Pirates in paradise: ‘Lock it or lose it’

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Worried tourism officials mount a crackdown after an upsurge in crimes against Caribbean cruisers

Worried tourism officials mount a crackdown after an upsurge in crimes against Caribbean cruisers

Crime in the Caribbean is causing trouble in paradise.

A recent rape, a small but growing number of assaults and armed robberies, and a surge in petty theft have sparked an outcry among cruisers. This in turn has prodded government and business leaders to address concerns about crime and personal safety in the islands.

Tourism ministers from nations in the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States planned to meet with police, port authorities, coast guards and delegations from the yachting community and the marine industry Dec. 15 in St. Lucia to talk about crime against cruisers.

“The islands traditionally have been very peaceful and idyllic, and they still to a large extent are,” says Dr. Len Ishmael, secretary general of the OECS. Yet drug trafficking and the violence and weaponry it brings with it have contributed to rising levels of crime in paradise, she says. Others finger high unemployment — among youth especially — and poor police response on both land and in anchorages as causes of the rising rates of dinghy theft, boat burglaries and armed robberies.

“There has been an increase in the number of serious (violent) crimes over recent years,” says cruiser John Pompa, 60, in an e-mail. Pompa and his wife, Melodye, 59, keep a running tally of crimes against cruisers in the Caribbean. “I think that the biggest reason is that the ‘bad guys’ have been operating with impunity, and they have gotten bolder in their actions.”

The Pompas, who sail a Pearson 422, Second Millennium, run the Caribbean Safety and Security Net (SSB 8104.0 kHz, 8:15 a.m. ET) and receive crime reports daily by radio from yachtsmen and women. They keep an archive of crime against cruisers in the eastern Caribbean on a Web site at www.caribcruisers.com. They update it monthly and send the information to 15 Caribbean government and tourist associations.

E-mailing from their boat anchored off Carriacou in the Grenadines, Pompa quotes one Caribbean official who has been moved by the statistics they keep: “Our [government] ministers were sobered by the reality of what the data tells us — which is of course that crimes against yachts are on the upsurge. But the reality is the fact that there is an upsurge in crime of all kinds in all of our islands, linked to the increase in drugs transiting through the chain of islands.”

A rape and robbery in St. Lucia, an early-morning assault on a yacht crewmember in Trinidad, along with a spike in thefts and boat burglaries in Trinidad’s busy Chaguaramas anchorage this past summer, have caused cruisers to clamor for more official attention to their security. The most egregious of the summer’s crimes was a June 18 rape and assault involving a couple on a sailboat, which had anchored outside St. Lucia’s Rodney Bay Marina. The couple, a Dutchman and a French woman, had arrived too late to check through customs and put in at the marina, so they anchored out. About midnight, three men boarded the yacht while the couple slept. The intruders slipped into the cabin, beat the man nearly unconscious, bound him to a table, and raped his wife at knifepoint. They made off with several hundred dollars, a laptop, portable VHF radio, diving knife and the woman’s diamond wedding ring.

The Pompas e-mailed details of the incident to cruisers, government officials and business leaders, and talked about it at length on the security net. Melodye Pompa — who usually manages the security net each morning — says the public relations blitz sparked a “very loud public outcry” indeed. Within two weeks, three suspects, ages 16, 17 and 33, were charged with robbery, two of them with rape, the third with assisting rape.

Ishmael agrees it isn’t just the yachting community that is being victimized but all levels of island society, and she says violent crime, though still relatively uncommon, is particularly worrisome. “It is our view that even one incident is one incident too many,” she says.

Ishmael, herself a sailracer and cruiser, commissioned United Nations studies of yachting’s economic impact on Caribbean nations in 2000-01. The studies showed that yachtsmen per capita pump far more money into island economies than cruise-ship tourists.

Cuthbert Didier, general manager of St. Lucia’s Rodney Bay Marina, estimates that some 32,000 yachts visit the Caribbean each year. The OECS says that, excluding the British Virgin Islands, yachting funnels $115 million (XCD) — about $44 million (U.S.) — into local economies. Including the BVI, the number soars to $244 million (U.S.). OECS member states include Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, the BVI, Dominica, Grenada, Montserrat, St. Lucia, St. Kitts and Nevus, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

“The yachting subsector is very important to us, both socially and economically,” says Ishmael.

Meeting in October, OECS tourism ministers decided to offer at least three recommendations at the December meeting to address crime:

• Set up in each member country a 24-hour VHF safety net so cruisers can call for help, day or night, anywhere in the eastern Caribbean.

• Maintain a yachting security page at the OECS Web site (www.oecs.org) that lists all crimes against cruisers reported to island police and disposition of those cases — investigations, arrests, convictions. Ishmael hopes this Web site will educate cruisers about crime hot spots and counter the perception that authorities aren’t doing anything about crimes against “yachties” but indeed are tracking down offenders. Ishmael also is calling for yachtsmen to report all crimes to police and not just to the cruising net so authorities can get a better profile of yachting-related crime.

• Develop a crisis communication plan. Ishmael says reports of violent crime against yachtsmen or tourists on one island or in one anchorage often result in the whole region or island being tarred with the same brush as dangerous and violent, when in fact incidents often are isolated and don’t reflect what’s happening elsewhere. She says the ministers want a plan for “damage control” when word spreads via the Internet and news wires of a violent incident, and a way to get word out about what authorities are doing to catch the culprits.

“We don’t want the cruising community to think we don’t care what happens to them,” says Ishmael.

The outcry after the Rodney Bay assaults was “massive” — a kind of panic, says Didier, the marina general manager. Sharon McIntosh, manager of the Yacht Services Association of Trinidad and Tobago, a trade association, agrees.

“We were getting e-mails from all over the world: ‘If I come to Trinidad, will I get shot?’, which is absurd,” says McIntosh.

Yet the reaction — loud, insistent, angry, frightened — was not just to one incident but reflects cruisers’ concern with a crime problem that has festered and grown without sufficient attention from authorities, says Melodye Pompa. “This has been escalating for a number of years,” she says. “But until the St. Lucia incident — with e-mails to the prime minister, the commissioner of police, the minister of tourism and everyone else for whom we could find an e-mail address — our cries have fallen mostly on deaf ears.”

The rape wasn’t this summer’s only wake-up call; a crime spree in Trinidad — most of it in the Chaguaramas anchorage — added fuel to the fire. There were eight burglaries and dinghy thefts there over three months, followed by an early-morning incident Aug. 16 in which three men boarded a boat, brandished weapons to scare sleepy crewmembers, and stripped the boat and crew of most of their valuables. At Juan Griego on Venezuela’s Isla Margarita, a swimmer hit a boat’s captain with an oar, threw him in the water, and stole some of his belongings. At Chateaubelair on St. Vincent, three men with machetes boarded a boat and stole cash, a camera and computer gear.

A crime wave? McIntosh says violent crime remains isolated, but dinghy thefts are a fact of life, as are boat burglaries. “If you don’t lock up your dinghy, it’s going to get stolen,” she says.

“Lock it or lose it,” agrees Melodye Pompa, whether it’s the dinghy or the yacht.

Following the summer maelstrom, McIntosh has been meeting with a delegation of cruisers to look for ways to improve security at Trinidad’s anchorages and marinas. McIntosh says YSATT is running a water shuttle service from boats in the anchorage to marinas around Chaguaramas so cruisers can keep their dinghies locked and safe on their yacht and don’t have to walk the coastal road, where there have been muggings. She says police are increasing road patrols in marked and unmarked cars and posting night watches in the port area on land. She says YSATT also is lobbying for the Coast Guard to increase its night patrols in and around the anchorage.

On St. Lucia, Rodney Bay Marina has given the St. Lucia Air and Seaports Authority an 18-foot Boston Whaler to patrol Rodney Bay from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. And the Marigot Bay Business Association has bought a rigid hull inflatable for patrolling Marigot Bay, as soon as boat operators are trained, says Keats Compton, president of the Marine Industries Association of St. Lucia. St. Lucia also has designated HELP as an emergency telephone number for cruisers to call police for assistance; provided marine radios to police stations along the island’s west coast so they can monitor channel 16; and started training boat boys — so-called “free-lancers,” the young men who come out to meet boats as they arrive in the anchorage — so that they actually help visitors instead of harassing them, says Compton. Didier says 15 marina security guards are being trained as special constables who will be armed and authorized to make arrests.

Within the OECS, St. Vincent and the Grenadines topped the 2006 list through October for crimes against yachtsmen, with 18 altogether, followed by Trinidad and Tobago, 13; St. Lucia, 10; and Grenada, nine. Assaults against yachtsmen also were reported in Dominica, St Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Trinidad and Tobago, each with one.

Grenada topped the list for crimes reported from 2001 through October 2006, with 89 altogether, followed by St. Vincent and the Grenadines, 71; St. Lucia, 59; and Trinidad and Tobago, 38. Yachtsmen reported six assaults in Dominica for that period, the most of any island, followed by three for St. Lucia and for St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and two for Trinidad and Tobago. (All figures are from the Caribbean Safety and Security Net.)

The Venezuelan islands also have been a hotbed of criminal activity. From Margarita alone, the Pompas have received over the last three years reports of 48 thefts or attempted thefts, seven armed robberies or assaults, and two muggings, as well as a January 2004 murder reported from nearby Testigos Island. In that incident, men in a speedboat opened fire on a yacht headed from Union Island to Margarita and killed its captain.

Didier notes that the BVI draw the most yachts of any of the Caribbean islands yet have among the lowest levels of crime against cruisers. He believes part of the reason for this is that the government and people there both understand yachting business and its importance to their economy, and have taken ownership of it. “It has been assimilated into the local economy,” says Didier.

That hasn’t happened yet farther down the island chain. Melodye Pompa sees it more as a straightforward enforcement issue.

“The criminals feel safe to conduct their activities because there have been few efforts to investigate, apprehend, convict and imprison,” she says. “And that is throughout the region, with the possible exception of the BVIs.”