SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – The crime was horrifying enough — a nightclub owner, hacked to death with a machete, was found buried in pieces. But what really outraged people was that the accused killer had been deported from the U.S. to his native Grenada as a convicted felon.
As a foreign-bred criminal, the suspect never should have returned to the close-knit tropical nation, relatives of the victim and others said. Islanders called for more vigilance over deportees by the government, which says it needs help from Washington to handle the return of hardened convicts.
"I hope that my brother did not die in vain and something can be done to monitor these criminal deportees," said Gemma Raeburn-Baynes, a sister of the nightclub owner, Michael Raeburn-Delfish.
The United States has deported thousands of convicted criminals to the Caribbean annually since 1996, when Congress mandated that every non-citizen sentenced to a year or more in prison be kicked out of the country upon release. In all, the U.S. is responsible for about three-quarters of the region's returning criminal deportees, with the United Kingdom and Canada accounting for most of the other ex-cons arriving in the islands.
It's a phenomenon that also afflicts many parts of Central America, where street gangs that grew out of Los Angeles spread to the region through massive deportations. Brutal and powerful, the "Maras" are blamed for rampant violent crime, extortion and more recently acting as enforcers for drug cartels.
In the Caribbean, governments say deportees are exacerbating crime in nations with high levels of violence such as Jamaica. On the smaller islands such as Grenada, once considered idyllic havens from gang violence, officials say the returning deportees are partly to blame for increasingly bold and sophisticated crimes and homicide rates soaring to record levels.
The United States is attempting to defuse tensions with island governments by exploring programs to help them reintegrate deportees. During a visit to Barbados in June, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the U.S. is no longer ignoring complaints that have topped the Caribbean's diplomatic agenda for more than a decade.
U.S. officials say privately that the deportations cannot be blamed for the increase in violent crime, but declined to discuss the issue on the record, saying the U.S. does not want to hurt relations with Caribbean governments with which it cooperates on other issues.
The man accused in the machete attack in Grenada, Ronald Michael Phillip, 55, was deported from the United States on July 6, 2000, the day after leaving a state prison in Uncasville, Connecticut, where he had spent more than six years.
Island police know only the rough outline of his life abroad: Phillip moved overseas in 1986 and lived in Canada and Brooklyn, New York, before moving to New London, Connecticut. He was arrested in December 1993 on assault and drug charges.
But the officer who found Raeburn-Delfish's severed head and limbs in three shallow pits on Sept. 5 said the nature of the murder led him to believe the suspect was a practiced killer.
"He had a level of experience with dealing with dead people or animals," forensics expert Trevor Modeste said. "We don't usually have crime like that. We don't usually have planned and executed murders."
Modeste said his suspicions were confirmed when Phillip, known locally as Ronald de Ally, boasted to police that he killed and buried two people in the United States who were never found.
Grenada police spokesman Troy Garvey said that claim has not been verified. Garvey said investigators' focus is on solving Raeburn-Delfish's slaying, but they will pass anything they learn about crimes in the U.S. to the appropriate jurisdiction.
Raeburn-Delfish was Phillip's landlord, but no motive has been established in the slaying. Phillip, who is charged with murder, did not have an attorney at his first court appearance.
At the heart of the problem is the disparity of wealth between the United States, where migrants often learn their criminal ways, and their poor homelands, where jobs are scarce and police resources are limited. Moreover, islanders who often left their native lands as children return to countries they barely recognize, with no remaining family.
Jean Nemorin, 47, who returned to Haiti in 2008, more than three decades after he arrived in the United States with his family at age 11, said there is a stigma attached to people like him when locals learn of their criminal past, making it tough to find work or a place to live.
"I struggled to feed myself for the first six months," Nemorin said. He declined to describe his conviction in the United States but said he is crime-free today, operating a moto-taxi in Port-au-Prince that he bought with money from relatives overseas.
The biggest impact has been in heavily populated countries like Jamaica, where deportees are suspected in several violent crimes each week, according to Leslie Green, an assistant police commissioner.
But smaller islands are increasingly leading the calls for help from Washington. A Grenada government spokesman, Richard Simon, said they lack the counseling, monitoring and housing services needed to absorb deportees with serious criminal records.
In Dominica, at least one criminal deportee is suspected in a recent pair of brazen, daylight robberies by masked men, Security Minister Charles Savarin said.
In St. Lucia, an island of 170,000 people that received 18 criminal deportees from the U.S. last year, Security Minister Guy Mayers said some of the convicts were apparently recruited into local drug rings that exploit their contacts from overseas prisons.
"We are not responsible for them becoming monsters," Mayers said. "We need support to be able to rehabilitate these people."
In 2007, the U.S. launched a pilot program managed by the United Nations' International Organization for Migration to help reintegrate deportees. The $3 million project provided services including career counseling and housing assistance in Haiti, Guyana and the Bahamas.
U.S. officials say they hope that effort will be the starting point for a regional discussion, but no money has been assigned so far to keep the program going.
Island governments say the deportee issue will remain a sticking point with Washington until they see more action.
"I raise this with U.S. authorities every chance I get," Mayers said.
Associated Press writer Evens Sanon contributed to this report from Port-au-Prince, Haiti.