There are at least a dozen – possibly as many as 30 – organised criminal gangs in the Cayman Islands at present.
That might be considered surprising news to many new arrivals or even long-time residents.
But to community activist and public service worker Linda McField, it’s no great revelation. Linda has known about the gang problem and culture here for a long, long time.
“I know for a fact that it has been going on for 20 years or more,” Linda says during an interview with the Observer on Sunday.
“The mistake that we all made, from the government, the educators and the community at large, is when we saw the tell-tale signs we didn’t address them; we didn’t acknowledge we were having gangs,” she says. “To an extent, we are to blame for the level of violence that we are seeing taking place.”
The Royal Cayman Islands Police Service has been aware of the problem since at least the mid-80’s when it was believed Cayman’s first street gang, the Central Badman Posse, was formed.
Today, a number of loosely organised groups existing on Grand Cayman have a combined membership of more than 100 people. Names like Central Crew, the West Bay Mobsters, the East End crew (sometimes known as the East End Boys), Fern Circle, Wild Dogz, and many others are well known to police and especially to younger members of the local community.
RCIPS Police Sergeant Everton Spence says he knew primary school children in the Drug Abuse Resistance Education programme he taught who could recite the names of some of the gang members, both local and international.
“Some of the primary school students…admire (these gang members) to a great extent,” Spence says.
Police Commissioner David Baines, himself a fairly new arrival to Grand Cayman, is reluctant to discuss specific names and membership in local gangs. To do so, he says, would give them what they crave most – publicity, and through that acknowledgement, a modicum of respect.
However, Baines does not dispute estimates that as many as 30 criminal gangs could be active today in Grand Cayman, and fully believes that some of those groups have been in operation for decades.
Gangs are formally defined within the Penal Code as “any group, association or other body consisting of three or more persons, whether formally or informally organised having as one of its primary activities the commission of an indictable offence, or an offence under the misuse of drugs law for which the maximum punishment is three years or more.”
“There (are) a lot of things on the Islands that we’re in denial about,” the commissioner says. “If you don’t acknowledge the problem, then you don’t actually start to look for it and deal with it.”
The Observer has spent the last few months rounding up information about local gangs, the effect they are having on society, getting various perspectives on how bad residents believe the problem is, and talking to police about strategies to curb problems with violence stemming from gang activities.
The bad old days
McField says she remembers the issue of gangs first coming to the attention of her organisation, Caymanians Against Substance Abuse or CASA, in the mid-1990’s when parents of children who had been injured or killed in various violent crimes came to her asking what was happening in the community.
CASA representatives went to the police with their questions.
“We found out that the police had some ten years of intelligence they had gathered on the gang situation in the Cayman Islands,” McField says.
In most cases, officers were prevented from speaking publicly about what they found; partly because of on-going criminal investigations and partly because of political pressure to make the issue go away.
“The powers that be were not even allowing police to address the situation,” McField says. “They didn’t think it was politically correct to do that because it was going to scare tourists off if we start saying we have a problem with gangs or whatever.”
McField says the problem worsened as the 1990’s drew to a close. At a recent public meeting held at West Bay’s John Cumber Primary School, police showed a 1999 article from a local newspaper in which the then-police commissioner stated there were no gangs in Cayman, only “groups” of youths who were troublemakers.
But McField says that was simply not true.
As she dug deeper into the problem, she found evidence that gangs from the US were recruiting membership from the Caribbean, including the Cayman Islands.
“Our young people were travelling to New York, to Chicago to be inducted into gangs,” she says.
Worse things were happening here in Cayman with gang initiations, McField says.
“Our young girls were being initiated into this process – they use a term that they’re being “sexed in” to the gang,” she says. “What that involves is our young girls going with a group of boys and everybody watches whiles a group of guys have sex with that young girl.”
By the middle part of this decade, it was acknowledged by the government that members of the dreaded Mara Salvatrucha or MS-13 gang had come here to Cayman. MS-13 is a criminal street gang believed to have been formed in the US by immigrants from Central American countries such as El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation considers the gang to be among the most violent and dangerous of those groups currently operating in the Western Hemisphere. MS-13’s membership in the US is believed to be somewhere approaching 50,000.
However, local law enforcement has no information to indicate that MS-13 or any other well-known international street gang ever established an operating foothold here in the Cayman Islands.
One of the MS-13 members was deported in 2005. It’s believed other members left the Islands during that year after brief visits to relatives.
By 2005, RCIPS Inspector Patrick Beersingh had compiled data on Cayman’s local street gangs that indicated there were about 13 groups that could be described as gangs with a membership of slightly less than 100 people total.
Most of the gang members were involved in the drugs trade, and had developed special hand-signs, colours, tattoos and other gang insignias to mark their affiliation.
In 2007, Cayman Islands lawmakers updated the local Penal Code to include criminal offences for gang membership and for participation in gang-related activities. Anyone convicted of belonging to a gang, as defined in the code, faces a maximum $500,000 fine and up to 20 years in prison.
There have been no criminal prosecutions under that section of the Penal Code since it was introduced.
“Gangs are not an easy case to investigate,” RCIPS Chief Inspector Angelique Howell said. “They’re not stupid…so they’re not wearing the colours; they’re not doing it like that anymore.”
Chief Inspector Howell hosted the recent public meeting about gangs at John Cumber in West Bay on 3 December. The meeting where police officers including Howell and Sergeant Spence spoke openly to parents about recognising gang activity may have been a first for the police service.
Howell tells a story about attempting to take a group photograph at a recent event with primary school kids who were flashing gang signs when the picture was taken. She made the photographer go back and take the picture again; the kids did it again.
“(Gangs culture) is very, very active right here in the community with our young wee bitty children,” Howell says. “They’re not even 12.”
The new gansta
According to Commissioner Baines, Cayman’s modern day gang element has two features that the Islands didn’t have to deal with ten years ago.
First, initiation into the gang culture is happening at a younger age; anywhere from 14-20 is average for new gang members. Second, today’s gangs in Cayman have an array of weapons at their disposal that the old “Central Badman Posse” couldn’t have even dreamed about.
The key to preventing younger children from buying into the gang culture, Baines says, is education.
“Many parents will think, well my son is in a gang, but it’s a gang of friends,” he says.
Sergeant Spence says parents need to look for the warning signs of gang membership early to “nip it in the bud.” He says parents should watch for kids wearing the same colours as their friends or the same clothes; sporting new tattoos that are the same or similar to their friends; or the use of hand signs to communicate.
“Once a young person gets into a gang, it’s almost impossible to get them out,” Spence says.
Another difficulty in the tracking and development of information about criminal gangs is the generally disorganised nature of the “organised” crime elements in Cayman right now.
“I’ve no doubt that the original (gang) leaders…were older men and most of them are now in prison,” Baines says. “The vacuum created by the leadership’s departure was taken up by some other members, and we’ve seen a split and satellite groups forming. That leads to fall-outs.”
Making matters worse these days is the proliferation of handguns in the Cayman Islands. The problem is not unique to Cayman. In fact, Baines says at a recent Caribbean police commissioner’s conference he learned that some of his colleagues in other islands were now dealing with an influx of assault rifles.
“It’s a bad euphemism, but if you look at mobile phones ‘I have to have a bigger, better, shinier one.’ It’s about status,” the Commissioner says.
With the end of the Cold War in the late 1980’s, Baines says many countries opened up their borders to freer international trade. That led to a massive spike in the number of weapons available.
The Commissioner says he’s always amazed at how certain weapons arrive in the Cayman Islands. One firearms’ possession case brought to court in 2008 here in Cayman, involved an AK-47 assault rifle that had been taken home by a US war veteran from Vietnam as a trophy in the 1970’s. That rifle was then sold in the US and somehow ended up in Jamaica decades later, where it was brought to Cayman on a drug canoe.
In recent days the RCIPS has formed a task force of officers whose primary goal is to address organised crime. Additional officers are currently being recruited from overseas.
Baines says the police and the public should take this problem seriously. But he says it’s also important not to blow issues with gangs and guns out of proportion.
“We’re talking about probably 15…individuals who are at the core of the criminal gang activity,” he says. “They sit there at the heart of those gangs as enforcers, carrying out the wishes of some people who you might say tolerate and support them, but aren’t actively seen as gang members.”
Baines comments raise another question that’s not often talked about in Cayman, but is a major problem in other Caribbean countries that are plagued by gang warfare and drugs-related crime.
It’s the aspect of members of civil society, generally well thought of and respected individuals, supporting the drugs trade indirectly and skimming some of the pass-through profits in the process.
“People at every level of society, both private and public, have frequently made observations and commentary on some individuals in the (Cayman) Islands who got very wealthy very quickly,” Baines says. “There’s an assertion that some of that was to do with the drugs trade.”
However, the Commissioner says he’s not jumping to any conclusions, and that Cayman suffers partly from its small size in certain regards. He notes sometimes allegations are made about individuals simply because they are related to someone who is a known drug dealer.
“This bit about linkage on the Cayman Islands is normal just because of the size of the community,” he says. “It’s easy to make that allegation.”
But Linda McField says priority number one for Cayman right now should be a massive education campaign targeted at parents and children – the younger the better.
“We can no longer sit back and say we don’t have problems with gangs in the Cayman Islands,” she says.
“It’s not about scare tactics, it’s about telling the truth.”