Bahamas Country Profile

09/01/2015

Key Statistics

Population: 321,834 thousand (World Bank 2014)

Capital: Nassau

Languages: English (official), Creole (among Haitian immigrants)

Major Ethnic Groups: black 90.6%, white 4.7%, black and white 2.1%, other 1.9%, unspecified 0.7%

GDP per Capita (current US dollars): 25,556 (IMF 2015 World Economic Outlook)

GDP per capita PPP (current international dollars): 25,793 (IMF 2015 World Economic Outlook)

Security Sector Stats

Active Armed Forces: 850 (Military Balance 2014)

Police Force: over 4,000 officers (Royal Bahamas Police)

Small Arms: number of guns (both licit and illicit) held by civilians is 75,000; the number of military firearms is 1,500; number of law enforcement fire arms is 4,000 (Gun Policy, 2015)

Military Expenditure: n/a

Executive Summary 

Since 2001, crime in the Bahamas has become severe and a major cause for concern for the Government in the Bahamas. Peaking in 2011, with a recorded 127 homicides and a murder rate of 37 per 100,000 people, the Bahamas has more recently reduced the crime rate. Despite this fact, numerous uninhabited islands and cays serve as key transit points for illegal narcotics, primarily marijuana, on their way to the United States. What’s more there is an active gang scene that, while comprised mainly of low-level street gangs, includes groups which engage in drug trafficking, human trafficking and arms smuggling.

The country’s security and justice institutions have proved ineffective in combating the problem to date. Firstly, the courts system faces a severe backlog of cases which has helped fuel overcrowding in the country’s overburdened prison system, due to the number of prisoners on remand or awaiting trial. Officials have admitted that the judiciary suffers from systemic deficiencies. 

Secondly, the police force is plagued by accusations of abuse, and few investigations into allegations of police misconduct reach a resolution. 

The government has embarked on a number of initiatives to reduce crime in the country. Efforts should be made to support this as well as address the institutional weaknesses in both the security and justices sectors.

Security and Justice Context 

The Bahamas has experienced a more than two-fold increase in the number of annually registered murders over the past decade with the homicide rate rising from 14.3 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2001 to 37 per 100,000 in 2011, a record for the country. However, in 2012, the rate dipped slightly (See Figure 1.) to 32.5 per 100,000 while 16 less homicides (111) were registered compared to 2011.

bahamas

Fig. 1 Bahamas Homicide Rate 2000-2012

Though the number of murders fell in 2012, both attempted murder and armed robbery increased during the year by 58 percent and 10 percent respectively. The majority of crimes are typically committed on the island of New Providence where over 70 percent of the Bahamas’ population lives. In 2011, for example, 86 percent of all murders in the country were committed on New Providence. The government has not published its national crime statistics since July 2013 making it difficult to measure progress, however, the OSAC cites escalated levels of violent crimes on New Providence Island with widespread levels of home break-ins, theft, and a wave of robberies throughout the islands.[1]  

The country is made up of more than 700 islands, many of which are uninhabited. This large number of sparsely or unpopulated islands makes the Bahamas a key transit point in the international drug trade, particularly for illicit narcotics being moved by sea into the United States. Smugglers ship South American cocaine, and marijuana typically coming from Jamaica, via the Bahamas using “go-fast” boats and small commercial freighters, using the cover of the heavy maritime traffic in the area to blend in, according to the US State Department. Marijuana is the main narcotic that is trafficked through the area; in 2012, 162 tonnes of marijuana were seized under Operation Bahamas and Turks and Caicos Islands[2] (OPBAT) compared to 236 kilograms of cocaine. The US State Department noted in 2013 that Bahamian-Haitian drug trafficking groups are heavily involved in the cocaine trade in the area.

In 2012, The Bahamas was again designated a major drug transit and/or major illicit drug producing nation by the United States. As a result, the United States continued its commitments to support the Bahamas in strengthening the criminal justice system as well as bolstering law enforcement and counternarcotics effectors through bilateral aid and regional security programs. Additional support comes though the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief funds programs in HIV prevention and awareness.[3]

An estimated 79 gangs were active in 2010 which, combined, had a membership of over 20,000 youths, according to the non-government organisation (NGO) Youth Against Violence (YAV). This figure represented a 58 percent increase over the preceding eight years. While many gangs are minor street-level gangs that lack organisation, the national security minister warned in 2012 that certain gangs are sophisticated and engage in drug trafficking, arms smuggling and human trafficking.

Illicit arms present a challenge to law enforcement agencies in the country as the country serves as a transit point in the transnational arms trade. In 2011, 74 percent of homicides were committed using firearms, 32 percent above the global average. According to a study carried out the same year, around 80 percent of firearms in the Bahamas are unlicensed. However, it must be noted that the study was based on a small sample size. The Association of Caribbean Commissioners of Police (ACCP)[4] has estimated that there are some 1.6 million illegal weapons circulating in the whole Caribbean. 

The Bahamas serves as a source and transit point in the international trafficking of people. The US State Department noted in 2012 that Haitians, Jamaicans and Chinese nationals working in the country may be victims of human trafficking having been forced into labour. Sex trafficking is also an issue. Government inaction on the matter led to the Bahamas being downgraded by the US State Department in 2011 to Tier 2 Watch List from a Tier 2 ranking[5]

Thanks to its proximity to the United States, The Bahamas is also a key route for people being smuggled into the United States illegally, particularly Haitians. In June 2012, at least 11 people of Haitian descent died[6] when their boat capsized on route to the United States. The boat’s passengers reportedly paid a Bahamian captain $5,000 each to be smuggled. 

The Bahamas was designated by the US State Department in 2013 as being a “Country of Primary Concern” with regards to money laundering. The country’s large financial offshore sector makes it susceptible to the laundering of illicit proceeds from drug trafficking, human smuggling and illegal gambling.

Perceptions of Insecurity 

There is no available data on perceptions of insecurity among Bahamian citizens.

Security and Justice Institutions

Justice Institutions 

As a result of its colonial history, The Bahamas’ judicial system is based in part on British common law practice. The judiciary is independent and the country operates an adversarial legal system. 

The Supreme Court of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas has unlimited jurisdiction in criminal and civil cases and sits above the lower Magistrates’ Courts which have the jurisdiction to try lesser criminal and civil cases. As of 2010 there were 17 Magistrates’ Courts in the Bahamas; 14 in New Providence and three on the second-most populous island of Grand Bahama.

Above the Supreme Court sits a Court of Appeals which has the authority to review Supreme Court and Magistrate Court rulings. However, final appellate jurisdiction rests with the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC) in London, United Kingdom.

The attorney general is the government’s legal advisor and is also a member of the cabinet, serving as the Minister of Legal Affairs. Within the Office of the Attorney General and Ministry of Legal Affairs is the country’s primary prosecutorial authority, the Department of Public Prosecutions (DPP). This is headed by the Director of Public Prosecutions who is responsible for managing all criminal prosecutions before the Supreme Court and overseeing magisterial prosecutions. 

There is no Office of the Ombudsman for the country.

The Bahamas’ court system suffers from inefficiency and a serious case backlog. The backlog mainly persists in the Supreme Court with delays sometimes lasting five years or more for a case to be processed, according to the US State Department. In January 2013, the attorney general said that even if the Supreme Court’s 12 justices were to focus solely on criminal cases throughout the whole of 2013, they would still be unable to clear the backlog. As of August 2010, there were 450 cases pending in the Supreme Court, a number which has reportedly grown since. 

Along with the case backlog is a low conviction rate. Only 13 cases ended in a conviction out of the 172 criminal cases heard by the Supreme Court in the first 10 months of 2011. In addition, opposition parties have criticised the government for achieving a conviction rate of less than 10 percent for homicide cases between 2007 and 2012. 

The country has one prison which is run by The Bahamas Prison Service, a body housed under the Ministry of National Security. Overcrowding is a serious concern, with the inmate population estimated to stand at 1,600 in March 2013, around 23 percent above capacity[7] . In addition, conditions inside the prison are “harsh and unsanitary,” according to the US State Department, and prisoner abuse is an issue.

Officials stated in 2012 that organised prison gangs were becoming an increasing problem, controlling contraband flows within the penitentiary system, with the help of corrupt prison guards, and in some cases ordering hits on witnesses and other civilians outside of the prison. 

Due to the slow pace at which cases are processed, between 40 and 50 percent of inmates in the prison are prisoners on remand or pre-trial detainees. Some of the pre-trial detainees were housed in the maximum security wing in 2011 due to overcrowding in the Remand Centre. The minister for national security stated in March 2013 that more inmates should receive bail or be given community service to help alleviate the problem of overcrowding.

Security Institutions 

The Royal Bahamas Police Force (RBPF) is the country’s primary agency charged with domestic law enforcement and numbers over 4,000 officers, reserves and police civilians. The force is overseen by the Ministry of National Security. 

The RBPF has been plagued by incidents of police abuse and the use of excessive force, and has faced accusations of carrying out extrajudicial killings. In February 2013, for example, two detainees died within 24 hours of each other while in police custody, one reportedly from asphyxiation, the other from blunt force trauma. The US State Department noted in 2012 that former RBPF officers have acknowledged police abuse to be a problem in the force.

Complaints against the police are typically handled by the Police Complaints and Corruption Branch (PCCB) which is responsible for investigating allegations of police misconduct and determines if there is enough evidence for disciplinary action or a criminal prosecution. In 2012 there were 243 complaints against the police, over half of which were complaints of assault. The Coroner’s Court handles investigations into alleged police killings in order to determine cause of death.

According to Amnesty International, impunity is common in cases of alleged police abuse. Exacerbating this issue, inquiries into deaths at the hands of police can be slow with the Coroner’s Court suffering from a severe case backlog[8]

The Royal Bahamas Defence Force (RBDF) numbers 1,154 personnel and is housed under the Ministry of National Security. It is primarily charged with external security and counter-narcotics operations, though does provide support domestically in the form of guarding foreign embassies and ambassadors. The RBDF is solely a naval force with no army. 

In August 2012, the government announced it would need to spend $200 million in order to upgrade the RBDF’s vessels and port facilities, an investment that in February 2013 was set to be approved. 

The country has a National Anti-Drug Strategy which covers the period 2012-2016. Among other aims, the plan seeks to reduce drug demand through partnering with civil society groups to install education initiatives in schools and improve drug rehabilitation services. In addition, the government is aiming to strengthen law enforcement capacity to improve interdiction efforts, implement community policing programmes, strengthen the criminal justice system, and foster international cooperation in counter-narcotics initiatives. 

The RBPF releases a Policing Plan annually which for 2013 aims to reduce crime, increase police engagement with youth, and professionalize the police force.

State of Security and Justice Sector Reform

Justice Sector Reform and Initiatives 

The US State Department noted in 2012 that legal professionals in the Bahamas have admitted to a number of systemic deficiencies in the justice sector, notably inefficient prosecution strategies, lengthy legal procedures and a staff shortage in the DPP.  In order to address some of these problems, the government, following its election in May 2012, launched a number of initiatives under the programme “Project Safe Bahamas”. One of these initiatives is the Swift Justice Initiative which was re-introduced in June 2012. Swift Justice aims to improve inter-agency cooperation, add more criminal courts and ensure that all murder cases are tried within 12 months of the offense. On average, defendants in murder cases have to wait 18 months to three years to face trial.

Swift Justice applies primarily to murder cases where the offense was committed after May 2012 and has been criticised by some for failing to address the case backlog. 

Under Project Safe Bahamas, the government is also aiming to provide prosecutors with further training and give judges the power to hand down tougher sentences. 

The national security minister stated in 2012 that the government is considering building a new prison facility to address the problem of overcrowding. However, he added that addressing problems in the penitentiary system could be difficult in the short term due to the competing need for finances from other agencies, notably the RBDF which is set to receive $200 million worth of investment. 

Security Sector Reform and Initiatives 

There are a number of security initiatives that help comprise Project Safe Bahamas. Operation Cease Fire places more police in crime-hit areas and seeks tougher penalties for repeat offenders while Urban Renewal 2.0 is another re-introduced initiative that seeks to support at-risk youth, increase the police presence in schools and provide grants for community improvements led by citizens. The Safe Bahamas Initiative also falls under Project Safe Bahamas and aims to increase funding for drug rehabilitation, increase drug and arms trafficking interdiction operations and introduce a new forensics unit. 

The police created its first anti-gang unit in recent years, which it continued to develop in 2012 with the help of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations' (HSI) National Gang Unit. To help improve crime reduction efforts, the Ministry of National Security was pushing forward with the creation of a National Intelligence Agency in 2012 which as of August 2012 was reportedly still in its “embryonic” stage. The agency will help improve counter-narcotics operations and intelligence sharing between the RBPF, the RBDF, and customs and immigration agencies, among other bodies.

The Police Force Act 2009 mandated the creation of the Police Complaints Inspectorate (PCI) which has since been set up. The body is comprised of five citizens and is aimed at improving civilian oversight of the RBPF by reviewing investigations and determinants of complaints by the PCCB to ensure that they were carried out with impartiality. 

There was talk in 2012 between the Bahamas and Haiti of creating a joint commission to improve coordination in combating human smuggling. However, no progress appeared to have been made on the issue at the time of writing. 

In 2011, the CARICOM Implementation Agency for Crime and Security (CARICOM IMPACS) adopted the Declaration on Small Arms and Light Weapons, a regional initiative aimed at reducing gun crime in the region and improving regional cooperation in the field of arms trafficking.

Under the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI), a US government-funded program, the government of the Bahamas has received help in training the country’s security forces, aid in the form of counter-narcotics equipment, and training to help reduce drug demand in the country’s prison and conducting drug outreach programmes for at-risk populations.

Parliamentary/Congressional Capacity for Oversight 

Parliament in the Bahamas is bicameral. The lower House of Assembly has 38 elected members, while the upper Senate has 16 appointed members.

The legislature is independent of the executive and judiciary and has the power to make and pass laws and provide oversight of the government.

Security and Justice Opportunities

The Bahamas is at a critical point in terms of addressing its crime rate, one which has almost doubled over the past decade for homicides. The recent initiatives embarked upon by the government show that there is a strong degree of political will to address the institutional weaknesses that are currently hindering crime reduction efforts, and present a number of opportunities for engagement. 

The Bahamas ranked second in the Caribbean in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) behind only Barbados. Overall, the country placed 22nd globally out of 176 countries, suggesting that corruption does not present a significant hurdle to working on reform initiatives with the government.

Justice Sector Opportunities 

The government’s initiatives to further train legal professionals and expedite homicide cases under the Swift Justice Initiative (SJI) are both welcome as they go some way toward addressing inefficiency within the judiciary. However, the inability to date of the SJI to address the case backlog reveals that more needs to be done to clear cases still in the courts system. Staff shortages have been highlighted as a problem, in addition to systemic deficiencies in legal procedures. Helping to ensure legal professionals are properly trained and follow a standardized prosecutorial procedure, as well helping to address the issue of staff numbers in the DPP is advised. 

The low conviction rate for murder should be broached with the government to ensure that corruption in the judiciary—if indeed it exists—does not become a significant concern. 

As the national security minister has stated, the possibility of judges handing down community service punishments or granting bail should be explored due to the apparent willingness of judges to place people in jail while they await trial for minor crimes. This is placing an enormous burden on the penitentiary system and should be discussed with the government. Emphasis on handing down stiffer sentences under Project Safe Bahamas may potentially exacerbate overcrowding. 

Helping to finance the building of a new prison is a strong opportunity for engagement given that delays in moving forward with the project appear to be economic rather than down to political will.

Security Sector Opportunities

In light of the apparently high incidence of police abuse, efforts could be made to help the RBPF put a stronger vetting and training programme in place and to help professionalize the force. What’s more, the reportedly high rate of impunity in cases of alleged police abuse needs to be addressed. While the creation of the Police Complaints Inspectorate is welcome, its role as a review body for PCCB investigations into alleged police misconduct may not be enough to ensure proper civilian oversight of the RBPF. Strengthening the PCI could help reduce the level of impunity in such cases. However, this must be done in conjunction with improving efficiency in the court system and the Coroner’s Court due to the existing backlogs.

Civil Society Actors to Engage With 

The Bahamas has a number of NGOs dedicated to promoting justice and human rights in the country. In March 2013, the group Bahamians Against Police Brutality was formed to highlight the problem of police impunity and advocate for efforts to combat it, including encouraging officers to speak out against colleagues, and the creation of a strong independent body to conduct investigations into serious complaints of police abuse. The group was started by a citizen whose brother died in police custody.

Youth Against Violence[9] (YAV) was started by a former gang leader and seeks to cut youth violence by 50 percent by empowering youths in poor, violent areas and encouraging them to become involved in their communities through mentoring and educational programmes. 

The Bahamas Human Rights Network (BHRN) works to promote human rights and help victims of human rights abuse through seeking to set up investigations and helping to pursue prosecution in the courts if the case requires. 

Resources 

Freedom House, “Freedom in the World 2013 – The Bahamas,” March 2013 

Red de Seguridad y Defensa de América Latina, “Atlas Comparativo de la Defensa en América Latina y Caribe Edición 2012,” October 2012 

The Government of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas, “National Anti-Drug Strategy 2012-2016, ”No publication date available

Transparency International, “Corruption Perceptions Index 2012,” December 2012 

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Homicide Statistics 2012,” Data set retrieved from https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/data-and-analysis/homicide.html 

U.S. Department of State Bureau of Diplomatic Security, “Bahamas 2013 Crime and Safety Report,” January 2013

U.S. Department of State, “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2011,” May 2012 

U.S. Department of State, “Trafficking in Persons Report 2012,” June 2012

U.S. Department of State, “2013 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report Volume 1: Drug and Chemical Control,” March 2013 

U.S. Department of State, “2013 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report Volume 2: Money Laundering and Financial Crimes,” March 2013

Endnotes

[1] U.S. Department of State Bureau of Diplomatic Security, "Bahamas 2014 Crime and Safety Report" May 2014

[2] OPBAT began in 1982 to stop the flow of illicit narcotics to the United States. It is a partnership between the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the US Coast Guard and the government of The Bahamas.

[3] U.S. Department of State Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, "U.S. Relations with the Bahamas: Fact Sheet" 2014 February

[4] The ACCP has a membership of 24 Caribbean nations and is designed to facilitate cooperation between the region’s police forces and help with the development of officers’ technical skills and professionalism. 

[5] Tier 1 is the highest rating a country can receive followed by Tier 2, Tier 2 Watch List, and Tier 3. Rankings indicate governments’ compliance with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s (TVPA) minimum standards, or lack thereof, and efforts being made to meet them.

[6] The bodies of a further 10 people were never recovered.

[7] The maximum security wing suffers severely from overcrowding; in May 2012, the wing was at 193 percent capacity.

[8] The US State Department noted that the Coroner’s Court had a backlog of 846 cases in 2011.

[9] More information on their website: http://yavbahamas.com/index.html

Igarapé Institute

The Igarapé Institute is a southern think tank devoted to evidence-based policy and action on complex social challenges including global drug policy, citizen security and international cooperation. Its goal is to stimulate humane engagement on emerging security and development issues. Across all its programs, the Institute adopts a three-prong approach:

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Organisation

The International Security Sector Advisory Team

The International Security Sector Advisory Team (ISSAT) provides practical support to the international community in its efforts to improve security and justice, primarily in conflict-affected and fragile states. It does this by working with a group of member states and institutions to develop and promote good security and justice reform practices and principles, and by helping its members to build their capacity to support national and regional security and justice reform processes.

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