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Editorial | For effective anti-crime plan, take a cue from Cali, Colombia

Published:Tuesday | September 29, 2020 | 12:06 AM

The recent unrelenting wave of homicides in Jamaica highlights the country’s crisis of crime and the need for the Holness administration to demonstrate that it still has a viable toolkit for addressing the problem now that the court has halted deployment of that blunt-edged instrument that was its tool of choice: the declaration of states of public emergency.

The situation also raises questions about the status of the memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed among the Government, the political Opposition, and civil society groups in August on the issues of crime-fighting that are to be precluded from the partisan fray and the oversight arrangements to ensure that this is the case. The opposition People’s National Party (PNP) may well be busy with the leadership transition after the recent election, but this matter is too important to be sidelined by internal distractions.

In any event, the most urgent considerations under the MOU are matters within the purview of the administration. What requires the attention of the Opposition at this time is its agreement on the oversight body of mutually acceptable people. That, with respect to the PNP’s internal politics, should be relatively uncontroversial, which the party’s outgoing leader, Dr Peter Phillips, ought to be capable of giving the PNP’s imprimatur. It can be got on with.

On the current trajectory, homicides this year, despite an earlier marginal downtick, will be close to last year’s 1,326, or a rate of around 48 per 100,000. Such numbers place Jamaica in the top tier of the world’s most murderous countries, with a homicide rate nearly three times its Caribbean peers.

It would not be surprising if there was an attempt to place blame for this situation – any increase in murders – on the Supreme Court’s strike-down of the constitutionality of a series of states of emergency which, up to August, had been in place almost continuously in several regions of Jamaica for two and a half years. In an action brought by five men, who were in custody between 177 and 431 days without charge, Justice Bertram Morrison not only ruled that the Emergency Power Act, upon which the states of emergency regulations rested, was unconstitutional, he also held that the proclamation issued by the governor general declaring the existence of emergency conditions in Jamaica was faulty, based on the requirements of the Constitution. Further, the judge ruled that regulations purporting to give the security minister the authority to sign detention orders breached the constitutional separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary and encroached on the power of judges.


Given that the administration consistently ascribes any gains against crime, including a 21 per cent decline in murders in 2017, to the states of emergency – and Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ declaration that these measures would probably have to be in place for up to seven years – it is important that the Government unveil its alternative anti-crime policies, strategies, and tactics. Or, at least what it feels is feasible until it gets Justice Morrison’s ruling overturned at appeal, which it plans to attempt.

But with the see-saw outcomes from Jamaica’s crime-prevention prescriptions over several decades, it would make sense if the authorities also considered other people’s policies that have worked for possible adoption by Jamaica and adaptation to the country’s circumstances. Cali, Colombia, in this regard, is a place to look at.

Cali used to be the hub of Colombia’s narcotics trade, with the crime to go with it. It had more than 1,000 murders a year and a homicide rate of over 100. Its homicide rate is now in the range of Jamaica’s – and falling.

Cali took a public-health approach to dealing with crime in the way that you might confront an epidemic. So how and where the crime took place was modelled in detail and interventions, including police surveillance and interventions, planned around this. Community mobilisation and poverty-reduction programmes, similar to what was contemplated under Jamaica’s zones of special operations, were also implemented and made to work. Twenty-four courts, too, meant that conflicts could be adjudicated quickly.

Importantly, organised crime received special attention as did the issue of public corruption – both of which are issues central to the MOU with Prime Minister Holness; Peter Phillips, the opposition leader; and the heads of private-sector groups. They agreed to attack these issues, whether within political parties, in Government, the public bureaucracy, where the private sector interfaces with the State, and other areas of national governance. The process is impatient of action.