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Crime and crisis in Jamaica

Don Robotham

Jamaica hit the international news in late May of this year. Gunmen from the Tivoli Gardens section of the capital, Kingston, launched attacks on police stations as part of an attempt to resist the capture of a drug fugitive, Christopher “Dudus” Coke. When the dust had settled, 73 people lay dead.

The United States had sought to extradite Coke but this was resisted by the Government of Jamaica for seven months. The reason: Coke was the “Don” of Tivoli, the command and control centre of the governing Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) —a constituency represented in parliament by none other than the prime minister himself, Bruce Golding.

This close relationship between criminal gangs and politics is by no means confined to one side. The opposition —the People’s National Party (PNP)— arguably has even more gunmen at its disposal. When Jamaica gained political independence in 1962, the murder rate was 3.9 per 100,000  inhabitants —among the lowest in the world. In the last 10 years, homicide rates averaged 55 per 100,000 inhabitants, soaring to 62 in 2009, or the astonishing figure of 1,680 murders in a population of just under 2.7 million. In comparison, in 2009 drug violent Mexico had a homicide rate of 14 per 100,000 inhabitants while Brazil had one of 25 and South Africa of 37; Canada, for its part, had a rate of 1.8.

Economic stagnation

The root cause of violence in Jamaica has been the stagnation of the Jamaican economy over the last three decades and the resulting decline in living standards. Figures from 2009 led the World Bank to classify Jamaica as an “upper middle income” country with a per capita GDP of US$4,800 where only a fifth of the population lives below the poverty line and literacy rate is high. But these data conceal more than they reveal. Wealth distribution is extremely unequal and the quarter of the population that is in the 15-29 age group faces high unemployment rates of roughly 20 per cent. Of all unemployed youth, 74 per cent have no educational certification of any kind, which makes it more difficult for them to find jobs. To illustrate the seriousness of the skill gap, between 2005 and 2007, when Jamaica received over US$5 billion in tourism investment, construction workers had to be recruited from the Dominican Republic: an economic decline of 1.7 per cent followed the significant investment. 

This youth crisis is inextricably linked to the crime crisis in Jamaica. Approximately 85 per cent of all homicides are committed by young men from the 15-29 age group. Likewise, an overwhelming number of victims are in this age group.

Political stagnation

This crisis in the economy has produced a dangerous political crisis. Since 1938 Jamaican political life has been dominated by two political parties which arose out of the social protests sparked by the Great Depression. The left-of-centre PNP dominated the urban areas up until 1964 when what is universally agreed in Jamaica to be the “mother of all garrisons” —Coke’s redoubt of Tivoli Gardens— was built by former Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) prime minister Edward Seaga. A “garrison” in Jamaican political parlance is a political constituency ruled by a strong core of gunmen and dominated by a single political party. These garrisons have seen not only rigged elections where the dominating party secures a unanimous vote but also ones where the number of ballots cast is higher than the number of eligible voters. The gunmen are also strategically deployed at election time to intimidate opponents in other constituencies. There are roughly 20 such garrisons in Jamaica: 11 for the opposition PNP and nine for the governing JLP.

When the economy was relatively buoyant, politicians controlled the gunmen by providing them with contracts from the public purse. But as the budget racked up deficits, contracts dried up. The gunmen increasingly turned to the export of marijuana and crack cocaine to New York, London and Toronto to maintain their wealth. They became the masters of the politicians to whom they had been formally subordinate and in the process they corrupted significant sections of the Jamaican elite. Hence Prime Minister Golding’s seven-month resistance to the U.S. extradition request, which finally culminated in the attack on the army and police in May when, under intense U.S. pressure, Golding finally succumbed and ordered the army and police into Tivoli.

Where to go from here

There have been sharp reductions in the homicide rate since the police onslaught on Tivoli Gardens, the accompanying state of emergency, and the capture and extradition of Coke. In June, murders declined by roughly 49 per cent, and this dip continued through July and August. However, huge problems remain. The gunmen are in retreat but have hardly been defeated. The link between gunmen and politicians remains strong. Above all, the basic long-term socio-economic problems remain unaddressed, even though tourism has been doing phenomenally well. Gloom grips the normally rambunctious Jamaican spirit and the island nation has lost confidence in a political leadership viewed as profoundly compromised. A poll published in July showed that 48 per cent feel alienated from the governing JLP and 50 per cent feel alienated from the opposition PNP. It is hard to see the current gains against crime being sustained unless ways are found to address the deeper long-term problems facing society. 

But all is far from lost. The youth crisis, which lies at the root of the crime crisis, can be addressed. The economy can be put on a sounder footing. New leadership can emerge. The country has an extremely vibrant set of civil society organizations, including a vigorous and effective free press. With the help of long-standing external partners such as Canada, economic and political solutions can and must be found. blue square

Don Robotham is Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

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