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Times have changed for many countries across the Caribbean, where the rise of criminal gangs has turned once-peaceful islands into little short of battle zones.

Drug traffickers have helped drive up the crime rates by introducing firearms and narcotics with a street value exceeding the size of the Caribbean’s legal economy.

Gang-related shootings have become common in the Caribbean, according to a new report on global homicides by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Regional experts are concerned that a culture of violence has become entrenched in the islands, where nearly 70 percent of homicides are committed by firearms.

Until fairly recently, we had an innocence about ourselves in the Caribbean, but that’s been lost. This thing is a Pandora’s Box and I’m not sure you can ever close it again. — Marcus Day, director of the Caribbean Drug and Alcohol Research Institute, St Lucia.

Comparisons with other parts of the world can be stark. Jamaica, with roughly 3 million people that has been hit hard by drug and extortion gangs for years, recorded 1,428 killings in 2010. In comparison, Chicago, a city of nearly 3 million, reported 435 homicides last year.

Statistics from the UN crime office show homicide rates nearly doubling in a number of Caribbean countries since 1995. In St Kitts and Nevis, slayings have increased six-fold since 2002, when there were just five killings. The Bahamas has seen 127 people killed in 2011, easily topping the previous full-year record of 94 set just last year.

Outmaneuvered and outgunned law enforcement agencies on the islands have a limited ability to cope with the problem on their own.  The spread of cable television and popular music has raised expectations among youths by depicting the easy life even as the rough global economy is making pockets of poverty grow deeper and wider. It’s really creating a very unholy and unhealthy recipe for these small societies. — Ivelaw Griffith, Caribbean security expert at City University of New York

Alarmed citizens are putting pressure on politicians and law enforcement agencies throughout the region to attack the problem.

Criminals are getting bold these days. I’m ashamed to know that my people are killing each other over small things, material things, and it’s getting worse. — Norelle Scott, a 19-year-old Bahamas college student

Trinidad and Tobago declared a state of emergency and imposed a strict curfew in certain areas.

We don’t mind living under curfew conditions if it makes the country safer. — Zana Ramdial, a mother of three in Port-of-Spain

To counter the gang culture, The Bahamas is toughening crime and bail laws, building more courts, trying to round up unlicensed guns and funding programs to steer at-risk youth away from crime.

Community engagement and service will be more effective in combating crime than iron bars and gated communities. — Hubert Ingraham, Bahamas Prime Minister

Some of the smaller islands have reached out to Scotland Yard and the FBI for help, or brought in foreign police and security consultants.

Rumours on the street are that the gangs have an arsenal. But if push comes to shove, we can wipe them out — Celvin G. Walwyn, recently appointed St Kitts police commissioner

Who among us does not yearn for a return to the peaceful, serene Caribbean of yesteryear?

With this in mind, the Peaceful Caribbean Foundation is holding its first regional conference in Bridgetown, Barbados, on addressing the increasing problem of crime in the Caribbean, featuring top personalities from the Caribbean and the US, as well as the publication’s editors and contributors. There will be key addresses and panel discussions on the major issues confronting peace and stability in the Caribbean. It promises to be a hugely important event for anyone interested in the future of the Caribbean as a place to live and visit.

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