Sunday, May 15, 2011

Sao Vicente's emerging crime problem and how to deal with it

Cape Verde is one of the safest places in Africa when it comes to crime, and is generally considered extremely safe for tourists. In fact, Cape Verde is ranked 3rd in measures of Personal Safety behind only Mauritius and the Seychelles by the Ibrahim Index 2010.

However, there is a disconcerting truth that the country's biggest cities, Praia (Santiago) and Mindelo (Sao Vicente) have higher rates of crime against the person, especially theft, and increasingly, violent theft.

One unfortunate recent victim was Nathaniel "Jay" Silva who was recently robbed and beaten while walking alone at nigth in Mindelo, Sao Vicente. His injuries left "Jay" disabled and confined to a wheelchair. The bandits made off with 3 euro.

This trend in violent theft is a potentially devastating development for Sao Vicente because the island's economy is very dependent upon tourism. It ranks 4th in number of tourists after Boa Vista and Sal (in each case where crime is virtually non-existent) and Praia, the country's capital which naturally experiences higher levels of crime but spread over a vastly larger population than Sao Vicente. In addition, Sao Vicente has a significantly higher level of unemployment that may predispose the island to higher levels of opportunistic crimes. And there have also been increasing reports about gang activity. In fact, most of these attacks are attributed to groups of young men, presumably unemployed and looking to make a few dollars.

There have been major investments made in the tourism sector in Sao Vicente including a brand new international airport. And several large real estate developments have attracted foreigners to the island. It is thus in the interest of everyone - residents and visitors alike - that this situation be addressed immediately and with extreme prejudice by the police departments on the island.

Having spent some time in Sao Vicente, it is my observation that the police departments and the justice system are not properly equipped to effectively deal with this type of crime. Perpetrators are often not identified during a crime committed under the veil of darkness, even though the community is small and everyone knows everyone else. When perpetrators are identified, they may be released for lack of physical evidence - the stolen items may have long been peddled away for quick cash. Or the cases drag through the legal system for years. Meanwhile, thugs are left to continue their criminal ways with impunity.

It is time for the National Police to look at new policing methods to combat gangs. Successful policing methods used in larger countries with much bigger crime problems include these three key methods:

  • Infiltration of gangs via paid informants. A little money goes a long way among young men who are engaged in criminal activity due to lack of economic opportunities. Police investigators could get a lot of mileage by hiring paid informants and offering rewards for confidential tips.
  • Use of "stings" where criminals are tricked into showing themselves. For example, to catch criminals who break and enter into cars, police could plant a decoy car with valuables inside and place the car under surveillance. Another example is the use of under-cover police officers who pose as victims in an area where a sting is set up. Criminals who take the bait are quickly apprehended. Repeated use of decoys leaves criminals guessing whether intended victims are decoys.
  • Use of electronically tagged items that when stolen can be tracked (via GPS readers) to the exact location of the thieves who can then be apprehended red-handed. This method also leads to caches of stolen goods.

Some of these methods may require special equipment for the police forces to do effective work. Examples include, recording devices, electronic gear, night vision goggles, and so on. This would be a very high return investment for the Cape Verdean government, or the local governments in Sao Vicente.

In addition, methods refined in Sao Vicente could then be used in other jurisdictions. In other words, the benefits of such crime-fighting would be gained across the country.

I can only conclude that an aggressive move by the police department is warranted before Sao Vicente gets a serious black eye and earns a reputation among tourists as the island in Cape Verde that they should not visit because of concerns about personal safety. Once such a reputation develops, it is extremely difficult to combat. It would be very unfortunate because Sao Vicente is a beautiful island and the cultural center of Cape Verde.

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