Sat | Dec 16, 2017

Editorial | Now that Mr Holness has rolled the dice

Published:Sunday | September 3, 2017 | 12:00 AM

Having, unwittingly, we believe, staked a fair bit of his premiership on its outcome, Andrew Holness has finally cast the dice on his zones of special operations project to tame Jamaica's crisis of crime.

Last Friday, Mr Holness, in his role as chairman of the National Security Council, and at the formal request of the heads of the security forces, declared the first of these zones - Mount Salem, St James. The idea is that police and soldiers will flush out the criminals and hold the area while the Government proceeds to rebuild the community with a raft of social interventions.

We hope the strategy works. But as the prime minister understands, there are many potential pitfalls, including dissonance and discord, including what will define success, a matter which this newspaper believes has not been discussed with sufficient depth - either in parliamentary debate or in the lead-up to the first designation.

Insofar as the prime minister has been specific, in his public statements, about his expectations, there should be no murders in the intervened communities during the period of operations - which will last two months in the first instance, with an option for extensions - as the security forces break the backs of gangs.

More broadly, it is hoped that this will translate to an overall reduction in homicides, which, on current trends, could rise this year by around a quarter, or close to 1,500, with a murder rate of around 54 per 100,000.

Against that backdrop, Mount Salem and St James are as good places as any for the prime minister to launch his initiative. St James, whose capital Montego Bay is an important tourism centre and economic hub, has in recent years become Jamaica's most murderous parish. Last year, more than 260 murders, or 22 per cent of the national homicides, were recorded there. Its homicide rate was 140/100,000. Up to a week ago, the parish had recorded 191 murders this year, an increase on the corresponding period in 2016, and 19 per cent of the murders for 2017, up to that time.

 

MOUNT SALEM POPULATION

 

In 2016, with killings in the community having jumped 85 per cent in three years, Mount Salem and its environs accounted for approximately a third of homicides in St Jamaica. The numbers have fallen this year, but the police say that at least 12 gangs operate in the community. Its law-abiding residents live in fear.

Yet, Mount Salem is no sprawling metropolis. Although the data are some years out of date, the Government's Social Development Commission (SDC) estimates its population at more than 4,830, with 1,627 households, of which 53 per cent are headed by males, which is better than the national average.

But then there are the factors that are replicated in many communities across Jamaica that will make the pacification and social rebuilding of Mount Salem and other intervened areas that more difficult. The SDC found that 62 per cent of the heads of households in Mount Salem were without any academic qualifications - and likely without skills training - and 39 per cent were jobless. In other words, the community fits the profile of those where social dysfunction tends to be rife and crime rates high.

Two potential issues of concern are, therefore, immediately apparent in the Mount Salem project. One is the ballooning effect. Fleeing gang members may replicate their violence and social maladaptation elsewhere. So, having sold ZOSOs as its big anti-crime initiative, there is the danger of it falling below the public's expectations.

Our suggestion is that Mr Holness recast its narrative so that it doesn't diminish the effort of ZOSOs, but encapsulates the strategies and tactics outlined by social anthropologist, Herbert Gayle, in a series of articles in this newspaper earlier this year. As Dr Gayle pointed out, fixing crime in Jamaica is not a short-term matter, and the solution will include addressing the marginalisation and ill-treatment of boys.