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Posted May 4, 2007
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Cost of Caribbean Crime Grows
Drug Trafficking Exacts,
Social, Economic Toll,
World Bank Reports

KINGSTON, Jamaica -- Economists investigating the impact of crime in the developing world are yielding some harsh findings. The social and economic costs are growing and are compounded with each generation, feeding further cycles of violence. And America's closest neighbors have it worst, the World Bank says.

A report to be released by the bank today says Jamaica is emerging as the murder capital of the Americas, while the Caribbean region now ranks as the world's most crime-ridden area, excluding places torn by civil war.

Hijacking, burglary, kidnapping and rape are also on the rise, as a result of the region's role in the global drug trade. According to a voluntary survey cited in the report, 48% of Caribbean adolescent girls surveyed described their own "sexual initiation" as forced.

The economic consequences of the crime surge have been dire for Caribbean nations, which depend on their images as tropical paradises to attract tourists. Jamaica's tourism minister recently warned that the crime level threatens to derail the industry.

Crime has other costs, too. In Jamaica, security costs, totaling as much as 3.7% of annual gross domestic product, are deterring investment. Four of 10 Jamaican business managers say crime prevents their investing as much as they otherwise would. United Nations data released yesterday show direct foreign investment dropping as much as 9% in the islands last year, to $621 million from $682 million in Jamaica, and to $883 million from $940 million in Trinidad and Tobago.

Fear of crime is also driving educated Caribbean natives to leave their home countries. The seven countries with the highest emigration rates for college graduates are in the Caribbean, the bank estimates, with Guyana the world's leader at 89%.

Some graduates do return, and adapt. Before Joanna Banks leaves her Pan Caribbean Financial Services office in Kingston, she calls a security company and orders a car to trail her to her gated community in the hills overlooking the financial district. Her armed guards check inside her home and, radioing an "all clear" to their command post, escort her through the front door. "The only worry I have is on the way to meet the guards' car," says the 22-year-old securities analyst, a University of Pennsylvania graduate. "The new trick is someone slashes your tires while you're at work. Then they pounce when you stop to change them."

The World Bank lays blame for the rise in crime on rampant narcotics trafficking through sea lanes connecting the U.S. to Latin America. An influx of firearms is adding to the problem. "Wedged between the world's source of cocaine to the south and its primary consumer market to the north, the Caribbean is the transit point for a torrent of narcotics, with a street value that exceeds the value of the entire legal economy," the study concludes.

At 30 murders a year per 100,000 residents, the Caribbean tops the murder rate in Colombia and South Africa, which had the highest rates of homicide during the 1980s and 1990s. Jamaica and Haiti lead the region, with more than 33 murders per 100,000 citizens annually, but other places are quickly deteriorating. Trinidad and Tobago doubled its rate of murder in three years to 7.5 murders per 100,000 residents in 2005. The murder rate in the U.S. was 5.9 per 100,000 in 2004.

According to researchers, about 10 tons of cocaine transited Jamaica in 2005, the most recent year for which data are available. At least twice that volume passed through Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Local law enforcement has been overwhelmed, spending scarce resources on patrolling rural areas and coastlines for traffickers. Narcotics wealth, the report says, is "undermining and corrupting societal institutions."

The growing lawlessness is frightening many Jamaican expatriates from returning home to work or retire. Some 40,000 Jamaicans returned from Great Britain in the 1990s, but that reverse migration has almost stopped, with many retirees choosing to settle in the U.S. if they can obtain visas. "Fort Lauderdale, Miami and places like that have captured a lot of our people who would have settled here," says Percival La Touche, president of the Association for the Resettlement of Returning Residents in Kingston.

Many, he says, become demoralized not only by the poverty they encounter, but also by the inability of law-enforcement agencies to protect elderly Jamaicans.

Write to Joel Millman at joel.millman@wsj.com

Copyright 2007 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Reprinted from The Wall Street Journal, Page A9, of Friday, May 4, 2007.

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