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Jamaica's war on gangs

Jamaica is at the forefront of the Caribbean's fight against gangs, but the country needs to recognise that this is a complex struggle in which strong-arm tactics can be counter-productive, argues Robert Muggah and Glaister Leslie.

Facing some of the highest rates of violent crime in the world, a number of Caribbean societies are beginning to unravel. According to the United Nations, Bahamians, Jamaicans, Haitians, Puerto Ricans and Trinidadians are four times more likely to die of gun violence than a North American. Worryingly, homicidal violence is worsening and spreading to countries previously thought immune.

The region’s political leaders are anxiously casting gangs as the new villains. Although young men have long been recruited into gangs with support from local politicians, they are now being singled out as murderers, drug traffickers and, increasingly, terrorists. Fearful that local gangs are “going global” – the Caribbean is now at the epicenter of an international battle against organized crime.

Jamaica is a microcosm of the wider global war on gangs. In May 2010, the government’s efforts to capture one of the world’s most notorious gang leaders, Christopher “Dudus” Coke”, led to the killing of more than 75 people and the shutdown of the nation’s capital for almost a week. Behind the spectacular scenes of violence were long-standing allegations of state complicity in supporting gangs and systematic neglect of poorer communities.

Jamaica’s government claims that the country’s gangs pose a clear and present danger to national security and its tourist-reliant economy. They have reported a five-fold increase in gang prevalence and a near doubling of murders over the past decade. Public officials are using this evidence to justify aggressive pacification of the gang menace. Historically, however, such tactics have seldom yielded the desired effect, instead making things worse.

Academics such as Anthony Harriott at the University of the West Indies argue the sheer diversity of Jamaican gangs warrants a more sophisticated approach.

At one end of the gang spectrum are small, poor, and loosely organized groups of adolescent boys who believe they are defending their communities. They are seldom motivated by profit or power. Local social workers in Kingston have pointed out how amenable they are to social welfare interventions. Muscular crack-downs may in fact be driving some of them into the hands of the dons, or drug barons.

At the other end are the larger, more organized gangs that are involved in more organized black market activities. These gangs feature long-established ties with the country’s politicians. They also have the resources to bribe – or directly challenge – Jamaica’s police and armed forces. Many also supply the very pistols and assault rifles that smaller gangs use to such devastating effect.

Much like its Caribbean neighbours, Jamaica’s present crime reduction strategy advocates heavy penalties, long incarceration periods and suppression. In July, Jamaica’s parliament enacted legislation – described by one legislator as ‘draconian, but necessary’ – allowing persons charged with serious gun and drug-related offences to be held without trial for up to 60 days. A close inspection of these actions reveals that while they may successfully fill prisons with young men, they do little to deter criminal violence.

The militarized response of the Jamaican government to gangs reflects to some extent the fear and frustration of the country’s middle and upper classes. For the country’s political elite, it is easier to support punitive measures to control deviants than challenge the deep-seated political corruption and neglect that facilitated the emergence of gangs to begin with. As the Jamaican saying goes – “Duppy know who fi frighten or ghosts know who to frighten.

For a brief moment it seemed that Jamaica might adopt a different approach to containing the gang threat. Over the past twelve months civil society groups have been urging greater accountability in the distribution of state contracts – many of which were awarded to gang leaders like Coke – and transparency in campaign financing of political parties – much of which is believed to come from criminals. But these calls started dying out a few months ago. Notwithstanding courageous scrutiny of the government’s repressive tactics, most citizens are weary and focused on the daily tasks of survival.

Though widely recognized as a scourge across the Caribbean, there is no clear strategy for dismantling the region’s gang ecosystem. The Caribbean Community (CARICOM) is mandated to implement a regional crime and security agenda, but a plan has yet to emerge. The slow pace of progress reflects to some extent wider challenges of regional cooperation between Caribbean states. To wit, the annual CARICOM meeting of heads of government in July ended with few concrete plans for collectively addressing the pernicious linkages between drugs, corruption and gangs.

The Caribbean community has also looked to the U.S. for support. A five-year USD100 million Caribbean Basin Security Initiative was recently launched amidst great fanfare. The current effort is based on the ongoing USD464 million Mérida initiative underway in Central America and Mexico. In the Caribbean, the focus is on 15 targeted states believed to be succumbing to fragility, if not outright failure. Described by the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as “a response to increasing rates of crime and violence in the region” [10], the effort is clearly motivated by the region’s function as a global trans-shipment hub for narcotics, 

The outcome of Jamaica’s latest recent round of anti-gang efforts will be something of a canary in the mine for the rest of Caribbean. With Jamaica’s Prime Minister assuming the chairmanship of CARICOM, efforts at home will be seen as a showcase for other countries in the region. Moreover, the US will be monitoring the situation closely to be sure its dollars are saving lives at home, and perhaps also in the Caribbean. Since the pacification of Kingston’s Tivoli Gardens, there is quiet hope that the future may be different.

Jamaicans are right to demand meaningful change, accountability and a change of strategy in the country’s struggle with gang violence. If they are to be successful, they will need to focus their attention on the larger and more sophisticated gangs. If they want to make durable improvements, Jamaican authorities would do well to introduce more transparent oversight over the issuing of service contracts, promote tangible opportunities for marginalized youth and encourage energetic civic action to keep national authorities accountable to their citizens.

About the authors

Robert Muggah is the research director of the Brazil-based Igarapé Institute in Rio de Janeiro, and oversees research at the SecDev Foundation in Canada. He is a contributor to the Global Commission on Drug Policy.

Glaister Leslie is a consultant researcher for the Small Arms Survey