By Soutik Biswas
BBC News, Jamaica
They call themselves Fatherless, a group of armed young men who have lost their fathers in gang wars in Trench Town, a Kingston inner city of bullet-pocked homes and birthplace of reggae.
There has been a spike in murders this year
High on marijuana laced with cocaine and armed to the teeth, the gang
is among the many in Jamaica which fight over turf, drug money and influence as muscle men for political parties.
Last year, five members of Fatherless lost their lives in gang wars,
prompting one of the mothers of a gang
member who was killed to say she was "glad" that her son had been taken out, because
"somebody had to stop him".
"Death is not uncommon in these parts of Jamaica. It has reached such a
point that people have become numb to it. It is scary," says a resident, who is
too scared to be named.
The island of 2.7m people, which is slightly smaller than Connecticut, has one of the highest murder rates in the world.
The figures are chilling - there were 1,674 murders in 2005, up from
1,471 murders the year before. Last year, the number of murders came
down to 1,340.
So far this year, there have been about 300 murders.
The never-ending spiral of gun crime has led to a vicious cycle of killings on both sides - nearly a dozen policemen have been killed on duty this year alone, and civil
rights group allege that the police have also been trigger happy.
Inner cities like Trench Town and neighbouring Tivoli Gardens are
states within a state. Residents of Trench Town pay no rent or
utility and energy bills, and in Tivoli Gardens, a local don is called
the 'President' because he pretty much rules the place.
Gangs fight over turf and drug money
Things have worsened to such an extent that recently schools in the Arnett
Gardens community closed down after rising gang violence in the area. The
number of students attending schools has dropped by 40%.
"Teachers cry, teachers shake... When me hear the gunshots start, me
try crawl - you know like when you watching a war show and soldiers
crawl with them gun," a young male teacher told reporters after the latest round
Crime in Jamaica is not new. According to a CIA report, "deteriorating economic
conditions during the 1970s led to rising violence as gangs affiliated
to major political parties, evolved in powerful organised crime
networks involved in international drug smuggling and money
"The cycle of violence, drugs and poverty has served to impoverish
large sectors on the populace," the report says. Continuing
double-digit unemployment does not help matters.
For a long time, Jamaica has been a transhipment port for Colombian cocaine. A
lot of the cocaine gets smuggled out into the islands and sold. Drug
smugglers from Haiti trade sophisticated guns for marijuana and
cocaine, and the island is therefore awash with guns.
The World Bank in a recent report says crime in the Caribbean - and
it's mostly referring to Jamaica - is "undermining growth, threatening
human welfare, and impeding social development".
In inner cities like Trench Town, Tivoli Gardens and Denham Town - scene of a six-hour gun battle between a gang of teenage boys armed
with AK-47s and M-16s last month - this means high levels of
illiteracy, teenage pregnancy, unemployment and nearly every
household involved in some kind of criminal activity, major or minor.
Youngsters fight gang wars, older men travel to the city to rob and
steal and the women at home often take a break from homemaking to
carry drugs to the US and UK. There are more than 300 Jamaican women in UK
prisons serving sentences for carrying drugs.
Crime is impeding social development in Jamaica
Some 11,000 policemen, including 2,500 specially equipped frontline
fighters, are engaged in fighting crime on the island, but the force's
reputation has been sullied in the past by allegations of
Deputy Commissioner Mark Shields, a Scotland Yard officer on
secondment to the Jamaican police, says there was a 10% increase
in homicides in the first three months of 2007 compared with the same period in 2006. But, he says he is not "over concerned".
'Drugs and turf'
"The reality is that there is high crime in Jamaica, but it is in
the crime hotspots," he says. "The perception is the whole of Jamaica has crime,
which is not true."
Mr Shields said the quality of police investigations into the
crimes had improved, and the courts were recognising the fact.
The hotspots are areas like St James, Kingston, St Andrews, Trench
Town and Denham Town - a mix of inner cities and high-unemployment
urban neighbourhoods where young gangs high on crack cocaine and armed
with M-16s and AK-47s fight to kill.
"The fighting is mostly in the inner cities. These are mostly gang
related fights over drugs and turf," says Karl Angell of the Jamaica
Two years ago, the police launched Operation Kingfish, an elaborate
plan to infiltrate the main gangs and take them out.
Gangs fight with AK-47's and M-16's in inner cities
The feared gang Klansman is now, according to the
police, a "shadow of its old self", with the leader of the group having been killed in a shootout. The other big gang, Joel Andem, was also busted by the
police during the same year and its leader was captured.
The police say there have been crack-downs on cocaine smuggling in
Jamaica, with substantial seizures of the drug being made last year. But it
is hard pressed to explain why murders are shooting up again this year.
Mark Shields denies that this year's upsurge is related to the
forthcoming general elections on the island.
Civil rights groups like Jamaicans For Justice say that the police do
not have a clue about combating gun crime and have killed many people themselves.
The group says that 227 people were killed by the police in Jamaica
last year, up from 202 in 2005, and 168 in 2004.
"The police say these killings happened during shootouts. But
eyewitness reports tell a different story," says Caroline Gomez of the
Analysts say Jamaica's culture of crime is a larger, social problem
and will take more than police action to solve.
"What we have on our hands is a culture of crime and it's going to take
some time to reverse it. Collectively, as a society, we
have sat by and allowed the culture to develop," says Vernon Daley, a
Improving the economy, combating joblessness and cleaning up politics
would be a good first step to rid this sunny island of this fear.