The history of violence in Jamaica

Some background on violent crime in Jamaica.

In the Feb.26-March 11 issue of Canadian Business, Matt McClearn's story on Montreal-based Forensic Technology Inc. and how its Integrated Ballistics Identification System is being used to fight gun crime in Jamaica, points out that violence in that island nation is not a recent phenomenon — nor one that is likely to disappear any time soon. Here's some background on violent crime in Jamaica:

There are plenty of guns telling stories in Jamaica. Assistant police commissioner Leslie Green came to the island in 2004 on secondment from Scotland Yard to help implement Operation Kingfish, an anti-organized crime initiative. He says most of the guns the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) has traced lead back to U.S. manufacturers or suppliers. “They get in through a multitude of ways,” he says. “Fishing boats. Containers. Post. Barrels that are sent over, especially around Christmas, from Jamaicans abroad. You name it.”

If guns are not yet ubiquitous, that's of little comfort. Jamaica's firearms get passed around so much that they lend new meaning to the term “hired guns.” Says Green: “They rent guns out… Even though there's lots of guns in Jamaica, there are still not sufficient numbers that people are careless with them.” When they are, more violence sometimes ensues. “People will get killed here if they misused a gun they were looking after, or if they've lost it,” says Green. In the wrong hands, a single gun can do a world of damage.

Last year, shootings were down 20%. Authorities hailed this as evidence they were winning the fight against crime. It so happens, though, that 2005 was the bloodiest year on record, with 1,671 murders. To put things in perspective, some 2.7 million people live on the island. Canada's largest city, Toronto, obsesses over its rising murder rates and has roughly the same population. But in stark contrast, Toronto suffered just 69 homicides last year, nine of them shootings. Jamaicans face a more serious problem: they're nearly as likely to be murdered as die from common ailments like heart disease and diabetes. In recent times, Jamaica consistently boasted one of the world's highest homicide rates, topped only by ultra-violent nations such as South Africa and Colombia.

Occasional academic and government studies have grappled with uncovering the root causes of Jamaica's carnage. Clarity remains elusive, but a number of factors are broadly blamed. Not surprisingly, a wide variety of economic forces are frequently mentioned, including poverty, high unemployment, inequality and so on. And much of the population is young. Young men are far more likely than anybody else to be perpetrators — and victims — of gun crime.

One cannot fathom Jamaica's violence without understanding its politics. Decades before the country's independence from Britain in 1962, supporters of the Jamaica Labour Party and the People's National Party were stoning, beating and stabbing one another for control over the island. They created rival gangs that evolved into organized criminal networks, and violence escalated over the decades as semi-automatic firearms replaced sticks and other rudimentary weapons. Tumultuous political relations following independence led to the creation of “garrison communities” — neighborhoods controlled by agents of a particular political party — that persist to this day as crime strongholds. Elections are typically accompanied by increased bloodshed, and key political figures have often associated openly with underworld figures.

With crime lords and quasi-legitimate politicians arm-in-arm, it's not hard to guess the pervasive influence of organized crime. Narcotics are the main commodity: Jamaica serves as a major transshipment point to the large consumer markets of North America and Europe. Several years ago, Jamaica's minister of national security claimed that one-fifth of America's demand for cocaine was satisfied by product flowing through Jamaica. Extortion and protection rackets are also big business.

Cultural forces are sometimes blamed for the violence. Slavery was abolished in 1834, but the systemic use of violence to enforce unpaid labour — or rebel against it — is sometimes cited as a root cause. (During the violent weeks in Spanish Town last March and April, one local bishop said: “We believe that the old slave masters must have set some level of curse on Spanish Town.”) University of Wisconsin professor Obika Gray has described a unique brand of insubordination adopted by Jamaica's alienated urban poor called “badness-honour” — an attempt by the disenfranchised to secure a veneer of power and respect through intimidation. “In the slums, a near-sacred defence of imperiled black humanity fed racially saturated claims to honour, power and economic need,” Gray claimed. Sexual licentiousness at Jamaican dance halls is another expression of this defiance, he wrote. But it led a few to gun-slinging outlawry. “The rebelliousness that led to crime, banditry and general mayhem among the poor was the work of only a tiny minority,” Gray concluded. That's often all it takes.

Jamaica's crime problem scares foreigners. And that's a particularly acute problem, because tourism has long been one of the island's key industries. One book on Jamaican crime dedicated no fewer than three of its 10 chapters to the impacts of violent crime on tourism. It's probably for that reason that during an interview, Green emphasized the violence does not usually touch foreigners. “This is not a crime-ridden island by any means,” he said. “We have problems in certain areas, but believe me, the tourists thoroughly enjoy and keep coming back to Jamaica because it's a nice safe place to come.” Still, increased violence last year in the island's tourism capital, Montego Bay, made some members of the tourism industry nervous.

The institutions charged with keeping violence in check are frequently criticized. With politicians and criminals all too often seen as inextricably linked, Jamaicans place little faith in government. Police, meanwhile, are sometimes accused of partnering with leading crime dons to increase their influence in particular communities — in effect, tolerating certain criminal activities and outsourcing community policing to criminals. The JCF is also widely accused of brutality: Amnesty International has alleged summary executions and unlawful detentions for years, and police shootings are a statistically significant cause of injury. All this means that many Jamaicans have an uneasy relationship with the people charged with protecting them. But the police, too, suffer, as large numbers of officers are killed. Their families are also targeted. One report, published in 2000, noted that constables were so fearful in certain neighborhoods that they conducted their patrols in haste, avoiding engagement with the local community that might otherwise build a more constructive relationship.

If police are viewed as part of the problem, they've also been viewed as ineffective in solving it. A 2001 report by Amnesty International lambasted the JCF for conducting lackluster investigations. “The scenes of shootings are not preserved,” it complained, “with forensic and ballistics evidence contaminated or removed. Autopsy reports are so poor that one respected international pathologist described them as 'not autopsies in the normally understood sense of the term.'” Another study observed that the JCF doesn't have enough vehicles to do its job — or even sidearms.