Drugs arrests dropped by nearly 40 per cent in the Cayman Islands between 2009 and 2010.
This is not good news.
“We had a serious depletion in staff over the past two years,” said Royal Cayman Islands Police Superintendent Kurt Walton, the officer with overall responsibility for drugs enforcement in Cayman. “With the murders we had in 2010…and 2009, because of our staffing issues…a lot of times we had to use officers from the drugs task force to compliment.”
The drop in staff was one of the major reasons identified for a decrease in drug related arrests from 382 in 2009 to 232 in 2010.
Mr. Walton said the Drugs Task Force is now boosting its staffing again and by early April had reached 14 of its former full compliment of 18 officers.
However, the mission of the task force has, in part, changed. It has now become a proactive policing unit with several different focuses, according to Mr. Walton.
“The old DTF is now called ‘The Drugs and Serious Crime Task Force,” he said. “As opposed to just drugs, we’re looking at other criminality such as burglaries and robberies.”
The police Criminal Investigations Department will still look into cases where crimes have already been committed. But it will be the task force’s job to gather intelligence on criminal drugs and gang activities, in attempts to keep the police one step ahead of the bad guys.
Police Commissioner David Baines said earlier in the year that this type of proactive policing is the only way to confront the drugs trade. He has also noted that police had shifted their focus away from busting street-level dealers in the past 18 months to focus more on suppliers and distributors, which also requires intelligence-driven investigative efforts.
“That’s one of the areas that is very much proactive [referring to drug enforcement],” Mr. Baines said. “People don’t ring up and say ‘I’m in possession of drugs, I want to report a crime.’”
With the reshuffling of officers to deal other crimes, plus the overall decrease in police staffing – the shortage mainly involving patrol officers – drug enforcement fell somewhat by the wayside.
“Some people who should have been arrested weren’t and they’ve been able to bring in and continue drug activity,” Mr. Baines said.
In addition, Mr. Walton said RCIPS is beginning to see more problems at the street level with cocaine, particularly crack-cocaine, than it has noted in the past.
“There [have] been more seizures in the cocaine powder, but there is certainly crack cocaine use,” he said. “Just recently, there was a fairly big arrest, one individual had just over 130 crack cocaine rocks on him. That’s a lot for one individual to be in possession of at any one time.”
The higher incidence of street level cocaine use has been one issue noted by police to explain the increasing level of violence seen in armed robberies since the start of last year.
“Some of the offences that we’ve seen, aggravated burglaries [involving] elderly people [as victims],” said RCIPS Chief Superintendent John Jones. “Why do people need to use that much violence against frail, elderly people?”
The drug problem
Despite the fact that police have seized cocaine in larger quantities of late, ganja is still the major drug of choice for most users in Cayman.
Superintendent Walton isn’t certain if overall ganja usage in Cayman has increased in recent years, but from his own experience, it seems ganja users are getting younger.
“Where I see a problem now, it seems as if it has become more prevalent in terms of the youth…that’s potentially dangerous,” he said. “I’ve had a kid sat across my table, he’s nine years old, and told me he used ganja before….but that’s the youngest, that’s not prevalent.”
In addition to street-level use, the problem with Cayman being used as a transhipment point for ganja and cocaine to markets in North America remains a daunting one.
Two massive ganja busts RCIPS recorded during 2007 on bush land in North Side led to the recovery of more than 5,000 pounds of the substance. Mr. Walton said that amount of illegal substance was likely intended for shipping somewhere else.
“When you’re talking about 5,000 pounds of marijuana, that’s organised crime,” Mr. Walton said. “It does require quite a bit of financing to make that happen.”
That same year, there were some 2,700 pounds of ganja uncovered by Customs officers in a shipping container. It was headed out of the country.
“You could see, the way it was packaged, it was for transhipment,” Mr. Walton said.
He said RCIPS officers have seen “very little transhipment” since the 2007 recoveries made by police and customs.
There was a ganja seizure of some 550 pounds made in East End in April 2010, as well as what appeared to be a “drop” of some 40 kilogrammes of cocaine from an airplane, which had washed up near the shore in East End.
“It was one huge plastic-type package that was obviously capable of floating,” Mr. Walton said of the cocaine. “On the inside you had the 40 kilos broken up. The lone package actually had, around that, had sort of a florescent-type lighting, so if it’s floating around on the water you can see that. It washed up intact in the one package.”
How it gets in
It may sound far-fetched to those not as familiar with the local drugs trade, but Superintendent Walton said drug-drops by both boat and air do happen from time to time in the Cayman Islands.
These drops are not as happenstance as they may sound, he said.
“I don’t think its just drop something out of mid-air and somebody picks it up, I’m sure it is well-coordinated,” Mr. Walton said. “It’s only 360 miles from Honduras to here…it doesn’t take that long.”
Drug boats from Jamaica are not the only vessels used to transport drugs to Cayman.
“We just had a seizure from a guy off a cruise ship, a crew member that had about a kilo of cocaine,” he said. Also, sail boats are infrequently used as drug transports; the last one police were aware of was busted in the waters off Cayman Brac and Little Cayman in 2007.
Port shipping containers are also exploited by smugglers, but Mr. Walton said in recent years those methods have become more difficult to use because of increased port security both at home and abroad. Also, the prevalence of individuals bringing in drugs via the airlines has dropped off significantly since the 1980s, he said.
“The drugs have to come from a source country, seeing that we don’t produce any,” Mr. Walton said. “Ultimately, the drugs still need to get into America and there is a lot of water in between and exploiting the shipping containers is often seen as the viable option of choice.”
The use of shipping routes through the Caribbean between South and North America is of grave concern to Commissioner Baines.
“The consequences of US success in Mexico [tightening security at the borders]…will directly force lucrative drug trade and the associated gangs to revisit their traditional transit routes and, may I suggest, place the Caribbean at risk of an escalating turf war as transit routes through our region are of necessity increasingly used,” Commissioner Baines said at a December forum with Caribbean leaders.
“Why does that concern me?” the commissioner rhetorically asked another public forum at the Cayman Islands Chamber of Commerce in January. “If people want to use drugs and they want to kill themselves that’s a matter for them. That’s one way of looking at it.
“Another way is that the profits made in drugs mean that the people who control the flows, the networks and the supply increasingly are heavily armed and they will use extreme violence to maintain their business activities.”
This raises the spectre of criminal gangs taking hold and operating on Caribbean Islands. And typically, those suspects will choose the path of least resistance, Mr. Baines said.
“They will migrate to safer locales to continue their criminality,” Mr. Baines said, adding that the need for law enforcement agencies to act regionally had never been more evident. “If we’ve already got established networks, they will be exploited. So, there’s a real threat to us in the longer term to make sure our border security stems the drug trade, stops the delivery and prevents the operation of armed criminal gangs trying to control the drugs network.”
For the present, most of the gang-related crimes and activity in the Cayman Islands are locally based. Police generally do not believe there is any great influence from outside organised crime groups.
However, there are at least a dozen – possibly as many as 30 – organised criminal gangs in the Cayman Islands. The numbers differ widely depending on who you talk to.
To community activist and public service worker Linda McField, that number is no great revelation. Mrs. McField 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 said during an interview with the Observer on Sunday.
The Royal Cayman Islands Police Service has been aware of the problem since at least the mid-80s when it was believed Cayman’s first street gang, the Central Badman Posse, was formed.
More recently, 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.
Commissioner Baines has consistently been reluctant to discuss specific names and membership in local gangs. To do so would give them what they crave most – publicity, and through that acknowledgement, a modicum of respect, Mr. Baines has said.
However, Mr. Baines has not disputed estimates that as many as 30 criminal gangs could be active in Grand Cayman.
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.”
However, no one has ever been prosecuted under that section of the Cayman Islands Penal Code.
“The difficulty with legislation is evidence vs. information,” Superintendent Walton said. “We need to show that it is not random criminal activity.
“For example, four friends go out…have a few drinks too many and in their drunken state, they damage vehicles and steal property from inside,” Mr. Walton said. “They would all be charged with criminal damage and theft, but could you really say that this was gang-related according to local legislation?”
Mr. Walton said there are a handful of criminal gangs in the Cayman Islands that truly concern him because of the level of their organisation and violence. Rivalries between some of those gangs were on display during a series of tit-for-tat shootings that occurred in West Bay during the early part of 2010.
“When you saw the shootings last year, gang on gang,” Mr. Walton said. “I think it’s fair to say there were at least….three main gangs that were involved in that.”
Although historically Cayman’s gangs have been district based, Superintendent Walton said more recent incidents have shown disputes between gangs operating within the various districts.
“If you look at what happened last year, two of the gangs were actually in West Bay,” he said. “I won’t commit and say its West Bay against George Town; it’s not just that. You have individuals that live in George Town that are friends or associates of some of those individuals in West Bay.”