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Jamaica: Special security zones are decreasing murders – but at what cost?

Why We Wrote This

Jamaica's creation of Zones of Special Operations to deal with deadly gang violence has shown results. But there have been accusations of police violence and a clampdown on civil liberties. Is the trade-off worth it?

David McFadden/AP/File
This April 17, 2014, photo, shows the main police station in the central Jamaican city of May Pen.

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Ann Marie Robinson is still nursing an injury from a surprise police visit last fall. The police were looking for her son – she still doesn’t know why – but she blames their aggression on the fact that her neighborhood is part of a government-mandated “special zone,” where civil liberties are repressed in hopes of curtailing high murder rates. In part, the zones are working: Murder rates are down 21 percent across the country since the first zone was implemented last October. But many are questioning whether the approach will have the desired long-term effects if residents are feeling unfairly targeted by the police and arbitrary detentions are targeting mostly young, poor men. “The prime minister is not living up to his ... promise not to violate human rights,” says Horace Levy, from the Peace Management Initiative, an NGO that conducts conflict resolution in troubled communities. As the special zones expand to more neighborhoods in the new year, others say the trade-off of rights for security is worth it: “I completely respect the principles of human rights, but I have to look at ‘have we saved lives?’ ” says Jamaica’s former deputy police commissioner, Mark Shields.

Early on the morning of Sept. 23, police barged into Ann Marie Robinson’s cramped apartment, looking for her son. With their badge numbers covered, they confronted her. When her son entered the room, the situation escalated. 

“They hold me by the neck, push me down on the ground,” Ms. Robinson recalls, one knee still swollen months later. Her son was detained for nearly 24 hours without being given a reason. “I don’t trust the police, I don’t have no confidence in them,” she says.

Robinson lives in one of several communities that the government placed under a state of emergency, following the passage of the country’s Zone of Special Operation (ZOSO) legislation in July 2017. The ZOSO legislation suspends some constitutional rights, like searching a person or home without a warrant and imposing curfews, in certain neighborhoods in order to crack down on violent crime. The ZOSOs are also meant to include increased investment in social programming, like job training.

In some ways, the legislation appears to be working. Jamaica had the highest murder rate in the world in 2009, and by 2017 there were more than 1,600 murders annually. Since the first ZOSO was implemented in Montego Bay in October 2017, the murder rate there plunged by 69 percent. It’s fallen 21 percent nationally over the past year.

But, from widespread crackdowns on human rights, to the perception that the policy is more of a band-aid solution to deep-seated gang activity and violence, there’s a growing chorus of voices questioning the legality and long-term viability of the ZOSO approach.

Now, the issue of clamping down on civil liberties is increasingly top of mind. Prime Minister Andrew Holness announced plans last month to implement 20 more Zones of Special Operation in 2019. NGOs, the business community, and citizens – like Robinson, affected by the policy – are starting to ask whether the cost of the ZOSOs is worth trading off the rights of the very citizens they are meant to protect. A report from the Office of the Public Defender last month cast a spotlight on abuses after it found that more than 10,000 people have been detained in states of emergency and ZOSOs over the past year, with fewer than three percent charged with a crime. It also found that children have been detained in unsanitary conditions, among other concerning details. 

Earlier this month, the ruling Jamaica Labor Party failed to achieve the two-thirds majority vote required to extend the current states of emergency implemented in ZOSOs. Parliament did, however, vote to continue the ZOSOs, including the restrictions on resident movement in two neighborhoods. And Mr. Holness still plans to roll out additional ZOSOs sometime next year, according to his director of communications. The ZOSOs are less restrictive than a standard state of emergency in that soldiers aren’t given the same powers as police officers, and people cannot be subject to mass and indefinite detentions.

Although many praise the elimination of states of emergency in conjunction with the ZOSOs, some say the government is still failing to protect citizen rights in its crackdown on crime. “The prime minister is not living up to his [mandate] and promise not to violate human rights,” says Horace Levy, a retired leader with the Peace Management Initiative, an NGO that conducts conflict resolution in troubled communities. He fears the situation could get worse as public security officials are only further emboldened by the ZOSOs.

‘Have we saved lives?’

Mark Shields, a British police officer who took over as Jamaica’s deputy police commissioner from 2005-08, sees only positive effects in the ZOSO approach. “The impact of two, three, or four hundred less murders per year is absolutely huge in terms of the stress caused to families and the cost to the state, and the additional cost of health care,” he says. Some 320 fewer homicides have occurred in Jamaica over the past year.  “I completely respect the principles of human rights, but I have to look at ‘have we saved lives?’ ” He warns that social interventions must continue, or Jamaica will continue in a cycle of violence.

Take Daquan Powell. He was rounded up with dozens of other young men on Sept. 23 in his neighborhood of Tivoli Gardens, the same neighborhood where Ms. Robinson lives. Mr. Powell says the police beat him and took him to a detention facility, where he was held for 31 days. He was never given a reason for his detention. “I feel upset. The sun affects my eyes now,” says Powell, in his early 20s. They don’t let you out.”  Like Robinson, he says he’s more skeptical of police and the government since the ZOSO began.

“A day incarcerated is like 200 years. To take a citizen who you suspect because they are not rich... [it’s] not working,” says Isat Buchanan, a lawyer who has represented several people detained in ZOSOs. He’s concerned about long-term negative effects, like turning the mostly young, poor men who are arrested against the state.

“You destroy their mental state and give them no way to progress. You are creating more criminals,” Mr. Buchanan says.

The public defender’s report found evidence of poor conditions in detention facilities where ZOSO detainees have been kept, including meals that consist of little more than bread and tea, as well as overcrowded, dirty cells, and widespread outbreaks of gastrointestinal illnesses.

‘Prisoners in their own home’

Most of the communities where the ZOSOs and the states of emergency have been implemented (roughly five over the past year), share traits like infrequent garbage collection and undependable water supplies. The majority of residents live below the poverty line and experience high rates of unemployment.

The ZOSOs are part of a five-pronged government plan to tackle crime. The second step of the plan is to provide social interventions, including registration for birth certificates (required to attend school or receive government services), job training, and parenting classes.

“We are moving in the right direction, but there is a lot to be done to ensure that this is sustainable,” says National Security Minister Horace Chang. “We have strong intervention programs in areas with strong urban decay.” But when it comes to human rights abuses, Mr. Chang says there have been few. “The only complaint we have had of significance is that businesses would like to open a little later,” he says. In ZOSO communities, people are under curfew, requiring them to be off the streets by a certain hour, typically 8:00 p.m. That’s hit small businesses like restaurants and shops hard.

The abuses have been a lot worse than that, says Lloyd D’Aguilar, an activist with Justice Now, an NGO focused on human rights here. As the ZOSOs expand in the new year, it’s critical to ensure “new, violent, unconstitutional methods” aren’t employed. Even with the vote eliminating the use of states of emergency to control crime, state repression is “becoming normalized as a crime-fighting tool,” Mr. D’Aguilar says. 

The human-rights abuse allegations need to be addressed, says Carla Gulotta, an activist who works with incarcerated youth. But there are plenty of citizens living in these neighborhoods who are enjoying the ZOSOs effects, she says.

"People were terrorized to send their children to school; to send them for milk” in many of these troubled neighborhoods, she says. "There were lots of people who felt like they were prisoners in their own home.”

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