News from the OPM

Speech by Prime Minister Andrew Holness on Crime and Violence at the Regional Symposium: Violence as a Public Health Issue – The Crime Challenge (Trinidad and Tobago)

Speech by Prime Minister Andrew Holness on Crime and Violence at the Regional Symposium: Violence as a Public Health Issue – The Crime Challenge (Trinidad and Tobago)





“Transnational Organised Crime: Challenges with Small Arms and Light Weapons in Latin America

and the Caribbean”


APRIL 17, 2023





  • Honourable Philip Davis, Prime Minister of The Bahamas
  • The Honourable Keith Rowley, Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago
  • Other CARICOM Heads and representatives of Community Institutions
  • Ladies and gentlemen

Let me express sincere appreciation and gratitude to the Government of Trinidad & Tobago, the CARICOM Secretariat, and the other regional institutions including CARPHA and IMPACS, for coordinating this meeting.

Colleagues, we live in a high violence region. If we use murder rates as an index for violence, the Latin American and Caribbean region would be approximately 15 murders per 100,000 of population while the world average is approximately 6 per 100,000. For the Caribbean, this runs counter to our global image as a zone of peace. In the last 3 decades, the Caricom region has seen an increase in crimes, and in particular, the use of fatal violence. Violence generally in social interactions, and violence in crime particularly, has grown in scale over and above the existing capacity of our respective state infrastructures.  Aside from the increase in the volume of violence, there is also a change in the nature of violence and crime, for which our law enforcement, justice systems, public health systems, education and social intervention programmes are not fully equipped.

The truth is, violence and crime, particularly murders, have become more than a community-based or citizen-level threat for which a localized or single entity response would be sufficient.  Crime and violence can no longer be seen only as a policing problem.

We must acknowledge that in nature and extent, crime and violence has become a public health epidemic, and an existential threat to the State.  Meaning that the nature and scale of crime and violence, is so extensive and insidious that it is:

  • impacting the allocation of public resources and the national economy (governments must now consider increasing their National Security Budgets relative to all the other needs they must attend. In the last 6 years, Jamaica has tripled its capital expenditure on National Security),
  • crime and violence is undermining the ability of the State to deliver services and it weakens the confidence of the citizens in the State.


Crime and violence are now a systemic threat to the proper functioning of the State to, enforce its laws, deliver justice, protect its borders, and secure its revenue.  When criminals routinely seek to kill or intimidate witnesses, they weaken the ability of the justice system to convict them. When criminals deliberately seek to befriend and enlist the protection of police officers and other public officials, they compromise the ability of the police to effectively enforce the law. When criminals seek to infiltrate our seaports and airports, they compromise the ability of the government to control our borders.  But the greatest threat to State and citizen security is the prevalence of criminal gangs organizing the use of violence against the citizens and the State, in furtherance of their criminal enterprise. While these gangs may not have political motives, they are intent on weakening States and governments to create space for their criminal activity. They use corruption to weaken the State and violence to terrorize and spread fear among citizens which reduces confidence in the State to protect its citizens thereby reducing the legitimacy of the State.

Gangs using organized violence amount to criminal terrorism and our law enforcement and justice system must adapt to this new reality.

  • Crime and violence are also damaging the reputation and brand of our countries in the global marketplace (all of us here rely on our brand for tourism; the Caribbean, a safe place to visit).

From a public health perspective speaking from the Jamaican experience which aligns well with what was just presented, physical assaults, that is the intentional use of violence in:

  • domestic disputes,
  • intimate partner affairs,
  • in the disciplining children; corporal punishment,
  • in business dealings (in Jamaica we’re seeing an increase in the use of violence in land disputes for example),
  • and of course, the increased use of violence in criminal acts ( a robbery is now committed aggravated with assault; quite unnecessary but the robber has a gun so why not just use it),

so the intentional use in all these social interactions and in crime,   cause more trauma and loss of life than most diseases, and that is a fact. In the initial stages of the COVID pandemic, all our countries instituted emergency measures and at that time the incidents per 100,000 of cases of infected persons were well below what the murder rate was at the time but we employed emergency measures. Our governments are, I wouldn’t say reluctant, but we have not used in many instances, the emergency measures which are justified by the conditions that now exist with crime and violence. Violence would be in the top ten causes for seeking medical attention and a leading cause of death of victims. This is compounded by the mental health trauma to loved ones and persons who witnessed the violent act.

The widespread normalization of violence generally in social interactions and as a means of conflict resolution, the extensive use of violence in crime, and the evolution of organized violence by criminal actors to capture communities, and even states to create space for criminal enterprise, is now at a level where it is no longer a citizen-level or community-level threat, it is now an existential threat to the effectiveness and the legitimacy of the State. If this is the case, what should we do as a region? If it is that we are assembled here today because the Heads feel that crime and violence has now reached to that stage where it is not only threatening the re-election of governments but the very stability of the state, what should we do?

  1. The region needs to recognize that the activities of criminal gangs/ criminal enterprise in creating an atmosphere of fear and terror among entire communities is tantamount to criminal terrorism. There is an internationally recognized and accepted approach to dealing with individuals and organizations classified as “terrorists”.  A similar approach must be utilized to deal with domestic criminal terrorists. The fact is that our region’s laws and jurisprudence were generally not designed to treat with criminal threats of this nature and magnitude.In other Commonwealth jurisdictions, such as Australia and the United Kingdom, jurisprudence has played a critical role in regulating the access, possession, use and trade of illicit firearms, which has resulted in greater public safety and security. Furthermore, the existence of robust laws, timely prosecution of cases and exercise of sound judgement in sentencing, builds a belief in the justice system and delivers the cumulative effect of deterrence while balancing the rights of citizens in free and democratic societies. We must therefore reform our legislation to match the growing sophistication, scale, and nature of the threat. Our jurisprudence must incorporate measures which will support enhanced security operations which will support the use of emergency powers, and which will support preventative action to disrupt and control the space in which criminal actors operate before they commit the act of violence.
  2. Friends, this epidemic of crime and violence has been exacerbated by the uncontrolled influx of illegal small arms and light weapons; I call it an accelerant, I like the description given by the professor when he said, “guns are the new drugs, they’re an accelerant”. An act of violence may not result in the taking of a life without the presence of a gun, with the presence of a gun the probability of taking a life doubles.
  3. In Jamaica in the last ten years, we have seized 8,036 illegal firearms and I wouldn’t tell you how many I think are still in the hands of criminals; multiples of that, but the real important figure is that 12,641 Jamaicans were murdered  by illegal firearms.
  4. Criminal organizations and gangs have been able to acquire illegal firearms with ease, even though they are not manufactured in the region.  As a matter of regional security and foreign policy we must coordinate and strengthen our efforts bilaterally with the United States and multilaterally through the U.N system to secure greater control over the illegal export of small arms and light weapons to our region.  This regional approach, to prevent a dangerous substance from leaving our shores to get to the streets of a North America, is taken in the war on drugs; that’s what it is. We spend effort, we spend time preventing an illegal substance getting to the shores of another country.  A similar effort must be placed on ensuring that illegal guns don’t leave their shores to come to our countries. Our children are being killed, our young males are being killed with guns exchanged for drugs which head to North America. Our children are just as valuable as the children in North America.  There has to be equal energy, effort, and attention paid to preventing illegal guns coming into our country as we pay effort, energy, and attention in preventing illegal drugs going to their country. In fact, the war on drugs will continue to be unless there is an equivalent and consummate war on guns.
  5. The foundation of any economic and social progress is security. The rule of law, public safety, and national security are all threatened by this ever-growing crime and violence threat. Governments must respond by increasing their investments in national security to build capacity. As Caribbean nations, we oftentimes see ourselves as small islands, and that the threats that are affecting other larger nations would probably not affect us, that is until they’re at our doorsteps, until they’re overwhelming us, which is effectively what has happened in the last 30 years. This crime and violence threat that we face didn’t happen yesterday. It didn’t happen last year. It didn’t happen a decade ago. It started over 30 years ago but we never took it seriously. We never looked at it with the level of sophistication that we needed to have. And the truth is, sometimes we are trapped in our inherited archaic laws and frame of thinking, which we need to break out of and create our own laws to deal with our own circumstances. So while I do call upon the United States and other countries to take responsibility for the illegal export of a dangerous weapon, which is the equivalent of drugs, I also call on our government to put our money where our threats lie.
  6. We have to increase our capabilities and our capacities to scan the goods coming through our ports, to buy the offshore patrol vessels, to have the maritime surveillance. We cannot rely on foreign countries to tell us what is moving in our waters and what is coming in our ports. They’re only going to tell us what’s in their interest. We must act in our interests. So, one of the things we must do regionally and individually, is increase our capacity to control our domain. A complete solution statement requires focus beyond the symptoms which manifest as crime and violence, to a far deeper analysis of the social, cultural, and historical factors that drive aggression; hate, lack of respect for authority, low socioemotional regulation, antisocial behaviour, and a lack of value for the inviolability of life and for the sanctity of life. Why are so many Caribbean citizens choosing to use violence to resolve conflicts? Why? Why is the propensity to use violence so high?Clearly, social intervention and support programmes must be reconfigured and scaled up and our education system must be reimagined; we really have to rethink our education system, to promote the values and skills needed to develop a prosocial, progrowth, creative and productive citizen. The epidemiology of the social demographics of crime and violence in Jamaica shows that the perpetrators are 90% young males, and the victims are also largely young males. So, yes, we have to take a grand approach to our social intervention and a grand approach to reforming our education system and our social services, but the evidence of the public health approach shows that the immediate attention must be towards our young men. Something has gone wrong in the socialization of our young males in the Caribbean, and public policy needs to respond to that. We need to respond to that in how our young males are parented. We need to respond to that in how our young males are taught in our schools, and we need to respond to that in how our young males are transitioned into the workforce.

Ladies and gentlemen, before I close, one of the final things that need to happen in the region, is that there has to be a political consensus on what to do about crime and violence. The solution arc for dealing with the problem extends beyond the political cycle. In simple terms, the solutions are long-term, the political cycle is short-term, and therefore there has to be a long-term pathway for the solutions to work. It means that you must have a political consensus. You must take crime and violence out of the competitive political space and place it as a national priority so that we can give our citizens a long-term pathway. There is no short-term solution to this problem. There is no flip of a switch. Well, there is, but we’re not prepared to use it.

So ladies and gentlemen, in closing, I feel optimistic about this conference. Things have been said, which needed to have been said. The leaders are thinking similarly, and I think that solutions are going to emerge over the coming weeks and months. Again, let me thank PM Rowley, the CARICOM Secretariat and the team for putting this together.

Thank you.