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Herbert Gayle | Violence in Montego Bay: lessons from the world

Published:Sunday | October 23, 2016 | 12:00 AM

"Fret about the size of the storm but look carefully at what it will hit." On several occasions after reading about the violence crisis in St James, I would make some phone calls to some of my contacts in the western city to check if the news I hear makes sense. Obviously, a storm came to Montego Bay - and what it found is problematic.

To understand the case of Montego Bay, we may need the assistance of the story of Belize's violence nightmare. At the turn of the millennium, Belize had one of the lowest murder rates in the region (16 per 100,000) - but they had some frightening social problems, especially related to boys being out of school, especially after age 14, because of structural issues. Then two sets of storms hit - forced return of Belize-born gang members from Los Angeles (Crips and Bloods), and later the decision to shift the cocaine trade from the Caribbean Sea to the Central American corridor by the Mexican cartels. This was because of the effective war on drug trafficking by Operation Kingfish and others in the region (see Francis Maerten and Philip de Andres of UNDOC, 2009 article).

Belize had very little chance when these storms hit. Successive governments in Belize have paid very little attention to the youth. Crips and Blood brought money and leadership. The young men desperately needed both. The result is that within a decade, Belize became a top-five murder-hit country in the world. Young men who could not afford to buy food could now buy food and guns to ensure more food from the cocaine trade that streamed through Belize.

In Germany, the leaders recognised the importance of young people having leadership and employment to provide focus and direction. Today, they have one of the world's best apprenticeship systems in which the private-sector partners with the government to shape the next generation. This national programme helps to explain why Germany is non-violent and stable. In Jamaica, the nearest we have had is the National Youth Service, but it does not cover a wide enough base.




The Belizean story is not peculiar. I have tried hard in Jamaica and elsewhere to get persons to understand that violence is a by-product of social ills and poor governance. Making the JCF more efficient is necessary, but will not solve our problems if we have not fixed the root of our violence. There is a reality about storms in tropical countries - you may escape many, but one or two will hit.

For years St James has been listed as one of the poorest parishes. Every market and social study I have done in Montego Bay tells the same story - heavy reliance on tourism, high prostitution, high absence from school among boys, low father presence. In fact, in Montego Bay, it is a way of life for boys to hustle before and after school to go to school. Then the lotto scam storm hit and brought money and organisation. You could not ask for a better storm.

The Caribbean is not peculiar. In fact, I shall take the risk of suggesting that this is universal. My experience in Europe shows that governments there have thrown money and employment opportunities at poor, violent groups of young men who took the money, bought guns and caused mayhem. Then the European governments recognised the errors and began a process of genuine inclusion and sent young men back to school and the violence problem disappeared gradually.

Why do urban young men who are poor and psychologically broken make mayhem when they get money suddenly? First, they do not trust the 'system'. They know nobody cares. They will tell you that it's just "me and me mother".




In two-thirds of cases, there is no father. Had these young men been treated like included social beings by society, they would know what to do with their ill-gotten gains - just like the educated and socially included have done. You may not know, but the other side of the lotto scam crisis is the educated and socially included.

Second, the young men use the tools of violence that they know - guns. Every out-of-school shotta in Montego Bay I have spoken to recently (35) has bought better weapons with lotto scam money. Yet every in-school (tertiary included) scammer (29) that I have spoken to is investing in education and/or business. Since 2004, I have been begging the Government of Jamaica to address the education plight of boys.

Third, lotto is temporary money. It is not a trade or a skill or long-term money or employment - but guns can secure long-term (until death) money for self and family. If young men had something more secure than a gun, they would take it (see 'The Adolescents of Urban St Catherine'). Jamaica needs to give them a better sense of security - education.

- Herbert Gayle is an anthropologist. Email feedback to