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Caribbean governments seek wiretap legislation to keep pace with growing gang problem

BASSETERRE, St. Kitts (AP) — A push for laws authorizing police wiretaps is facing resistance in small eastern Caribbean countries, where some islanders fear governments would use them to spy on political opponents.

Prosecutors say the power to intercept phone calls and other communications in the tiny, English-speaking islands would help them build cases against violent gangs blamed for soaring murder rates.

The United States has encouraged such laws to fight drug trafficking on islands it describes as transshipment points for South American cocaine.

In St. Kitts and Nevis, a two-island nation of 40,000 people, Prime Minister Denzil Douglas said this week that his government's proposed wiretap legislation will "fight fire with fire, and technology with technology where crime is concerned."

But critics say a provision requiring a judge's approval for any interception is not enough to prevent abuse.

"I have no faith in the safeguards which are in the bill," said Shawn Richards, a lawmaker from the opposition People's Action Movement.

Privacy concerns derailed similar wiretap legislation last year in nearby Dominica, where the national security minister, Charles Savarin, said he expected the bill to be sent back to parliament with changes later this year.

Wiretap laws, already in place in larger Caribbean nations including Jamaica and Guyana, have received new attention as the once tranquil former British colonies suffer from a wave of violent crime.

"It is a matter of concern for all islands," Savarin said.

St. Kitts and Nevis, which had its bloodiest year on record in 2009 with 27 homicides, has tallied 19 slayings so far this year, many of them unsolved.

Government spokesman Erasmus Williams said the violence is largely confined to turf battles between rival gangs, including some involved in the homegrown marijuana trade. One of the government's biggest concerns is the number of illegal guns on the streets, he said, noting that in May customs agents at a port seized 500 rounds of ammunition shipped from the United States.

The proposed legislation in St. Kitts, which is to be introduced soon to parliament, would expand on a 2002 law that authorizes wiretaps only in terrorism-related cases.

The wiretap legislation is important symbolically to let people know the government is tackling the crime situation, said Ivelaw Griffith, the provost at York College of the City University of New York and an expert on Caribbean security.

He said there is nothing in the region's track record to warrant fears of privacy abuse, but the islands are likely to face technical stumbling blocks as they develop the required technology.

"It's a step in the right direction," he said.

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Associated Press Writer Mike Melia contributed to this report from San Juan, Puerto Rico.