Sat | Jan 25, 2020

Editorial | Are they still the gangs of Gordon House?

Published:Sunday | January 12, 2020 | 12:57 AM

It’s nearly a quarter-century since the 1997 Kerr Report on political tribalism urged representatives of Jamaica’s political oligopoly to go into parliamentary constituencies and “publicly declare their disassociation with all or any person involved or reputed to be involved in violence or drug trafficking”.

The late Justice Kerr, and the other members of the committee who looked into the nexus between politics and crime in the island, obviously intended these declarations to be sincere, and that the two big contenders for political power in Jamaica – the People’s National Party (PNP) and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) – would work to ensure that the undertaking was sustained.

Yet, a full generation later, the PNP and the JLP, having failed to fully embrace, or implement, the Kerr proposal, are, again, being pressed to follow through on their promise. What, though, is particularly significant about this occasion is their apparent recognition, as recently as two months ago, that there is a problem still to be resolved.

Jamaica, with more than 1,300 murders in 2019, has one of the world’s highest homicide rates, at more than 47 per 100,000. But it has increasingly become conventional wisdom that this violence is largely perpetrated by criminal gangs that, unlike the past, when they acted as enforcers in so-called garrison communities, have grown independent of their initial political sponsors.

That may, indeed, be the case. However, the country’s leading private bodies suggest that the link between politics, gangs and crime, or at least the perception of it, hasn’t been cleanly severed. They are, therefore, insisting on more robust assertion by the parties of their repudiations of gangs and criminality, in keeping with a promise made last October, at a summit of political leaders and civil society organisations, to discuss anti-crime strategies.

In a hitherto little noticed, or commented on, joint New Year statement, the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica, the Jamaica Manufacturers and Exporters’ Association and the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce lamented last year’s increase in homicides – by around four per cent – and told the island’s political leaders that the protection of citizens’ right to safety and life was “non-negotiable”.

“In this regard, we must also place on record our disappointment that the commitment made by both parties, in October, to publicly repudiate any connection between their respective parties and criminal gangs has not been done,” the organisations said.

NOT TOO ENTHUSIASTIC

This undertaking wasn’t previously disclosed. That the PNP and JLP did so was an implicit acceptance that whatever may have happened in the near 23 years since the Kerr Report, the parties have not been able – on the assumption that was their intention so to do – to extricate themselves from the political culture of garrisons and the behaviours associated therewith.

Any disentanglement, insofar as it has happened, has been organic: the result of the growing independence of community power brokers and gang leaders, coupled with the diminished resources directly available to politicians.

While politicians are not totally without resources to perpetuate a system of patronage, the changing dynamic has placed the community don and power broker, with their own assets, with which to be beneficent and to purchase loyalty, increasingly in the ascendancy. They, at the same time, benefit from the relationship, especially the protective cover provided by politics. For the homogeneity of the garrison arrangement is its own security, or, as the nomenclature implies, a fortified haven against intruders.

Indeed, it is the same process, even without the obvious display of muscle of old, that corrals votes for the parties, and explains why they are not overly enthusiastic about dismantling the system.

In the absence of a full-throated effort to break these arrangements, Jamaicans can be forced to conclude that the PNP and the JLP remain what they were once perceived to be – the gangs of Gordon House.