Homicides in V.I.

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Forget having the highest murder rate in the country; if the U.S. Virgin Islands were an independent nation, it would have one of the highest murder rates in the world.

The record 66 homicides committed across the territory in 2010 is 10 more than in 2009, and makes the Virgin Islands is the most violent place in the United States, on a per-capita basis.

The territory has about 110,000 residents, according to the latest projections, which means the Virgin Islands' per-capita homicide rate is 60 homicides per 100,000 people.

The United States has a nationwide rate of 5.2 homicides per 100,000.

Compared with the most recent statistics available, which are from 2008, that number would rank the territory second in the world, behind only Honduras, for the number of homicides per 100,000 residents.

According to the FBI, New Orleans had the highest murder rate of municipalities per 100,000 residents in the United States in 2009 with 28 homicides per 100,000. The trend through June 2010 was that murders were up significantly across the nation.

While the per-capita homicide rate in the Virgin Islands is staggering, the murders themselves, with a few exceptions, are not random in occurrence. The victims and killers tend to be young men involved in criminal activities, V.I. Police Commissioner Novelle Francis said.

About 60 percent of the victims - or 40 of them - had criminal records, and a number of others were known to police, according to Francis, who said that suspects in some of the crimes were themselves killed later.

"The majority of the crime that we have seen - from 60 to 70 percent - was from violent retaliation," Francis said.

The number of homicides was the only major crime rate that increased in 2010, with all other crime numbers down, Francis pointed out. Police are solving the cases at a higher rate - 67 percent - he said.

"I think, certainly, we have seen an increase in violent crime throughout the entire Caribbean," Francis said. "And the Virgin Islands is no exception to what we've seen."

While the territory is part of the United States, it also is intricately tied to the Caribbean, which has become increasingly violent over the last decade.

According to the United Nations' latest figures, which are from 2008, Honduras had the highest per-capita homicide rate, with 60.8 per 100,000 people. That year, the Virgin Islands had almost 41 homicides per 100,000 people, and was sixth behind Honduras, Jamaica, El Salvador, Venezuela and Guatemala.

While the territory's 2010 numbers are high, they tend to fit a rising trend in the Caribbean as a whole. Jamaica - which had 59.5 homicides per 100,000 in 2008 according to the United Nations' statistics - has perennially been near the top of the world's list of highest homicide rates. Trinidad and Tobago, with 39.6 homicides per 100,000 in 2008, and St. Kitts and Nevis, with 35.2 homicides per 100,000 in 2008, also have high rates.

The other U.S. Caribbean territory, Puerto Rico, had a homicide rate of 20.3 per 100,000 in 2008.

Global and local leaders alike are pointing to a number of factors as having caused the dramatic spike in violent crime. As the war between drug lords and the Mexican government intensifies, drug producers from Latin America have shifted their transportation increasingly to the Caribbean. With the drugs has come a steady and heavy flow of illegal firearms that end up in the hands of boys and young men with few options and fewer inhibitions.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has spoken about how the drug trade between producers to the south and consumers to the north, has affected the Caribbean region - with the profits from the illicit trade often times dwarfing the economies of Caribbean nations.

"There is definitely a commonality," Francis said. "What we've seen in those cases is drugs and guns. Someone with drug involvement has a gun to protect the drugs. You hardly find one without the other."

The V.I. Police Department took 270 firearms taken off the streets last year, he said.

"We don't manufacture guns here," Francis said. "A lot of these guns were either recovered in violent crimes or recovered on a person, which means the murder rate could be much higher had the VIPD not done a good job of getting these weapons off the streets."

While the murder rates in the region are high, the overwhelming majority of crimes are committed among people who fall within specific demographics - poor minorities between the ages of 16 and 30 who are involved in crime in some way.

"A number of individuals who had been arrested for some kind of violent crime were then let back out on the streets by the courts, and they either became a victim of a killing or they had gone and killed someone," Francis said, adding that there were at least 12 such cases last year.

Although 2010 did see a number of brazen shootings and killings in public places, the majority of the murders took place within certain areas.

Between March 1 and 17, there were four killings in the immediate area of the Marley housing community - the initial spark being a cash-for-gold robbery, Francis said. The police quickly intervened with stores illegally purchasing gold and the bloodshed in that area decreased.

In addition to gang violence, Francis said a higher-than-normal number of domestic disputes erupted and ended with one - or sometimes both - of those involved dead. There were 10 such killings in 2010, he said.

Since 1999, there have been three years - 2000, 2003 and 2004 - when the number of homicides decreased in the territory.

Between 2008 and 2009, the number of murders rose 24 percent.

He wants to see that number drop again, he said.

Francis said he is encouraged by the community policing initiatives and the increased police visibility and interaction with the saturated patrols, which attributed to what appeared to be a noticeable slowdown.

At least partially based on a New York City police initiative in the 1980s to reduce crime by increasing enforcement of smaller crimes and creating an atmosphere of order, as opposed to one in which crime is loosely tolerated, the saturated patrols are having the desired effect, police officials said.

At the same time, it will be important for the V.I. Police Department to team up with its federal counterparts to stem the flow of guns and drugs into the territory, Francis said.

- Contact reporter Daniel Shea at 774-8772 ext. 457 or e-mail dshea@dailynews.vi.

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