Elizabeth Solomon writes a weekly column for the Newsday.
Despite the disturbing images of death and destruction in war-torn zones like Syria, by far the greatest burden of armed violence is the deaths and injury that occur in non-conflict or non-war settings. Countries like Trinidad and Tobago suffer from extremely high recorded levels of homicide, with more deaths each year per capita than in many contemporary war zones.
Latin America and the Caribbean account for a third of the world’s homicides but under ten per cent of the world’s population. Not just that, according to World Heath Organisation analysis, geographic areas where homicide rates exceed ten per 100,000 population are considered areas of “violence epidemics.”
One of the most visible contributors to these new landscapes of violence and conflict in Latin America and the Caribbean are non-State actors engaged in criminal activities and interested in social recognition, profit, the control of territory and transactions to allow for the maximum freedom of movement, and better conditions for their imprisoned peers. Impunity provides some of these criminal groups the opportunity to continue to engage in and expand their illicit activities including drug smuggling, trafficking in people and arms, illegal mining, murder, kidnapping, extortion, and robbery. These lucrative and illicit activities destabilise societies and States, and ruin lives.
If, as you read this, your mind drifts to yesterday’s local newspaper headlines you are right to do so. Sixteen people killed in 96 hours; 25 double murders as the toll hits 460 and the numbers game goes on. Where are we going with this?
Gun violence has been at epidemic proportions for several years. Surely, it is time to recognise the depth and breadth of the problem, to stop treating the symptoms with increasingly aggressive medication and to start also addressing the underlying disease.
We need also to realise that while this small rock may contain more complex socio-economic issues than most countries, we are not alone. It is high time we wake up, analyse our issues openly and honestly, and get about fixing them in a meaningful way, seeking help where relevant.
So what explains this violence epidemic? The homicide rate in countries with low levels of human development is more than three times higher than the average rate in countries with high or medium levels of human development. This should come as no surprise: crime rarely occurs in isolation and is one of a range of co-factors associated with underdevelopment.
High levels of income inequality, rapid urbanisation, a high share of unemployed youth in the population, poorly resourced criminal justice systems, and the proliferation of firearms are all associated with both crime and low levels of development. Yet that is not a satisfactory explanation. That is just scraping the surface.
A recent analysis produced by the London School of Economics on Crime and Violence in the Americas and the Caribbean pointed to the fact that there tends to be a correlation between high homicide rates and the wealth (or underdevelopment) of countries measured by GDP per capita. It is usually accepted that the higher the income of a country, the lower the incidence of violence.
In Trinidad and Tobago and many countries in this region, the homicide rates are far higher than would be expected given the GDP per capita. So why such high rates of violence? The LSE study was developing an analytical framework for crime economics to examine the drivers of non-conflict violence. According to this body of research, potential criminals assess the benefits and costs of committing crimes, compare them with those of legal activities and choose accordingly. In other words, crime pays. Even that does not provide a clear-cut explanation.
Gangs are involved in a variety of criminal enterprises to acquire profits. The funds support gang members and their families, yet poverty levels surrounding gangs are often very high and exacerbated by social exclusion. This raises questions about the lens with which gangs are viewed. Are they criminal organisations or a development step for youth? Should they be viewed through a criminal lens or from the perspective of social development?
The difficulty with combating non-conflict violence is that it is driven by a multiple of factors and once entrenched, is extremely resilient and therefore difficult to quell through traditional military and law enforcement approaches. Criminal actors are difficult to identify and to define. Labelling groups specifically as criminal can be ineffective because defining creates limits. By limiting definitions of who these actors are we limit our responses.