Talking Crime in the Caribbean with Francis Forbes: An Interview

Tasneem Jamal Americas, Conventional Weapons

The Ploughshares Monitor Winter 2010 Volume 31 Issue 4

Gang and organized crime-related activities, including drug trafficking accompanied by epidemic levels of gun violence, threaten the democratic fabric of the Caribbean subregion. Between 2005 and 2008, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) registered 9,733 homicides (CARICOM 2010), the highest rates in the world.

Project Ploughshares is embarking on a major collaborative project to reduce gun crime in the region. Over the next three years, Ploughshares will work with CARICOM’s Implementation Agency on Crime and Security (IMPACS) to counteract the devastating community-level impact of gun violence. The University of the West Indies and local civil society organizations will also be collaborating on specific components of the project.

Francis Forbes, Advisor – Crime, Security and Liaison, CARICOM IMPACS, sat down for an interview when he visited Project Ploughshares’ Waterloo office in October. Mr. Forbes, a 34-year veteran of the Jamaica Constabulary Force (including eight years as Commissioner of Police), has been heading the Liaison Office of IMPACS for the past five years.

Project Ploughshares: Can you tell me about IMPACs?
Francis Forbes: The necessity for such an agency was identified after research into the issues surrounding an obvious upsurge in crime in 2000, which resulted in the heads of government mandating that a study be carried out to determine not just what the causes of crime were but what should be done in response.

Now, part of the research identified the lack of a mechanism in place to deal with regional crime and security. Or, put another way, to deal with crime and security from a regional perspective.

The day-to-day work of IMPACS puts us in touch with all the operational heads representing CARICOM, but it also sees us in touch with international law enforcement so that we speak with people from the RCMP, the FBI, the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and, at times, from Scotland Yard.

PP: You mentioned root causes of violent crime in the Caribbean region. Can you talk about these?
FF: I would say that the Caribbean region is no different from other regions of the world at this time in some ways, and that is, the advent of the drug trade in a very organized manner and the advent of the proliferation of small arms and light weapons. And both of those combined have created, in recent years, a very tense and volatile environment in some countries and in some communities within some countries.

There is no doubt in anyone’s mind, though, that the illicit trade in arms and ammunition, small arms and light weapons, is having a serious negative impact on not just the social fabric of the individual country, but on the economies of individual member states. And this is why the agency that I represent is pushing at full speed to adopt a coordinated approach to the whole issue of the proliferation of small arms and light weapons.

PP: The Caribbean region does stand out as having bigger numbers in terms of homicides per year than other regions. Do you think there is a reason behind this that is unique to the region?
FF: It’s a dilemma that we face, and a very unique one because the Caribbean is known for its peaceful beaches; the Caribbean is a main tourism destination. And amidst it all, people are enjoying their visits to all the Caribbean destinations. Having said that, we cannot deny the fact that the illicit trade in arms and ammunition and drugs and, in some instances, the illicit trafficking of people have led to some countries being projected not just at the regional level but at the global level as places of concern because of the levels of violence.

PP: Why are weapons drawn to the region?
FF: The introduction of what I would term the regular use of illegal weapons has a positive correlation with the progress of the use of drugs within the region and, moreover, with organized crime, which is the parent of the transit of drugs through the region. We are well aware that drugs are traded from the south up to the north and even over to the African and European continents. What is often not spoken to is the fact that the reverse of that trade is illegal weapons. And so there is that correlation between the guns being used and the drugs being used. Guns, initially, were brought into play to protect the drugs trade. It was just a natural progression for guns to become a primary use not just in organized crime but, in some countries, in dealing with simple conflicts.

PP: How are you tackling the issue of weapons trafficking into the region?
FF: It is a fact that being island nations—most CARICOM countries fall into that category—they have more than a challenge in terms of securing their borders. And the drug traders, the illegal firearm and ammunition traders capitalize on this weakness. And so one of the strategies is to strengthen our border controls, strengthen our maritime and air capacities, and do this not just in a physical way. And so we must accomplish this along with appropriate legislation that allows for cooperation between countries.

PP: What obstacles are you encountering?
FF: With regards to small arms and light weapons, funding is always a challenge for us. Although Trinidad has a little oil, there is no real rich country among CARICOM member states. And so we are always operating in an environment of limited resources versus unlimited demands. And so funding of some of the critical projects sometimes is hindered, delayed, or shelved because of the lack of capacity to fund.We can’t respond appropriately to the challenge of small arms and light weapons because there is a critical system that we would like to put in place and we have not been able to attract the appropriate level of funding. And the system is called the Regional Integrated Ballistic Information Network. The Regional Integrated Ballistic Information Network, also known as RIBIN, is a network that can capture, store, and rapidly compare digital images of bullets and cartridge casings. It generally supports the sharing of ballistic information.

PP: Do you face political obstacles?
FF: I would say not really because of the structure that is in place with CARICOM, where all heads sit as a committee, as a body, and effectively their decisions will become community law, if you will, only to be legislated by member nations. Of course, you know family relationships. It is not always easy to get agreement and full consensus on every issue. So there are times when things do not progress at a rate that one would like them to be progressing. And sometimes that, too, can be a challenge. But, generally speaking, the mechanisms are there to advance crime and security initiatives. And I would say the main challenge is one of the capacity to fund.

PP: How do you hope that the partnership with Project Ploughshares will help?
FF: From this project we hope to build some capacity. And there is a whole list of capacity building we are looking at. But those that are directly related to the small arms and light weapons challenges will include establishing centralized databases that can give us the opportunity to store statistics, give us the opportunity to have some analysis of those statistics and to send them back out in a usable format to member states who contributed to them.

As I speak, it is sometimes difficult even to get statistics on the illegal use of firearms in the region. We are hoping that after this project, we will have the capacity to not only get the information to populate the database but to analyze it in such a way that contributing member states will feel proud that they contributed because they get some value added at the end of the day.

PP: What about nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), civil society in the region? How do you see them helping along the process?
FF: Well, to be truthful, before I came to work at the regional level, I had a little difficulty understanding the role of NGOs because some that I was used to interacting with seemed so bent on the negatives that they became just a bother. Since I have been in the region, I have seen a new side to NGOs. And I now see the value of seriously collaborating with NGOs.

It is obvious to me now that law enforcement can’t do this job by themselves. It is also very obvious that NGOs can reach some of the people more easily, more readily, than law enforcement. So I am a full supporter of not just collaboration but full cooperation between law enforcement and NGOs. And we practice that at IMPACS.

Ploughshares is one of our very, very close collaborative partners. It wasn’t easy at first because in the early days we did not know sufficiently of Ploughshares. But as soon as we got to understand what Ploughshares is all about and their method, we realized we could work very well together. And, in fact, we could assist each other because we are fighting for the same thing, and that is for the security of the people in our region.

 The interview was conducted and edited by Tasneem Jamal, Project Ploughshares Communications and Fundraising Officer.


Caribbean Community. 2010. Member States’ National Points of Contact, IMPACS presentation, January 20.

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