Violence plagues paradise

The newlyweds were on the last day of their honeymoon in Antigua when an intruder shot them both in the head.

Ben and Catherine Mullany, who were murdered on their last day of their honeymoon in Antigua, cut the cake on their wedding day.
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Tears of joy flowed a month ago at the 12th-century church of St John the Evangelist as Ben Mullany and his new bride Catherine walked down the aisle together, smiling self-consciously. On that happy July day, nobody could have foreseen that those two promising lives had less than three weeks to run. Next week, when the bodies of Ben and Catherine are returned to that same church in Cilybebyll, near Pontardawe in south Wales, for a joint funeral, there will be many more tears.

The newlyweds - he a physiotherapist, she a doctor, both aged 31 - were on the last day of their honeymoon at the Cocos resort in Antigua when, in what seems to have been a bungled robbery, an intruder shot them both in the head in their gaily coloured, balconied cottage overlooking the Caribbean. Dr Mullany died instantly. Her husband, left brain dead, died last week after being taken off life support in the Welsh hospital to which he had been flown. It was the heartbreaking end to the short life together of a couple who had found only brief happiness, at a hotel described in its own brochure, with what now reads as dreadful prescience, as "an exclusive resort for those looking to escape to paradise".

Beyond the personal tragedy surrounding the killings, the two deaths have highlighted the burgeoning problem of violent crime in the Caribbean and the vulnerability to such attacks of the millions of tourists who visit the region each year. Amid locals' claims of police indifference or incompetence on the islands, there is mounting concern throughout the area over escalating murder rates, armed robberies and assaults.

Even in Antigua - long regarded as one of the more tranquil Caribbean havens - the murder rate among its 80,000 inhabitants has soared from just three a year in 2004 and 2005, to 12 in 2006 and 19 last year. The deaths of the Mullanys brought the total so far this year to 10. "For years, this newspaper has urged new initiatives and approaches to energise and expand the hopelessly inadequate efforts of those responsible for immunising our society from the aggressively mutating new cancer of criminality infecting it," said the Antigua Sun newspaper.

"The effect of the attack on the two visitors - two people embarking on the first blush of married life, tragically seduced by our country's reputation for a blissful honeymoon - is nothing short of calamitous on our tourism effort. It is a horrendously devastating blow." What few people outside Antigua know is that, for the past two years, a serial rapist has been on the loose, striking an estimated 40 times, or that this year the island has been bedevilled by a string of armed robberies and burglaries.

Despite the fact that its murder rate is more than three times that of New York, compared with its neighbours Antigua remains a relatively peaceful haven as far as the 250,000 tourists who visit each year are concerned, and the Mullanys were the first tourists to be killed there in a decade. Antigua's murder rate is lower than nearby St Kitts (33 people per 100,000), or Jamaica, where 1,547 people among the 2.5 million population (61 per 100,000) were killed last year, or Trinidad and Tobago, where 388 died.

The rise in violence is blamed largely on drugs and the fact that the Caribbean is a handy staging post for South American cocaine en route to markets in North America and Europe. With the drugs have come the gangs and the guns. "High rates of crime and violence in the Caribbean are undermining growth, threatening human welfare and impeding social development," according to a report by the World Bank and the United Nations' Office on Drugs and Crime.

Murder and assault rates in the region are significantly above the world average, says the report, while incidences of rape, kidnapping and other violent crimes are also increasing. Inevitability, tourists are increasingly becoming caught up, though some complain that, in a bid to protect their tourism industries - which, in Antigua's case, accounts for more than 70 per cent of GDP - the authorities, aided by a compliant media, do their best to hush up attacks.

It was only after the Antigua murders that a British couple in their fifties came forward to reveal that, while holidaying in St Lucia earlier this year, an armed man had broken into their hotel room, beaten and kicked the husband senseless and then raped the wife. In a similar incident last summer, also in St Lucia, an American couple on a second honeymoon were robbed by two armed men. Again, the wife was raped. The couple were so concerned by how little was done about their ordeal that they set up their own website to warn others.

Such warnings, however, appear to have done nothing to help Leta Cordes, 49, from California, who vanished in Sint Maarten in January after setting out to walk the 450 metres from her holiday home to a nearby casino. The search for her continues. The same month, Steve Storton, 53, a London cab driver, was shot through the chest after being accosted by a mugger trying to steal his wristwatch on the island of Margarita, off Venezuela. He was lucky to survive.

Police in the Dominican Republic are still searching for a gang who broke into a hotel room in Cabarete earlier this year and attacked 33-year-old Alan Reed, a plumber from London, as he slept. His fiancée found him, alive but lying in a pool of blood in their room. In April, an armed robber who broke into a British family's villa in Barbados and shot dead 19-year-old Daniel May was sentenced to 25 years in prison for manslaughter after the court accepted that the attacker's shotgun had gone off by accident. Twice.

Meanwhile, in Tobago last year, four robbers, masked and wielding cutlasses, entered a rental villa in an exclusive complex and attacked three British men on a golfing holiday, wounding two of them. Sir Ronald Sanders, a former Antiguan diplomat, says that the tourism industry throughout the Caribbean has suffered as a result of the "awful tragedy" of the latest killings. But, he says: "Violent crime in the Caribbean is a far greater problem for the resident population. The very geography that makes the Caribbean a desirable destination for tourists also accounts for its attraction as a trans-shipment point to drug traffickers, bringing a proliferation of illegal weapons into the region for distribution to their foot soldiers."

Beyond that, he says, "years of neglect by the US in terms of investment and official development assistance and the worsening terms of trade with the European Union ? have contributed to rising unemployment, more poverty, a drop in real earnings and a consequential increase in crime. "Attacks against tourists are reprehensible and the tragedy in Antigua is a terrible event. But they are part of an overwhelming problem of violent crime in the Caribbean that requires governments to develop comprehensive responses, both nationally and regionally, and, having done so, to act on them."

Hoteliers and others in the Caribbean tourism industry are becoming increasingly alarmed, knowing how quickly their businesses can be hurt by attacks on tourists. The Barbados Hotel and Tourism Association, for one, has met with local police chiefs to "beg" them to do more to fight crime. The UK's Foreign Office and the US State Department are monitoring the situation and are advising tourists to be vigilant when they travel to many Caribbean destinations.

And at the Cocos resort on Antigua, they are planning to beef up the perimeter fencing, increase the number of security guards and install more surveillance cameras. Sadly, it will all be much too little, much too late, for Ben and Catherine Mullany. @Email:dsapsted@thenational.ae