Sat | Aug 19, 2017

Editorial | Normalising high-crime Jamaican neighbourhoods

Published:Wednesday | September 21, 2016 | 9:00 AM

Jamaica has never had a coherent strategy for dealing with the underlying causes of crime and violence, which include broken families and social decay; neglected and abused children, with early exposure to violence; bad housing, poor education and limited job opportunities; the erosion of moral authority by entrenched systems of political corruption and patronage, links between politics and organised crime, and the maintenance of gang-dominated garrison communities and informal settlements.

Any one of these would be a difficult problem to solve, but together they form a deep-rooted, tangled web that has confounded every attempt to find a permanent solution. At least a quarter of our population live on captured land, almost one-third of the population steals their electricity, while almost two-thirds of the water supplied by the National Water Commission is lost or stolen, which means that many children are raised in households where theft is normal.

Many members of these communities no longer see non-payment as theft, but as a means to survival or as a form of welfare. The era of political patronage and protection for criminality made these problems much worse, because some politicians sabotaged attempts to restore law and order in their constituencies, and the high rates of crime that ensued now form a very effective deterrent to business development.

 

COURAGE AND COHERENCE

 

None of these interlocking social, economic, political and cultural problems can be solved in isolation. It will require a coherent strategy and the courage to implement it, regardless of short-term political consequences.

However, other countries have had similar problems, and in some cases are now solving them. In Brazil, for example, the homicide rate among young men reached 53.6 per 100,000, which made Brazil one of the most violent countries in the world. Most of this violence was concentrated in the favelas, the gang-dominated informal settlements.

The City of Rio de Janeiro had almost a quarter of its population living in a thousand separate favelas; so nearly 1.5 million residents were living without proper roads or sanitation in gang-dominated areas that only received rough, paramilitary policing.

All of this is now changing. The governor of the State of Rio de Janeiro, Luiz Fernando Pez„o, developed a programme to restore law, order and progress in every favela. First, paramilitary police with army support would go into the chosen favela in overwhelming numbers. They would announce their arrival days in advance, so that gang members had time to flee (this avoided shoot-outs in densely populated areas). The paramilitaries would stay while new police posts were built in the favela, then hand over to the 'Pacifying Police'. Pacifying officers are specially trained in community policing, and they make a commitment to stay in the favela until it is a decent, law-abiding neighbourhood.

After that, the city maintenance crews would go in: fix the roads, give every street a name and every house a number, and put in proper electrical and water supplies. Finally, the State would give tax breaks for every business that set up operations in the favela.

This combination has been remarkably successful. In the first favelas to be normalised, the gangs have gone, the crime rate has fallen dramatically, investment is flowing in, businesses are thriving, incomes and property values are rising, unemployment has fallen, and the people support the police rather than the criminals. The homicide rate in Rio de Janeiro halved between 2005 and 2012, while the homicide rate in the rest of Brazil was rising rapidly.

And the voting pattern changed; the communities no longer voted the way that the gangs told them to.

So there is a good model for Jamaica to follow. All we need is politicians with the courage to implement similar solutions here.