, up, in a targeted, young-people oriented, and gender-differentiated way, to create local resilience to the pernicious effects of global drug trafficking.
Adam Baird is Non-Resident Fellow at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), and a Research Fellow, Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University