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Editors' Forum | Operation Change Jamaica - Army chief plans to beef up troops, enlist every youth in Service Corps

Published:Sunday | March 17, 2019 | 12:22 AMCorey Robinson - Staff Reporter
Lieutenant General Rocky Meade gestures to journalists during a Gleaner Editors’ Forum at the newspaper’s North Street headquarters. He is flanked by Private Nicholas Rowe and Commodore Antonette Wemyss-Gorman.

The Jamaica Defence Force (JDF) has embarked on an ambitious 20-year strategy that has as its ultimate goal a significant drawdown of troops who engage in joint security operations with the police and an expansion of the Service Corps programme to recruit every youth citizen.

Lieutenant General Rocky Meade, chief of defence staff, said the military is employing a three-tiered strategy to slash murders from 40 per 100,000 to more tolerable levels – whether that target will hover around the Latin American and Caribbean average of 16 per 100,000 or the global benchmark of 6/100,000.

“I have set out a programme of activities over the next 20 years with a detailed implementation plan over the next five years in how we can make a difference in Jamaica. In order to achieve that, we have broken it down into short-, medium-, and long-term commitments,” said Meade at a Gleaner Editors’ Forum at the newspaper’s central Kingston offices last Friday.

“I have no desire during my tenure for us to be permanently on the streets as the military interacting with our citizens in a law-enforcement role,” he explained. “My aim is to help the police get the crime situation down to a relatively normal level, where the police are capable of doing day-to-day crime fighting. That is a short- to medium-term goal.”

Meade, who took charge of the army in 2016, said that while the military would not retreat from its support role with the police as they grapple with criminal gangs, the zero sum game must be to de-escalate its involvement in daily law enforcement.

The army chief’s long-term plan for a withdrawal of soldiers is in contrast with sentiments of the majority of the Jamaican population, which wants to see more boots on the ground. An RJRGLEANER Don Anderson poll revealed that 90 per cent of Jamaicans said they wanted the army to be more involved in day-to-day policing. The poll was carried out between February 15 and March 3 and canvassed the views of 1,003 respondents. It had a margin of error of plus or minus five.

Meade intends to ramp up the size of the regular forces from 6,000 to 10,000 – not counting the reserves – as part of a greater vision of an army with a bigger footprint across Jamaica. In the medium term, the lieutenant general plans to have strong bases in three regions of the country – not necessarily defined along county boundaries, but with geostrategic goals.

The army has an attrition rate of about 200 members annually, but Meade said that he had, in three years, quadrupled recruitment from 250 rookies per year three years ago to 2,000 per year as at 2018.

The beefing up of troop numbers will coincide with the build-out of more infrastructure across the island in a bid to accommodate the growing needs and widening mandate of soldiers.

“What I’m setting out to do ... is to increase the size of the force, but also to have a robust number of troops permanently located in three regions of the country,” he said, noting that there will be at least a battalion – between 600 and 1,000 soldiers – in each region.

“In the medium term, within the next five to 10 years, we will have infrastructure all over the country where people in western Jamaica can live, work, and train there and will not have to come to Kingston for everything,” he added.

The army has bolstered the presence of the police in zones of special operations and in states of emergency, tools used by the Holness administration in 2018 to quell rising levels of criminal violence, including a 70 per cent drop in murders in St James and a 23 per cent fall in homicides nationally.

Those security operations – in St James, St Catherine North, and sections of the Corporate Area – have triggered calls for more soldiers on the ground, particularly in Montego Bay, St James, and other areas where states of emergency have been declared.

ZOSOs and SOEs were short-term goals, Meade stressed.

Force for good

Meade also championed the mission of the Jamaica National Service Corps (JNSC) as a force for good in transmitting the values of civic pride and nation building and hopes that every single youth will enlist in his programme. The JNSC won the 2018 RG Platinum Award. The organisation also won the category award for Education and the Red Stripe ‘Stand Up’ Award.

“Ultimately, we want to put the Government in a position, if they can fund it, to have every single youngster leaving school to go through this programme for a year. I think that if we can do that, we can change the culture of Jamaica,” he said.

To date, 1,571 youngsters across five overlapping cohorts have benefited from the JNSC programme, which Meade listed as the third-tier of his 20-year JDF restructuring initiative.

“The long-term plan is these guys,” he said, pointing to privates Shamone Brailsford and Nicholas Rowe, recent graduates of the JNSC programme, and who were present at the forum.

“We want to change Jamaica, and we have assessed that the problem we have is the values in Jamaica – our conflict-management skills, or lack thereof – and the fact that we are not employing our youngsters when they leave school,” said Mead.

“We took on something ourselves that is not our role, but we have decided that we can make a big change in Jamaica if we provide a mechanism to engage all youngsters after they leave school,” he added.

NOTE: An earlier version of the story incorrectly said the intake was being icreased to 2,000 per quarter as at 2018. The correct figure should have been 2,000 per year.