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No JDF retreat - Army denies cutting troops in St James by half

Published:Saturday | March 16, 2019 | 12:17 AMChristopher Serju/Gleaner Writer

The Jamaica Defence Force (JDF) has denied claims by the Opposition People’s National Party that the army has almost halved the number of troops in the parish of St James just over a month after a state of public emergency expired.

The security clampdown was implemented in January 2018 to rein in a runaway murder rate in the northwestern parish, which tallied a record 335 homicides in the previous year. It yielded a 70 per cent decline in murders in St James.

There is no drawdown in the deployment of soldiers to St James, said chief of staff of the JDF, Lieutenant General Rocky Meade, adding that that assertion was counterintuitive to the army’s plan to expand its footprint in the parish, and the western region in general, with a permanent base

“We have not redeployed any troops from the west because it is my intention to permanently have troops in the west, because my plan is that western Jamaica is the home of the Second Battalion, the Jamaica Regiment. They are not going anywhere,” he said during a Gleaner Editors’ Forum at the newspaper’s central Kingston offices.

“They are going to be in the west, whether there is a problem or not … . I have given no instructions for anybody to be pulled back from western Jamaica.”

Prior to the declaration of the state of emergency by the governor general last year, the JDF had about 100 part-timers in St James. But the JDF later sent a battalion of troops to St James to bolster police personnel on the ground, said the lieutenant general. A battalion ranges from 600-1,000 soldiers.

The army has, at present, about 6,000 soldiers in its regular force.

Opposition Spokesperson on Justice Fitz Jackson yesterday charged that there had been a reduction, per shift assignment, by the Jamaica Constabulary Force to 60 per cent of security personnel in St James and that the JDF presence in the parish was “46 per cent lower than it was during the SOE”.

“This factor alone contradicts the assurances given by both the commissioner of police and the minister of national security that the strategy, including the level of deployment of security personnel assigned to the affected area, would be sustained,” a press statement sent on behalf of Jackson stated.

However, Meade explained that soldiers’ duties remained the same as they were under the SOE, except for the retention of powers of a constable.

“What emergency powers allow is for the soldiers to be able to act on their own and to be able to search, seize, detain, arrest on their own,” said Meade.

Deputy Commissioner of Police Clifford Blake, who oversees the operations portfolio for the constabulary, declined comment when The Gleaner contacted him yesterday.

Prime Minister Andrew Holness and National Security Minister Dr Horace Chang had insisted on the state of emergency being extended because the security measure granted the army the same powers of arrest as a constable. But the Opposition had counterargued that it was the strategy of saturation – with dense deployment of the police and army on the streets – that was to be mainly credited for the plunge in murders in 2018.

Three states of emergency were activated in Jamaica in 2018 – in St James, the St Catherine North Police Division, and sections of the Corporate Area – but they all expired in January 2019 after the Opposition withdrew support for their extension on the grounds that the crime levels no longer necessitated restrictions on constitutional rights. A two-thirds majority vote in both Houses of Parliament is required for the extension of states of emergency.