Jamaica moves to stop the killings

With one of the world's highest murder rates the island nation is importing help to fight crime.

On Monday last week, a thief stabbed and killed 15-year-old Jordano Flemmings as he walked home from a church social.

On Tuesday, Durraine Giddeon, a 28-year-old building inspector was shot dead by a gunman on his way to work. On Wednesday, 16-year-old Romane Brisset got into a scuffle with a passerby over a baseball cap and was knifed to death. On Thursday, 62-year-old Vilma Mais was killed as she walked into church.

And on Friday, local papers celebrated the least violent February in three years: "Only" 99 murders, compared to 129 last year, "only" 177 robberies, down from 178, and "only" 53 reported rapes, as opposed to 85.

In a society eager for any positive news on crime statistics, even such small drops are cause for relief.

With its staggering rate of violence fueled by political rivalries, the drug trade, unemployment, a breakdown of the family, and a weak police force, Jamaica, says Dan Erikson, a Caribbean expert at the InterAmerican Dialogue in Washington D.C., "is in crisis."

New crime-fighting initiatives, including importing detectives from Britain's famed Scotland Yard - along with more holistic, community-based approaches - have recently been rolled out to halt the downward spiral before the Caribbean island nation becomes better known for its high murder rate than its turquoise waters and glitzy mega resorts.

Scope of the problem

In 2005, there were 1,669 recorded homicides in this country of 2.7 million, meaning Jamaica now competes only with South Africa and Colombia for the dubious distinction of having the highest per capita muder rate in the world.

'Nuff respec,' a typical greeting in Jamaican Creole, or patois, is also something to live - and die - by in some areas here.

"You never know how it starts," says Joanna Brissett, a real estate student who lives in the Fletchers Land community, one of the more violent neighborhoods in downtown Kingston. "You could be on the bus and someone steps on your toe. A fight starts. It's about honor. And someone gets killed. Just like that."

There are gunshots nightly in Fletchers Land, says Ms. Brissett. House break-ins are a common occurrence, and, while everyone knows who the guilty are, no one dares "squeal" to the police. Brissett's cousin was killed for using a curse word, then her father was threatened for "dissing" the killer. Her aunt fled the neighborhood for fear, but never put in a report.

According to a poll published Monday in the Jamaica Gleaner, 72 percent of Jamaicans say violence is the country's worst woe today. The wave of violent crime is often traced back to the 1970s when political leaders turned to neighborhood gang leaders, or dons, to rustle up votes. Since then, the resurgence of the cocaine trade through Jamaica has changed the dynamic, with drug lords replacing the politicians as patrons, and turf wars and extortion rings replacing politics.

But, says Brisset, it almost does not matter what is being fought about. "Jamaicans are like that. We will always find a reason," she says.

"There is definitely a certain proportion of this population for whom the only way to deal with humiliation - the only way to regain respect - is through violence," says Mark Shields, a Scotland Yard detective with 30 years experience who has been hired as Jamaica's deputy commissioner of police. "This is a place where many people don't look for ways to resolve a dispute. They take all matters to the very bitter end."

Roots of the violence

To help understand why Jamaica is more violent than similar societies with equal or worse poverty rates, suggests Brian Meeks, a professor of social and political change at The University of the West Indies, Mona, one needs to understand the particularly brutal history of slavery on the island.

Jamaica, relative to most other Caribbean islands, is large, and in the days of slavery, there was always the possibility of an escape to a different life in the hinterlands, he explains. Slave rebellions, as a consequence, were more numerous here than in the US or elsewhere in the British West Indies. "The slave owners had to make an extreme example of those who tried to flee or rise up and this made slavery more repressive," says Meeks. "Violence then bred violence."

In more recent times, says Delroy Chuck, a lawyer and opposition member of Parliament, the downhill trend in the economy has played a part in feeding that violent proclivity.

"Virtually every factory has shut down in the last 15 years," says Mr. Chuck. "We used to make toothpaste here, soap, paper.... Now we import everything. We even ship in fruits and vegetables that are grown here."

"Social and political disorder is resulting in criminal behavior," Chuck says.

The high level of unemployment among young males in particular, says Meeks, along with the relatively strong position of women in the Jamaican workforce, has, over time, led to terrible frustrations and restlessness.

"Jamaica is a macho society without the material foundation of machismo," Meeks says. "There is no substance to back up the attitude, which leads to frustration and then violence, both domestic and in the community in general."

Also, the flow over the last decade of hundreds of criminal deportees from the US and Britain, who return to Jamaica, with few opportunities and, frequently, a background of gang involvement, has also added to the violence, say police. The ability to get heavy weapons from nearby Miami, or, more recently, Haiti - often in exchange for drugs - only expands the problem.

What's being done?

Recognizing the roots and the scope of problem, however, is easy compared to doing something about it, especially with weak police and justice systems.

It is rare, for example, for enough witnesses to be found to prosecute a case, in part because of the fear the dons instill in the neighborhoods, but also because of lack of faith in the system.

"Respect for the police has been lost," admits Archibald McIntyre, an officer who recently retired from the force after 37 years. "And for good reason - because the police are involved in crime themselves. They are not disciplined enough to live within their means. It starts with corruption, and ends with worse." Amnesty International regularly decries what it calls "an overwhelming lack of accountability" among Jamaican police.

The courts, meanwhile, sit for a mere 20 hours a week, and their conviction rate, even for murder cases, is under 25 percent. "The delivery of justice remains inefficient, ineffective and a source of frustration for everyone," says Chuck.

Hopeful signs?

Nonetheless, for those looking, it is possible to find hope. The February crime rates, for example, says Shields, are the "beginning of a trend, not a fluke."

The Jamaican Constabulary Force (JCF), with help from Shields and other US and British law enforcement agents, initiated a murder reduction action plan in January and committed themselves to reducing crime by 5 percent over the year. The plan involves improving intelligence work, changing policing style, adding 2,000 police, and working to stem corruption in the force. It's a program building upon the relatively successful "Operation Kingfish," an intelligence-driven anti-crime task force set up in October 2004 to dismantle transnational networks of drug kingpins and dons.

"I am more optimistic than most we can achieve change," says Shields. "True. I have not been here to see 30 years of deterioration - but I know there are proven police mechanisms, and that when put in place, things will get better."

Those police efforts are being complemented by several new community programs, says Noel Watson at the United National Development Program (UNDP). One large new national initiative - the Civic Dialogue for Democratic Governance Project, which is sponsored by UNDP - tries to encourage grass-roots groups to take responsibility for what is going on in their neighborhoods.

While there have been similar programs in the past, none have been as daring or broad when it comes to pushing locals to take responsibility for what is going on around them.

"We can go in there and build community centers - but no one will go to them, because they will be afraid of getting shot crossing the street to get there," says Watson. "We need to empower the residents themselves to start cleaning up." The police, he says, need to enforce the law - but it's the people who have to fight back every day and orchestrate real change.

"We need encouragement to stand up," admits Dunston Whittingham, a trade union leader who now leads the Central Kingston task force, working to mediate disputes between dons. "We used to aspire just to move out of the neighborhood. But, increasingly, we see you can't run away from this. We have to be strong and fight back."

Ms. Harman is Latin America correspondent for the Monitor and USA Today.

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