Ministerial Statement by Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves to the House of Assembly – Feb 23, 2023
Madam Speaker, Honourable Members:
The illicit trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW), inclusive of assault weapons (M16s, M40s, and the like) is a priority threat to citizen security in St. Vincent and the Grenadines and the rest of CARICOM. Both the security forces in our country and those in our region, including the CARICOM Implementation Agency in Crime and Security (IMPACS) have so advised. The Caribbean people know all this to be so from the facts on the ground.
There is a persistent demand for firearms. Their continued use in the commission of crimes, including homicides, is rising. The demand for firearms remains high with criminal groups, and also with the civilian population for personal protection in response to increases in violence in some communities in St. Vincent and the Grenadines and the rest of the CARICOM jurisdictions.
Available data highlight the continued use of cargo containers to import firearms, through various receptacles including barrels, boxes, television sets, motor vehicles and the like. Imported guns and ammunition are often exchanged for narcotics (cocaine, marijuana, and assorted synthetic drugs), with some transactions taking place on the seas.
The extent of this importation of firearms and bullets in CARICOM countries, including St. Vincent and the Grenadines, is not known precisely; but the evidence suggests that it is substantial and dangerous. The CARICOM Implementation Agency on Crime and Security (IMPACS) in collaboration with INTERPOL’s Firearms Programme, hosted the Operational Hub of Operation Trigger VII, Caribbean, in a six-day period, September 24-30, 2022, which gives a small indication of the volume of illicit firearms circulating in our Region. The operation yielded, among other things, 346 firearm and 3,328 rounds of ammunition. Ghost guns (hand guns) are now being recovered in our regional countries and a priority is to determine if they are imported or 3D printed/created in CARICOM member-states.
According to various informed sources, the number of illegal firearms in Haiti alone is estimated to be between 270,000 and 500,000. This is an important fact for us in the rest of CARICOM because regional criminal gangs or groups continue to exchange drugs for guns with their Haitian counterparts. One conduit is through Jamaica down to the southern and eastern Caribbean.
The tracing of firearms data indicate that the United States of America is the primary source of firearms within CARICOM, including St. Vincent and the Grenadines, while South America and Europe are secondary sources.
Most of the homicides in St. Vincent and the Grenadines and CARICOM as a whole are carried out through the use of firearms imported from the USA. CARICOM, including St. Vincent and the Grenadines, have been raising this issue repeatedly with the American authorities but with little practical results given the veritable “open sesame” approach of the USA regarding guns and “the right to bear arms”. Recently, the Community of States of Latin America and the Caribbean (CELAC) also addressed this matter at its January 2023 Summit in Argentina. There are indications, though, to suggest that the Biden administration in the USA is paying some attention both in respect of illicit export controls and tracing. Recently, an expert from a US agency has been allocated, and embedded, to assist our regional security authorities with tracing. For example, an illegal firearm seized at Port Kingstown, late last year, was traced to a crime committed in Indiana in the USA. Others are currently being traced from St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and elsewhere in our region.
But the American authorities need to be more proactive in cooperation with us on this matter of illicit firearms exported from the USA. We are requesting that the federal government in the USA take to its Congress — the Senate — for ratification the United Nations Treaty on Small Arms (which covers assault weapons) and to implement a practical and stringent regime to control the export of illicit weapons.
For our part in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and the Regional Security System (RSS), we are ramping up border security surveillance at sea and on land, especially at ports of entry. In part, towards this end, we are purchasing scanners for our two main ports and Argyle International Airport. The 2023 Estimates contain the budgetary allocations.
In St. Vincent and the Grenadines, our Parliament has legislated stiff penalties for the unlicensed or illicit holding of firearms and ammunition. Unlawful possession of a firearm by an accused person invariably means a jail term — moderate or severe depending on all the circumstances, inclusive of the type of firearm. Still, some persons, especially young males, do not get the message.
Madam Speaker, On Saturday February 11, 2023, I met the top leadership of the Royal SVG Police Force — those of the ranks of Assistant Superintendent of Police, and above, including the Commissioner of Police, for an extensive discussion on the policing of serious crimes, including the matter of illegal firearms. Certain decisions were taken and an operational plan is being executed accordingly. I assure the citizens of St. Vincent and the Grenadines that this is an issue of the highest priority for the government. Daily, I am in communication with the Commissioner of Police on this, and related matters. I await, too, a report from a security expert on certain measures to be taken additionally in respect of firearms. Our enhanced coordinated efforts are proving fruitful.
In this exercise, the security authorities are working in close collaboration with the Regional Security System (RSS), the CARICOM Implementation Agency on Crime and Security (IMPACS), the Regional Fusion Intelligence Centre, the relevant security authorities of the USA, United Kingdom, Canada, and the European Union, and INTERPOL. Indeed, the Commissioner of Police recently assured me that he has engaged the active support of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in relation to a particular homicide. No stone must be left unturned in these respects. And I expect, and the country demands, the highest level of professionalism and commitment from our Police officers in the fight against crime, including the serious crime of homicide.
The nation demands, too, that the National Prosecution Service, the Magistrates, and the Judges in our Law Courts rise to the challenges of citizen insecurity. The government is spending approximately $100 million annually on the security and law and order apparatuses of the State — including the Police, Coast Guard, Fire Service, Prisons, Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Law Courts, the Financial Intelligence Unit, the National Commission on Crime Prevention, and the regional and international security agencies to which St. Vincent and the Grenadines belongs. To be sure, more resources are always required, but it cannot be said that the security and law and order apparatuses of the State are under-resourced for the tasks at hand.
Madam Speaker: For information, I present to this Honourable House the sad and painful tale of the Murder Rate Per 100,000 Population in eleven member-states of CARICOM for 2022, even though that metric is not a unipolar indicator of citizen insecurity. I do not have the official data on Antigua and Barbuda and St. Kitts-Nevis; and I exclude Haiti from the tabulation because it has an outlier status in this regard.
Madam Speaker: My presentation today has a specific focus on illicit guns and related crimes. It is not an analysis of crimes, causes of crimes, and the overall strategic frame on tackling serious criminal activities. In 2003, this government presented to this Honourable House its Fourteen-Point Strategy on Crime which it has updated on an on-going basis, including through legislation. And there are specific policies and programmes in each area of the overall Strategy which are funded annually in the Estimates and the Appropriation Bill. Recently, in the debates in this Honourable House on the Estimates and Appropriation Bill for 2023, there was extensive discussion on all these matters, and more, by Honourable Members.
There are however, seven salient observations that I wish to make:
- Most violent crimes are committed by young males.
2. Overwhelmingly, these young males are from homes with poor parenting or broken homes/families.
3. Overwhelmingly, these young males fail or refuse to take advantage of the educational and other opportunities available to them.
4. Overwhelmingly, these young males gravitate to “bad company” in communities or cohorts which exhibit a “culture of crime”, and join an associational group of crime.
5. By-and-large these young males embrace a fascination with guns and the sale of hard illegal drugs as a chosen way of life and living; often, guns and cocaine go together. Greed, personal insecurity, and a quest for distorted status as a gunman, are at play. “Macho man” behaviour fuels pre-disposing and inducing impulses to acquire guns and money, and to form associational groupings of other young men and young female company.
6. Young males who take advantage of educational and other opportunities, who become members of the Scouts Movement, the Cadet Force, the Police Youth Clubs, the Steelbands, Musical, Entertainment and Cultural groups, Choirs and Churches, Community groups, Sporting Clubs and the like, hardly ever commit a serious crime of violence or even ever appear before a Magistrate or Judge.
7. Young males who turn to serious crime are a tiny minority of the overall youth male population. And the overwhelming majority of young males are law-abiding, productive, and good persons.
These seven salient observations suggest clearly the necessity and desirability of a total society approach in the addressing of citizen security. In this matrix the parents, the family, the teachers, the churches, the communities, civil society organisations, the private sector, the apparatuses of government, regional and international agencies all have critical roles to play. At the base of it all is the family and parenting. We avoid these salient truths at our peril. This is not a matter for opportunistic, political grand-standing.
Madam Speaker, I end this Ministerial Statement with a lengthy quotation from a “Security Brief” prepared by a relevant authority on the subject-at-hand which I received recently:
“Given the increasing damage being caused by the volume of firearms and related crimes within the region, strategies and policies on firearms should be revisited to identify and fill gaps.
The Region has seen an increase in narcotics trafficking routes due to forced innovation in response to the pandemic, coupled with the resumption of pre-pandemic routes.
Firearms remain a priority threat for CARICOM and the management of our porous borders as well as access to shared intelligence, are key factors in our endeavor to combat threats of this nature. There is, therefore, an increasing threat of CARICOM being used as a route to the United States via South America. It is feared that the Region may be perceived as a “soft touch” and we must respond to this threat via proactive, reactive and intelligence-led operations – with a particular focus on border control.”
I emphasise in this regard “intelligence-led operations” by the security authorities!