Jamaica politics -- and gunrunners

The eastern end of the runway at Sangster International Airport here was dark -- clouds blocking out the bright moonglow that bathed the western end of the runway and the terminal building.

Soon after 11 p.m., a twin-engine Cessna on a flight from Opa Locka, Fla., landed along the darkened portion of the runway, hesitated as a cache of arms and ammunition in metal containers was dropped off, and then taxied normally to the airport terminal.

Another shipment of arms to this troubled island had arrived. And all would have gone well for the gunrunners if a Trans-Jamaica aircraft on a delayed flight from Kingston, the capital, had not landed almost immediately afterward. The pilot of the commercial craft spotted the containers at the far end of the runway and notified the control power.

That brought immigration, customs, and police official scurrying to the darkened end of the runway where they found the containers and their small arsenal: 10 automatic rifles, 10 silencers with their serial numbers erased, 12, 000 rounds of 5.56 cartridges in 12 boxes, and 17 magazines for the rifles. Soon a full investigation was under way. Senior police officials were summoned.

The two pilots of the Cessna were quickly picked up and the plane, of Jamaican registry, was impounded. For the police, the discovery was one of the first in which so much weaponry was located at one time.

The incident took place Oct. 27 -- less than 60 hours before Jamaicans were to go to the polls Oct. 30 in a critical parliamentary election.

Although seizure of the weapons got plenty of publicity, it is unlikely that the police will come up with any findings in time to have any impact on the vote. The incident, nevertheless, focuses attention on the mounting violence that has become such a part of Jamaican life in recent years. Close to 600 persons have died since Jan. 1 in the current election-year escalation of the trouble.

Guns are commonplace. It was not always so. In simpler, earlier times, they were seldom a part of a household. But a police spokesman in Kingston this week said, "Now they are almost as common in the home as a bed."

That may overstretch the point for most parts of this lovely Caribbean island. But the police official was speaking specifically of the ghetto area of West Kinston, where much of this weaponry eventually ends up -- and where most of the killing and violence take place.

Another source estimates there are 25,000 illegal guns on the island -- rifles, pistols, and even submachine guns. He says there are ammunition caches all around the island that police have not discovered.

This violence has come up as a major issue of the current political campaign -- with Prime Minister Michael Manley and his opponent Edward Seaga trading verbal blows and blaming each other's political parties.

Both admit, however, that the bully boys of Mr. Manley's People's National Party (PNP) and Mr. Seaga's Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), are not above reproach. There are parts of Kingston that are labled PNP or JLP territory, and supporters of the other party enter at their own risk. Barricades set up by advocates of one party or the other block off whole streets. Gunshots can be heard, especially at night, and the morning newspapers are full of reports of killing and related incidents of the day before.

Mr. Manley and his PNP blame the JLP for much of the killing. Some PNP activists suggest it was the JLP that began the round of violence a decade ago when it began illegally importing weapons for use by its bully boys. The JLP predictably counters that all the blame should be placed in the lap of the PNP.

Mr. Seaga suggests that much of the weaponry in the hands of the PNP comes from Cuba, with which Prime Minister Manley has had increasingly friendly relations over the past five years. Mr Manley, on ther hand, charges the JLP has support from the US CIA and from the US government in general -- implying that the JLP gets weapons from this source.

The impounding of the weapons at the airport might suggest a shipment for the JLP, if one were to believe the PNP, since the weapons came apparently from the US. But things are not that simple.

Over the years, PNP activists have been caught by police with weapons bearing US markings, and JLP activists have been found to have weapons with Czech markings, presumably coming from Cuba.

A more logical explanation seems to be that the weapons arrive from many sources and are then sold to the highest bidder in a clandestine market about which the police have only limited knowledge.

"We simply do not know where the weapons come from and how they get here, and how they are then sold or distributed across the island," said a police spokesmen. "That is why the Montego Bay incident is so intriguing. We many be able to find out who the traffickers are."

For most Jamaicans, there seems to be a growing hope that somehow the violence spawned by all the tremendous firepower on the island will decline in the days ahead. A JLP candidate in Mandeville said this week, "It does not matter who started the violence and who is now responsible, for what most Jamaicans want is an end to it all so that we can go on and live decently."

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