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Core Causes of Jamaica’s Violence

Published:Thursday | September 29, 2016 | 9:00 AMHerbert Gayle, PhD
Policemen examine a crime scene along Spanish Town Road, Kingston, on June 11.

Since the 1970s Jamaica's obvious internal threat has come from social violence. The World Health Organisation defines violence as the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against one group or community, which either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation (WHO Report on Violence and Health 2002, page 4). At the surface of this problem is direct physical violence; the most feared and studied because it is visible, graphic and destructive. Nonetheless, it is often the result of structural violence that is created by a country's history and culture.

Jamaica's violence is so high that it displays characteristics of civil war - though undeclared - which keeps security officers in war-readiness mode, and this does not necessarily make us feel safer. In violence studies it has been popularised by Doyle and Sambanis (2006) that a civil war meets the criteria:

- Armed conflict in which 1000 or more combatants are killed;

- War that represents a challenge to the sovereignty of a recognised state;

- It involves the state as one of the principal combatants;

- And the 'rebels' are able to mount an organised military opposition to the state and to inflict significant casualties on the state.

You will notice that all these criteria fit Jamaica's violence dilemma. Nonetheless, the first ignores country size. A thousand Kittitians dying out of a population of 54,000 is not comparable to a thousand dying in Mexico with over 120 million people. Careful examination of the data on the most violent countries show that in order for countries to meet most or all of the criteria outlined for a civil war they would need to have a homicide rate of at least 30 per 100,000. Consequently, I have suggested using this benchmark instead in my 2009 Fulbright lecture: 'The Potholed Road Ahead - Examining Solutions to Reduce the Murder Rate in Jamaica'.

 

CRIME FIGURES

 

Calculations for the period 2000-2015 from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) data and countries' crime figures show that Jamaica has been the fourth most violent country in the world since the new millennium.

The primary problems of social violence in Jamaica are related to gangs and organised crime. Jamaica suffers immensely from feuds that are created from these two interrelated structures of violence. While there are many frames of explanation for the existence of this twin-problem, I suggest six planks of contributing factors to create a crude feuding model, notably: (1) Jamaica has a well-documented history of violence, which encourages political factions. (2) Jamaica's segmentary factional politics which surfaced in the 1970s resulted (3) a weak central political authority, and hence perpetual problems in governance. (4) The segmentary factional system and the weak central political authority it creates foster the emergence of gang feuds and organised crime - most of which started along political party lines. (5) These gangs are fed by problems within the family created by slavery, and the cultural acceptance of the efficacy of violence, including the torture of inner city boys as part of socialisation and control. (6) Fear factor within the Jamaica Constabulary Force contributes to the creation of two sets of wars: one between gangs, and another between state agents and gangs.

Gang violence must be taken seriously as 50 to 80 per cent of all murders in the urban police divisions I have studied are directly gang related; and aspects of the residue are often vendetta committed within gang sites. In other words, even some cases of interpersonal violence (family feud, 'Matey' war, tenement war) are gang-related. Data from the National Intelligence Bureau of Jamaica on the country's most violent year may illustrate the extent to which young men are focused on killing each other in inner city feuds. In 2005 the country's homicide was 64 per 100,000. However, the rate for the combatant age (15-34 years) of males of the country's urban centre (Greater Kingston) was 340 per 100,000; compared to 205 per 100,000 war-related deaths in the Iraq War as reported in the 2013 study on 'Mortality in Iraq Associated with the 2003-2011 War and Occupation'.

The six planks of contributing factors suggest that the violence problem is very complex. At an average of 48 murders per 100,000 the situation is beyond even effective policing. Instead it requires a structured inter-ministerial frame of action over at least 10 years to create sustainable stability - which cannot be achieved through suppression.