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Monday, 14 October, 2002, 14:53 GMT 15:53 UK
Plea to stop Jamaican election violence
Jamaican Prime Minister P J Patterson and opposition leader Edward Seaga
Prime Minister Patterson and his rival Edward Seaga

Jamaica's political leaders have been urged to control violence amongst their supporters ahead of the country's general election on Wednesday.

The call came from the ambassadors of Britain and the US in Jamaica after the deaths of more than 50 people across the island in the last two weeks.

Many of the killings are thought to have been politically motivated.

Jamaica has a long history of violence between radical supporters of the now ruling People's National Party, the PNP and the Jamaica Labour Party, the JLP.

In 1980 more than 800 people were killed in the weeks before the general election. There is no sign that the violence in the run up to polling time will come close to that tally.

Jamaican soldiers cast their votes
Members of the Jamaica Defence Force have already started voting
Even so, tension in many areas of Kingston is high partly because of the closeness of the race.

Prime Minister PJ Patterson's PNP party - which is hoping to gain an unprecedented fourth successive term in office - is just 7% ahead of Edward Seaga's Jamaica Labour Party.

The tension is all too evident in neighbourhoods like Southside in downtown Kingston.

Southside is one of the Jamaican capital's poorest neighbourhoods. It is plagued by feelings of insecurity, especially at election time.

The area is a People's National Party stronghold. Young men peer out from behind makeshift barriers erected to stop drive-by shootings from rival political groups. The JLP supporters have set up similar protective measures in their areas.

Hounded out

"Southside is the classic garrison constituency," says Horace Levy, a sociology lecturer at the University of the West Indies.

"That's a place where for decades if you don't vote for the dominant political party you are either persecuted and hounded out or killed."

The garrison constituencies developed in the 1960s and 70s when both the PNP and JLP are widely believed to have armed groups of supporters to enforce the political loyalty of particular communities.

The groups carried out violent feuds with their political rivals from other Kingston townships.

"The situation was further complicated in the 1980s," Horace Levy says.

My way is the way of peace. We are about building up, not tearing down.

P J Patterson
Jamaican Prime Minister
"Jamaica became a major trans-shipment point for Colombian cocaine reaching the United States and Europe, so now in many areas of Kingston the fight today is more about the control of that trade than political affiliation."

In the run up to this year's elections, both Prime Minister Patterson and Edward Seaga have been preaching a message of peace and non violence amongst their supporters.

"Our approach is non-confrontational," Mr Patterson stressed during the last televised debate between the party leaders last Thursday.

"My way is the way of peace. We are about building up, not tearing down."

It was a sentiment echoed by Mr Seaga.

Security threat

But the message hasn't got through to all Jamaicans.

Just hours after the debate, three more bodies were pulled out of a drainage ditch. Police suspect the killings were politically motivated.

As with previous elections, the immediate threat to security is being addressed by Jamaica's 10,000-strong police force.

"We have put in place special security operations in six hot spots around the capital," says James Forbes, communications director for the force.

"We feel that should ensure voters are free from intimidation come the day of voting."

While the police can only be expected to react to contain any violence, many others in Jamaica have been trying to tackle the causes of the problem.

In the energy sapping midday heat a group of teenage boys are playing football.

It is a typical Saturday morning sight in the working class district of August Town in eastern Kingston.

But this is more than just a simple kickabout. It has brought together members of street gangs that until now have been involved in armed conflict for decades.

Kenneth Wilson and Andrew Richards
Kenneth Wilson (left) and Andre Richards are trying to stop the violence
On the sideline, Kenneth Wilson is giving a pep talk to some team hopefuls. He has lived here all his life and now heads the community's conflict resolution group.

"Getting the different gang members together on the field has just been the start of the peace process," says Mr Wilson.

"We have regular meetings with the leaders and encourage them to stay in contact by phone to defuse any tension."

In a local primary school, a group of exuberant kids crowd round their classroom's new additions - two computers paid for by funds raised by members of the local street gang.

"We realised that it wasn't worth just hanging around the street corners doing nothing or fighting," said gang member Andre Richards, 20, as he supervised a computer class.

Trouble spots

"We are proud of what we are doing here. We are changing Jamaica one community at a time."

In spite of these initiatives, in a country of just under three million people, 50 murders in two weeks is still a woefully large number.

No-one is ruling out the possibility that there could be more before the first ballots are cast.

But it does appear that the will is there, in all sections of Jamaican society, to bring an end to the violent political tribalism of the past.

See also:

30 Jul 02 | Country profiles
10 Aug 02 | From Our Own Correspondent
09 Jun 02 | Americas
12 Mar 02 | Americas
01 Jan 02 | Americas
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