Montego Bay: Breeding ground for crime
Adrian Frater, News Editor
In the era when Montego Bay was emerging as Jamaica's tourism capital, it was dubbed the friendly city in tourism brochures because of the "warmth and friendliness of its people," coupled with its many inviting world-class attractions.
However, on account of debilitating scourges, such as the social ills brought on by numerous unplanned communities, the emergence of powerful criminal gangs - gun and drug running - police corruption and the infamous 'lotto scam', the city's innocence has been severely compromised.
Confronted with a city where crime seems to flourish with impunity, especially in regard to a once-booming drug trade, former commanding officer for the St James Police Division, Superintendent Newton Amos, declared the western city a haven for influential criminals during his 2002-2005 stint in charge of the parish.
"Montego Bay is a drug den where high-profile criminals operate with impunity," Superintendent Amos told a Gleaner Editors' Forum. "Some of these men occupy prominent positions in this community and wield a lot of power."
Shortly after his stinging comment, Superinten-dent Amos was transferred from St James. While there is no proof that the comments during The Gleaner Editors' Forum formed the basis for his transfer, it is no secret that several prominent public officials were peeved by his remarks.
Informal developments ... a haven for social ills
For many, the current crime problem now plaguing Montego Bay had its genesis with the emergence of informal communities in and around Montego Bay - some 19 of them primarily located in the North West St James constituency.
While the pioneers of these informal settlements were believed to be honest persons who came to Montego Bay seeking jobs as the tourism trade began to expand in the early 1980s, the fact that there were limited housing solutions to facilitate them forced them inland where they could 'capture' land.
Proper infrastructure missing
As the unplanned developments expanded and became more congested, some gradually began to become dens of inequity as the absence of proper infrastructure - roads, proper housing, street lights and other amenities - opened the door to social ills such as the theft of utilities - electricity and water.
With the security forces unable to proper police these unplanned communities, which were primarily made up of dirt tracks with houses without proper addresses, hidden by zinc fences, the communities became attractive to criminals.
"Because these communities are informal and difficult to police, they usually pose quite a challenge to law enforcement. Criminals tend to like areas like these," said Assistant Commissioner of Police Denver Frater, head of the Area One (St James, Trelawny, Hanover and Westmoreland) Police Division.
Based on Gleaner investigations, most of the criminal gangs that have emerged in St James over the last six years began in these informal communities. Chief among those are the infamous 'Stone Crusher' (Norwood), 'One Order' (Flankers), 'Killer Bees' (Granville) and 'Tight Pants' (North Gully).
While some of the gangs rarely make it on to the parish's crime radar, the Stone Crusher gang has presented a special challenge to the police, as they are believed to be responsible for the vast majority of the more than 100 murders committed in St James each year since 2002.
Based on statistics provided by the St James police, 80 per cent of the murders committed in and around Montego Bay are the handiwork of criminal gangs operating out of the inner-city areas.
Since the parish broke the 100-murder mark for the first time in 2003 with 106 murders, the annual figures read as follows: 2004 - 129, 2005 -139, 2006 - 178, 2007 - 187, 2008 - 216, 2009 - 240, 2010 - 41 to date.
For social activist O. Dave Allen, chairman of the Community Organisation for Management and Sustainable Development - the umbrella organisation for Operation PRIDE sites and marginalised communities in western Jamaica, the key to tackling the wanton crime problem lies in regularising informal communities.
"Unless conditions are created where the over 40,000 people living on captured lands are regularised and allowed to become part of the formal setting, they will continue to be impacted by the influence of the undesirables," Allen told a recent Gleaner Editors' Forum, while lamenting the fact that many such communities were being overrun by criminals.
Montego Bay and the guns-for-drugs trade
Based on information from Montego Bay's criminal underworld, the infamous guns-for-drugs trade between Haiti and Jamaica might have been masterminded by a crime lord from the western city. The individual reportedly hatched the plan with a fellow criminal from Haiti while they were both locked up in a jail in Miami, Florida, in 2001.
The guns used by criminals, who challenge the police in an infamous eight-hour gun battle in Canterbury, Montego Bay, in 2003, were said to be part of the first shipment of arms from Haiti. Following that shoot-out, in which three alleged gunmen were killed and three lawmen injured, the police seized several high-powered rifles and a canvas (crocus) bag containing over 1,000 rounds of assorted ammunition.
As the guns-for-drugs trade steadily developed, several prominent Montego Bay residents were identified by no less a person than United States (US) president George Bush as international criminals.
Following several joint initiatives between US and Jamaica operatives, several persons, including businessman Leebert Ramcharan (who President Bush had labelled a kingpin), were arrested and subsequently extradited to the US.
Despite the international spotlight on Montego Bay, the guns-for-drugs trade continued to flourish, creating social upheaval and tension in numerous communities.
As marauding gangs became more and more brazen, communities like Norwood, the power base of the notorious Stone Crusher, steadily transformed Montego Bay into the nation's murder capital.
Following a spate of brutal murders last year, Dr Horace Chang, the member of parliament for North West St James, described some of the violence-prone communities as killing fields.
"We literally have a killing field surrounding Montego Bay and we can't allow things to continue like this," Chang said.
"We have got to find ways to put an end to this problem."
The lotto scam - the worst of the scourges
With the players in the drug trade under local and international pressure, in 2002 attention began to shift away from the drug trade to the emerging 'lotto scam'. This is a scheme by which Jamaican scam artists con unsuspecting Americans into sending them money under the pretext they had won a local lottery and needed to pay a processing fee, among other fees.
The 'lotto scam', which reportedly pumped an estimated US$30 million into several St James communities over the last six years, has also brought pain.
While some of the cash went into constructing lavish homes and buying expensive cars, millions were used to empower criminals, who bought guns and cars to make them mobile.
With greed and spite creating enmity among rival scammers, many of them began turning to corrupt policemen and criminal gangs for protection. Gangs like the Stone Crusher quickly became empowered, buying high-powered guns expensive cars from the proceeds of the scam. Gang members reportedly murdered several scammers who resisted their demands for extortion money.
Armed with cash and guns and the mobility that allowed them to move from place to place quickly, the empowered gangsters quickly transformed many communities into shooting galleries, murdering and maiming each other with alarming regularity. In many instances, victims of the violence were beheaded to demonstrate wanton ruthlessness.
"These new and empowered breed of criminals are a real challenge to the police because they have high-powered weapons and they are mobile," said ACP Frater. "Because of the influence they have on some communities, it is sometimes difficult to get information on them."
While the police are determined to keep pressure on the criminals operating in the western city, Superintendent Paul Stanton, head of community safety and security in Area One, told The Gleaner recently that inept political leadership was undermining the police's work.
"Leadership for political expediency has been crippling Jamaica in many ways and has been having a negative impact on various aspect of national life including policing," noted DSP Stanton, in reaction to a concern that the police were not doing enough to rein in the lawlessness in the parish.
"The type of leadership must change if we are to go forward. The police alone cannot do it."
Outspoken president of the Montego Bay Chamber of Commerce, Lloyd B. Smith, has consistently been expressing unhappiness with what he has described as the nonchalant attitude of the state in regard to the crime situation in the western city.
"Because most of these murders are taking place in the so-called inner-city or squatter areas, I get the impression that there is not much urgency in dealing with it," said Smith.
"I hate to say it, but I believe if these murders were taking place in the upper echelons of society, or in the tourist area, the response would have been different."
Under a cloud
With the police, the first line of defence in the war against crime, now under a cloud as a result of several interdictions and dismissals for their alleged involvement in criminal activities, there is scepticism in some quarters as to whether or not the police have the capacity to deal with the challenge before them.
At a recent Gleaner Editors' Forum, the Reverend Everton Jackson, pastor of the Calvary Baptist Church in Montego Bay, spoke to the need for the police to lift themselves above the fray.
"I think we have to admit that at the present moment the police force, as an institution, is facing a serious moral crisis," Rev Jackson said. "However, we cannot stop there because a country without a security institution is a country in crisis. We have to work with the police to ensure that they re-capture the moral authority they seem to have lost."
However, a promise has come.
Superintendent Merrick Watson, the new commander of the St James Police Division, has promised to to tame the crime monster which has frustrated his predecessors for many years.
Interestingly, Watson's promise came after two police operations on April 1, resulted in the shooting death of two men, said to be the Stone Crusher and Piranha gangs' enforcers.