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EDITIONS
Saturday, 10 August, 2002, 10:24 GMT 11:24 UK
Jamaica: The new Wild West
Street in Kingston, Jamaica
There are more than 200 outlaws at large in Jamaica

"So, you're planning a trip to Jamaica," my relative fixes me with pity in her eyes. "No man, don't go to Jamaica," she warns, "you'll return in a wooden box."

I have made the pilgrimage to my parents' birthplace several times in the last two decades, each time the health warnings are issued. Lately though, the Cassandras have become more strident.

Pouring over the papers on my first morning in the capital, Kingston, is an unsettling introduction to violence - Jamaican style.

The headline from The Star screams: "Cop Executed! - Gangsters have killed an off-duty policeman, ambushed in his patrol car on his way home".

Policemen killed

Two mornings later - the same headline - different policeman - having a drink in his regular bar when gunmen burst in. Sprayed the bar with bullets, killing the officer and relieving him of his gun.

On the fourth day yet another policeman dead and people now are beginning to ask: are the police being targeted?

The local TV crew is quickly on the scene. At the corner of the screen you can just make out the body of the dead policeman slumped over the steering wheel. The camera cuts to the disbelieving wife, trying to push her way through the police cordon.


Perversely, killing a policeman commands respect - a kind of kudos in certain aspects of gangster life

She emits a piercing pitiful scream: "Why?" Again and again. I want to turn away from the television. What is being served up seems prurient and strangely cinematic, like some 1930s Hollywood gangster movie.

Suddenly the government minister arrives and what he says astonishes me. He advises that police officers should no longer travel alone and that they should get down to the firing ranges to sharpen up their shooting skills. There is a word to describe what is going on: hysteria.

If they can kill the police at will then they can kill anyone.

There are more than 200 outlaws at large in Jamaica. They, the gangsters, are well known, but many people turn a blind eye, either out of fear or because in some small way, they stand to gain, if only in the short term, from the underground economy fuelled by these gangs.

Cocaine is again flooding the capital, and with it come gangs and gunmen who have no fear of the law. Perversely, killing a policeman commands respect - a kind of kudos in certain aspects of gangster life.

But if the gangsters are local celebrities then so too are the policemen - with nicknames like "Cowboy" and "Fast draw". In such a climate it is unsurprising that there have been numerous accusations of unlawful killings by police officers. Kingston is the Wild West.

'Fighting fire with fire'

A strange sight greets the traveller on the road out of town - a billboard poster repeated every few miles of an extremely handsome man. But he is neither model nor film star. He is Senior Superintendent Adams, policeman of the year. Adams has a reputation for fighting fire with fire.

Killing the bad guys. And in this kill-for-kill spate that has gripped the country, the gangsters vowed they would take their revenge on Adams.


My cousin reaches into the bottom drawer of his desk and pulls out his nine millimetre pistol. Checks it for bullets and snaps it onto his belt. "You cool with this?", he says

He went on national television and announced when he would be leaving work, what time he was expected home and if they, the gunmen, cared to meet him, he would be happy to oblige. But High Noon was postponed. The gunmen haven't shown - for now.

I decide to head out of Kingston for the north coast to meet a cousin I have never met who's returned from Los Angeles to Jamaica after 30 years to run a big clothes store.

He has sad, soft eyes that have seen most things. One eye though is permanently glued to the monitor of the surveillance camera.

Tight security

"You know almost every store in Falmouth has been robbed", he says, "but not this one. Want to see why?" He cracks open the door, "Spirit, come meet me cousin nah."

Spirit is an off-duty policeman, moonlighting as a security guard, given the name, "Spirit" because of the way he manages to creep and catch the crooks by surprise.

How he does this is a mystery because "Spirit" is enormous, almost as wide as he is tall. And when I doubt whether he really is a policeman, he lifts his shirt and pushes back the layer of overhanging flesh to reveal the "piece" on his trouser-belt.

Just before we leave the store, my cousin reaches into the bottom drawer of his desk and pulls out his nine millimetre pistol. Checks it for bullets and snaps it onto his belt. "You cool with this?" he says.

Gun culture

I am not cool but nod my head. I note maybe two things. One, that the bullets appear golden and two, that the gun does not have a safety catch.
Policemen showing captured firearms
The gangsters have no fear of the law

At his palatial but highly secure pad just outside of the popular holiday resort of Montego Bay, it is agreed we'll take a siesta and hit the town later in the evening.

I wake up at the appointed hour. Nine o'clock, no sign of him. Ten still no sign. And then suddenly there is a power cut. If it was dark before it is doubly so now.

And a dark thought steadily drips into my head: what if he wakes from his sleep, forgets I am here, hears me, the intruder, stumbling around downstairs and reaches for his gun.

And now I can't rid myself of the enveloping thought that it is so dark in here, so very dark. Like the inside of a wooden box.

See also:

02 Aug 02 | Breakfast
05 Jul 02 | England
09 Jun 02 | Americas
01 Jan 02 | Americas
30 Jul 02 | Country profiles
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