Young & dangerous - Teenage gangsters driving up the crime rate
A 14-year-old boy was among 58 teenagers arrested and charged with murder last year as juveniles figured prominently across Jamaica as either the perpetrators or victims of crime.
Four 15-year-old boys, three 16-year-olds, and 14 who were only 17 years old were also arrested in the year when 81 teenagers were killed in what has been described by Assistant Commissioner of Police Elan Powell as a worrying trend.
"Those are the people who the gangs find attractive because they are young and very impressionable. They want to get a 'stripe', and they try as hard as they can to get status within gangs," said Powell.
According to data compiled by the Jamaica Constabulary Force Statistics and Information Management Unit, 78 teenagers were arrested for shooting, 148 were arrested for illegal possession of firearm, and 63 for robbery with aggravation last year.
Nine girls, including a 14-year-old and two 15-year-olds, were arrested after they were allegedly found with illegal firearms, while a 15-year-old boy was arrested for allegedly raping a woman at gunpoint.
For Powell, Jamaica's teenagers are in need of special attention as they are being attracted to a life of crime.
"We look at them as victims because they are victims as much as they are perpetrators. It is a problem of that cohort being under the gun. That cohort needs special attention," said Powell.
He argues that the gang lure is fuelled by a lack of education, employment, and sometimes, an unwillingness to work.
"Because of how vulnerable they become, because of the crime, a lot of them don't live to see 25," said Powell.
He was supported by executive director of the Peace Management Initiative Damion Hutchinson who said that the group has been seeing more and more of these young gangsters in the communities in which it operates.
"The situation on the ground is very frightening. We have way too many youngsters not finishing secondary school and being lured into gangs," said Hutchinson.
"What is happening is that we have 11- and 12-year-olds leaving primary school not functionally literate. They go into the secondary schools and become detached because they cannot manage the classes, so they get suspended, they get expelled, or they drop out and join the gangs," added Hutchinson.
According to Hutchinson, once these teenagers are out of school, they become fodder for the gangs, which are now much more violent and less organised.
"Since 2010, the established gang leaders have been captured or killed, and what has happened is that smaller gangs have been formed with less guidance for the young gangsters, looser rules of engagement, and more dangerous.
"These gangs are being formed across political lines, with the gangsters evolving into monsters with more criminal intent," said Hutchinson.
He argues that to address the danger of these cruel young gangsters, the supply lines to the gangs have to be cut by targeting the children in primary school before they join the hardened criminals.
That is a view shared by head of the police Community and Safety Branch Acting Assistant Commissioner of Police Steve McGregor, who noted that teenagers who become involved in criminality are harder to track, and so measures must be employed to keep them in line.
"Government needs to make legislation so that we can find some way to get these youngsters into some semi-military training before they go into the workforce so we can install some discipline in them and so we can have some data on them from an early age," said McGregor.
"Back in my schooldays at KC, the gangsters did not allow the youngsters to come around them even if they were smoking. Now, they are recruiting the youngsters - it doesn't matter how young they are - to carry the guns. They give them the guns to go rob, and so on.
"There is not much value on life. The gangsters are using the youngsters, and the youngsters are much more eager to prove that they are like them," added McGregor.