Gang war is on

Police Special Branch has merged with the Joint Intelligence Unit and one part of its remit to combat Cayman’s growing gang problem.

Cayman police are battling about 13 gangs with a hard-core membership of fewer than 100 people island-wide, although their activities are marked by escalating violence.

Membership figures are supplemented by dozens of younger supporters, drifting in and out of association with other gang members, creating a fluid situation that makes documentation difficult.

The numbers, says Detective Sergeant Patrick Beersingh, a top Special Branch officer, are based on the 2001 findings of an ongoing nine-year study of gangs in schools and the community at large.

Because so much time has elapsed, and gang alliances have shifted, broken and reformed, it is hard to achieve complete accuracy.

‘By the time you learn anything about gangs — their members, their location, their turf — it’s changed because people’s attitudes, behaviours and interests change,’ Mr. Beersingh said.

Along with 10 other police officers, Mr. Beersingh trained in the identification and investigation of gangs at Jacksonville, Florida’s Institute of Police Technology and Management. The Detective Sergeant said Cayman’s current phase of gang activity is almost 10 years old, although the problem was not initially recognised.

‘The community is conservative and wants to maintain a peaceful facade. The problem is that if we don’t talk about gangs, we will become what we fear, a community that is not crime free.’

Like other places, Cayman’s gangs started as juvenile groups from middle and high schools

Cayman’s first street gang, Mr. Beersingh said, may have been Central Badman Posse, formed in the 80s.

The Badman Posse was quickly followed by The Mulers and the Windsor Park Posse.

While these groups have since fragmented, and others may have preceded them, new gangs have coalesced around former hard-core members who created their own gangs.

Mr. Beersingh says that as the gangs grew and shifted, they acquired identifying colours, clothing, symbols and hand signs, and became more violent.

‘They deal mostly in drugs,’ said Assistant Commissioner of Police Anthony Ennis.

‘They will also steal anything that will finance their habits and operations,’ he said.

The drugs of choice are usually marijuana and crack cocaine, notorious for the unalloyed violence that trails in its wake.

‘Drugs have been increasingly used to pay for services because it’s easier than cash,’ Mr. Beersingh said.

‘Traffickers quickly realized that it was as easy to move 5,000 pounds of marijuana as it was to carry guns, so local groups dealing drugs started taking drugs and guns in payment. The guns [on the streets today] came through the same infrastructure that brought drugs to the island.’ Mr. Beersingh said.

Citing ongoing investigations, Mr. Ennis was reluctant to identify the dominant type of firearm.

‘People shouldn’t be too surprised, when they hear that these are automatic weapons and that the firearm of choice is not dissimilar to those used by group’s overseas ‘

By 1996, seven gangs had been identified, and had made significant inroads into local schools.

Central Crew, Wild Dogz, Wolf Pack, the Prospect Posse, West Side, Vacos Locos and Lynch Mob were all in clear evidence.

In 1998, in one local high school, police identified nine juvenile gangs forcing the principal to spend more than half her time dealing with the effects of gang activity,’ Mr. Beersingh said.

At that time, Cayman’s chief education officer denied that gangs existed, saying it was only groups that were to blame

‘The school was in crisis and we found evidence of gangs in many places, a wealth of information,’ Mr. Beersingh said.

An incomplete roster of 16 prominent members of West Side alone lists birthdates, and addresses.

‘All the local guys now active in gangs and criminal activity were gang members in middle school,’ Mr. Beersingh said. ‘All of them, every single name, without exception, that is prominent today. These are the guys.’

He cautioned, however, that the reverse is not necessarily true. Not everyone who was in a middle-school gang is a current criminal. Moreover, a significant percentage of criminals are not locals, although they may have status through marriage or long residence.

‘While the craze for gangs hit sometime before, now these guys are older and have gotten in to more serious things,’ he said.

‘Central Crew is probably the biggest and the most organised on the island today.’

The group has mutated into several different factions, but remains powerful.

One of its leaders, Mr. Beersingh said, was stabbed and killed several years ago, but the gang’s failure to retaliate cleared the way for new and more violent members to assume leadership positions.

Members of West Side eventually formed the Windsor-Park-based Wild Dogz. Six members of the gang were arrested for the 2000 stabbing death of Leon Liberty, head of the rival Wolf Pack, a Central Crew sub-group.

Wolf Pack was previously known as Black Pac, but changed its name to Wolf Pack Crips after a 1998 US trip in which the entire group allied itself with a New York City Crip’s gang.

Mr. Liberty was one of two Wolf Pack members killed on the island so far. The gang’s members have dispersed, but all remain involved in serious crime, Mr. Beersingh said.

Cayman’s spate of murders last month, starting with the execution-style slaying of Todd Powery in West Bay on 9 March, and culminating in the 30 March shooting outside George Town hospital of Philip Watler and the midnight shooting of another man the same day in Hell, was the result of an attempt to control the island’s drug trade.

Mr. Beersingh explained the genesis of the problem: ‘In 2001, a group of trigger men tried to consolidate a couple of groups under one command.

‘Windsor Park refused, creating a feud. People were killed and we had a couple of drive-by shootings.

‘Eventually, the gangs stopped shooting each other and divided the island into drug turfs.

‘However, the attempt to impose a unified structure on the whole island has created resistance, and the fight is among some very violent and very dangerous people,’ he said.

Mr. Beersingh said he had anticipated years ago that a war was likely to occur, although he had not realised at the time how advanced the problem had become.

‘We saw it in 2001, with an arms race, a cycle of retaliatory violence and an increase in the use of firearms,’ he said.

‘What we have seen recently is just an ‘upping’ of what has been going on since 1991 or 1992.’

Having plumbed the depth of the problem, Mr. Beersingh and Mr. Ennis were eager to discuss solutions.

The merger of Special Branch and Joint Intelligence units will increase gang-intelligence efforts. Updating the 2001 gang survey tops the group’s agenda.

Referring to his courses at the Florida police institute, Mr. Beersingh said: ‘I did advanced training, but that’s not good enough. It opened my eyes but you need more specific efforts.

‘There should be integration of government and non-government organisations.

‘We have been doing presentations in schools and churches for eight years,’ he said.

‘There is a lack of effective anti-gang programmes. Social organisations are not talking to or cooperating with each other on the subject of gangs.

‘We need to pool resources and involve everyone in the community: private business, hotels, night clubs, sports clubs parents, neighbours. All play a specific role and all are impacted by gang activity.

‘People can pass information to the police quietly, and everyone needs to support community activities.

Some schools had already sought help from the new police unit after 11 May.

‘Local schools still have to have anti-gang programmes, whether they have gangs or not, because it impacts all members of society,’ Mr. Beersingh said.

Anger-management programmes, clubs competing for non-school time, sports programmes, structured and ongoing activities that countered the lure of gangs were necessary.

‘You must remove what is attracting kids to gangs. You have to make it uncool to belong,’ Mr. Beersingh said, citing factors such a the relocation of gang members to new neighbourhoods, the desire of youngsters for cool role models, the lure of quick money and simple boredom as elements drawing young teenagers into street gangs.

‘You also need police who will prosecute with clear certainty every time, and the community must cooperate with the police,’ he said.

‘You can’t run these people out of the community; that’s not the way to deal with them. They are your kids and your neighbour’s kids. They are in the community and in the schools.

‘People need to inform the police whenever they see something; kids driving go-karts, kids truant from school, underage kids sitting on the wall at 11pm smoking, inappropriate relationships between, say older men and young girls, going on right in front of you.

‘You have to know what your own kids are doing in their spare time, between the end of school and bedtime.

‘That’s why I say. Tell on your kids; tell on your neighbour’s kids; on other people’s kids.

‘Gangs can only survive if people fail to do anything,’ he said.

Mr. Ennis said police were working closely with immigration authorities and other agencies and had scored several breakthroughs.

‘My first concern,’ he said, ‘is that I don’t want Cayman to be seen as a sort of refuge, a soft place where gang members from other jurisdictions might find refuge, and then, if he finds it, will inevitably want to start his own operations.

‘We identified a gang member from another jurisdiction, and through our international contacts we were able to locate the guy and get rid of him,’ Mr. Ennis said, adding that, contrary to popular perception, the deportee was not Jamaican

‘We are a multi-national jurisdiction and deal with criminals from everywhere.

‘We have a good working partnership with international parties and people should be assured that we are working, and focusing on what can happen locally as well as internationally.

‘We will never lose this battle,’ he said. ‘We are going to break the back of this. I cannot overemphasize that too strongly.’

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