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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 May 2007, 10:44 GMT 11:44 UK
Jamaica struggles to fight crime
By Soutik Biswas
BBC News, Jamaica

Gang graffiti in Trench Town
There has been a spike in murders this year
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.

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.

Crime poster
Gangs fight over turf and drug money
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.

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 of violence.

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 laundering."

"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.

'Undermining growth'

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.

A Trench Town street
Crime is impeding social development in Jamaica
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.

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 corruption.

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 police.

A bullet pocked house in Trench Town
Gangs fight with AK-47's and M-16's in inner cities
Two years ago, the police launched Operation Kingfish, an elaborate plan to infiltrate the main gangs and take them out.

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 rights group.

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 local journalist.

Improving the economy, combating joblessness and cleaning up politics would be a good first step to rid this sunny island of this fear.

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