Thu | Jul 19, 2018

Light on violence | War-readiness mode in Jamaica

Published:Wednesday | January 25, 2017 | 2:36 AMHerbert Gayle

The primary problems of social violence in Jamaica are gangs, organised crime, and domestic conflict. Jamaica suffers immensely from the feuds that are created from gangs and organised crime, but these are fed by problems within our families that lead to high incidence of domestic violence, especially against children. Once all of these factors remain active and stable, Jamaica’s homicide rate will keep security officers in necessary war-readiness mode.

In violence studies, it has been popularised by Doyle and Sambanis (2000) that a civil war meets the criteria of being armed conflict in which 1,000 or more combatants are killed; the war represents a challenge to the sovereignty of a recognised state; occurs within the recognised boundary of that state; 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.

While I accept their use of the 1,000 combatant deaths benchmark on the grounds of their immediate field context, I cannot help but notice that it 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. I have repeatedly suggested using this benchmark.


Prior to independence, Jamaica had a homicide rate that was comparable with the world’s average. However, Jamaica is not one of the countries that did well with the transfer of power upon achieving independence. With independence came enormous social and economic demands from the population, and violent competition for power among politicians. This led to the political wars of the 1970s and 1980s. Garrisons were constructed in order for politicians to guarantee votes, and the youth quickly organised themselves into gangs to effect war to benefit from the spoils of war and partisan contracts. Between the 1960s and the early 1980s, murders increased almost fourfold. Between the elections of 1980 and 1989, there was some degree of stability due to the absence of a contested election; but the figures shot up again after the 1989 general election and peaked in 2005 when Jamaica ranked number one in the world.

In this year, the homicide rate was 64 per 100,000. In this period, Jamaica also became a primary trans-shipment point for Colombian cocaine and that fuelled the murders among gangs across party lines and within politically aligned gangs – but also worked to reduce the core of the political violence, given politics was no longer the main source of guns and money. (See Figure 1)

Since then, Jamaica has been identified as a country of turf/gang feuds expected to account for an average of 60 per cent of the country’s murders. Let me use data from the National Intelligence Bureau to illustrate the extent to which young men are focused on killing each other in feuds. In 2005, the country’s homicide was 64 per 100,000. This was, however, 120 per 100,000 for males across Jamaica. It should come as no surprise that the murder rate for males was 200 per 100,000 for the Kingston Metropolitan Region (KMR), which comprises Kingston, urban St Andrew, Portmore and Spanish Town. For males of the combatant age (15-34 years) for the KMR, the 2005 homicide rate was 340/100,000 – and moved to 405 when police killings are added.

- Herbert Samuel Gayle (PhD, London; MSc, BA, UWI) is a social anthropologist who specialises in social violence (gangs, murder-suicide, repeat-killers, and domestic violence). His career centres on research and lecturing at the University of the West Indies, Mona campus (Jamaica). He has over two decades of experience living with and studying youth gangs and transnational criminal organisations in the Caribbean, Central America, USA, and Europe and has influenced policies in three Caribbean states to reduce social violence. He has been interviewed by over 20 international media houses, including the BBC and the Associated Press. Dr Gayle is also a methods expert, trained at the advanced level in all four approaches: qualitative, quantitative, integrated, and participatory and action research. As a violence expert and youth advocate, Dr Gayle has done public lectures, motivational presentations, workshops, and seminars in over 30 countries. He has done over 60 major studies and has published a number of books, chapters, and articles.