High crime rate hampers development in Caribbean countries

WASHINGTON—Caribbean nations, which most Americans perceive as sun-soaked paradises, are overwhelmed by the economic toll of the world's highest murder rates and need international help, according to a report released Thursday.

A one-third reduction in the region's murder rate would more than double its per-capita economic growth, according to the study by the World Bank and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Caribbean nations have been battling drug-fueled crime by bolstering their police forces, but the report says crime rates are so bad that Caribbean governments need help from rich nations and multilateral institutions.

"The report is a starting point of putting crime on the development agenda," said Caroline Anstey, the World Bank director for the Caribbean.

The high crime rate not only is killing young people and adding to the cost of business, but it also keeps tourists in safe beach enclaves rather than having them spend more money exploring other parts of the Caribbean, Anstey said.

The overall murder rate in the Caribbean is 30 per 100,000 people, compared with 26 in Latin America and seven in the United States. Those numbers are from 2002, the last year for which worldwide comparisons are available, and murders since have since risen in the Caribbean and declined in some parts of South America, according to the 231-page report.

Experts say the Caribbean is vulnerable to crime because of its high urban density, the presence of many unemployed young people and its position as a transit point for cocaine produced in South America and consumed in the United States and Europe. The drug trade draws associated businesses such as weapons smuggling and money laundering.

The murder rates vary from country to country, with Jamaica registering 49 deaths per 100,000 people last year, Trinidad and Tobago registering 30 in 2005 and the Dominican Republic 27 the same year.

Homicide rates in the Caribbean are a third higher and robbery rates 25 percent higher than in other countries with similar economic conditions, according to the study.

With the exception of murders, however, crime data tend to make for less-reliable-comparisons, because crimes are less likely to be reported in places where victims don't trust the police, the report noted.

In the Bahamas, 133 women in 100,000 are raped, according to U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime numbers, a rate that's almost 10 times higher than the worldwide average of 15. Rapes also were high in St. Vincent and the Grenadines (112), Jamaica (51), and St. Kitts and Nevis (45).

Even if the numbers aren't entirely trustworthy, the Caribbean scores go off the charts. The worldwide average assault rate is 10 people per 100,000. Barbados registered 103 per 100,000, Jamaica 219 and the Bahamas a staggering 1,697.

Kidnappings have made headlines in Haiti in recent years, but the report notes that they nearly doubled in Trinidad and Tobago from 1999 to 2005.

Several Caribbean nations have passed or are pushing to pass legislation that would allow DNA testing, wiretapping, witness-protection programs, cell phone tracking and closed-circuit TV. Crime is expected to be a leading issue in upcoming elections in Jamaica and Trinidad.