By Peter Espeut
It was a slick professional job. Overnight, we had locked the car (including the steering lock) and padlocked the front gate. Wednesday last when we awoke, the car was gone. No mark on the gate, not a trace of the lock (no metal filings, no broken pieces), no broken glass (from the car window), no sounds to alarm the neighbours. Clearly, the thieves had us under surveillance for some time, and had carefully made their preparations. Probably by now my wife's grey Toyota Probox is 'running taxi' somewhere in the island - or chopped up.
Within 30 minutes of our discovery, we made a report in person to the nearest police station, and the stolen car report was on the police airwaves; but as at the time of writing, we have no good news. Sadly, friends tell us, such occurrences are all too common. Velia's car will probably never be found.
Every year, thousands of Jamaicans are robbed, either at gunpoint, or as a result of break-ins; why should we be spared? My wife and I consider ourselves lucky that we suffered no personal injury or traumatic aggravation. But nevertheless, we feel violated, and hard done by.
Such robberies are backed up by a variety of wrongdoers, all equally guilty. Yes, there are those who actually execute the robbery, but there are those who supply the keys, and those who keep their eyes open and suggest possible victims. There are those who either scrap the stolen vehicles for spare parts or for the scrap-metal trade; and there are those mechanics and body men and utterers of forged documents who prepare them for resale - not to mention their cronies in the tax offices, the Transport Authority and the insurance companies who help get these stolen vehicles back on the road.
In police jargon, these integrated specialists constitute a stolen car ring, and each ring consists of dozens of persons directly, and many dozens indirectly: women, for example, who must be well aware that the prosperity of their men vastly exceeds their humble occupations. Dozens are involved in each ring, and hundreds and thousands in the many such 'rings' across Jamaica.
Web of corruption
Then there are those who purchase these cars, knowing that there is something shady about the arrangement, but are only too happy to get a 'good deal' on a second-hand car to run a taxi. Were Jamaica a more honest society, these stolen car rings would find it hard to operate.
Funnily enough, just this week I read 'An Account of the Island and Government of Jamaica', written in 1682 by Francis Hanson, proprietor of the Three Crowns Inn in Port Royal. He writes: "It's safer living or travelling in Jamaica than England, we having rarely any housebreaking or robbery for want of receivers", and "for almost every House hath a rich Cupboard of Plate, which they carelessly expose, scarce shutting their doors in the night, being in no apprehension of Thieves for want of receivers as aforesaid." Robbery in Jamaica would be so much less common if there weren't so many 'receivers' of stolen goods.
I wish the police well in breaking the back of these rings, these criminal networks. But they do not operate in absolute secrecy. Thousands of Jamaicans know enough to expose them: people who know where the scrapyards are, and people who observe whole sections of cars offered for sale as scrap metal; decent Jamaicans who observe previously unknown cars turning up in the possession of 'unemployed' persons, and many observe persons without obvious means, offering cars for sale. If we had a culture of exposing corruption and criminality, Jamaica would not be able to boast about having world-class crime rates.
I take note that the St James lottery scammers claim that they are collecting 'reparations' - extracting wealth from well-off Americans as compensation for the inequities of modern-day Jamaica.
I wonder if the reason so many Jamaicans close their eyes, or wink, at blatant criminality is because the criminals make sure they benefit in some way, and also because they believe they are exacting some sort of restorative justice for the profound social inequalities which characterise present-day Jamaica?
Some things work
Today is my birthday, and last week I received a notice in the mail from the National Health Fund advising me that, according to its records, I turn 60 this month, which makes me eligible for the Jamaica Drugs for the Elderly programme. Enclosed was the form I must fill out to be able to access the benefits.
Not only criminal enterprises work in Jamaica!
Peter Espeut is a sociologist and Roman Catholic deacon. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.