Tropical St. Croix stung by wave of killings

Eight years ago, a series of brutal murders on the lovely Caribbean Island of St. croix seriously disrupted the island's tourist-oriented economy. Now, just as business is returning to levels like those before the killings, a trio of new murders has sent shock waves through the community.

This time, as before, there is concern that the murders were racially motivated, although there is no evidence that this is the case. The three who were killed Jan. 27 were established members of the island's white community.

In an effort to spotlight their concern, a multiracial band of 2,500 Cruzians wearing black armbands marched a mile in the sweltering tropical sun through downtown Christiansted, the island's capital, Feb. 1 to protest the crimes.

The marchers appeared more or less evenly divided among mailand whites or "continentals," as they are known on the island, blacks, and Puerto Ricans -- the three racial components there.

There were numerous calls for racial harmony from leaders of all segments of the community. The St. Croix Avis, the island's main newspaper, editorialized Feb. 1:

"Let everyone stop right now -- including some of them reporting in the Virgin Islands and on the Virgin Islands and realize that most black people are every bit as scared as most white people.

"We pledge to fight the type of thinking, the type of talk that would pit us against each other and only try to worsen the problems we have in our society."

Those problems are many.

Joblessness is high on the island, a situation caused in part by the influx of "down islanders" who come in illegally and settle on this largest of the three US Virgin Islands, hoping for a better life than on their islands. Many of the down islanders speak English, having come from the British islands of the eastern Caribbean. Others are Puerto Ricans -- Spanish-speaking US citizens.

Usually these settlers will take the most menial jobs and work cheaply, under fear of detection and deportation. But the jobs might otherwise go to island natives.

Whites, small in number but economically very powerful in St. Croix, are often resented by the blacks for this and for the fact that most of them have work.

Many native black Cruzians feel left out on their own island. Thus there is a fertile ground for resentment.

It is unclear whether resentment was responsible for the latest killings.It was a factor in the 1972-73 killings that scared tourists away. Through efforts of Betty Sperber, owner of Christiansted's King Frederick Hotel, Cruzians united in "Operation St. Croix," rebuilding tourism and the island's economy.

In the last 18 months, business has grown to the level it was before 1972. In fact, it appeared to be running at an all-time high. whether the latest murders will harm the current tourist season is unclear. American Airlines, the major air carrier to the island reports no decline traveling. But merchants and hoteliers report a slight drop in business.

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