Mon | Sep 25, 2023

Alfred Dawes | The garrison archipelago

Published:Sunday | January 23, 2022 | 12:07 AM

While politicians oscillate between outrage and sorrow at the murder rate, the perpetrators of these heinous crimes walk freely in their own sovereign states within Jamaica.

The Gulag Archipelago is a non-fiction literary work by Russian writer and Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. It chronicles life in the forced labour camp system of the Soviet Union. These concentration camps were stretched across the length and breadth of the USSR, akin to an archipelago. They were filled with perceived enemies of communism or had simply aggrieved the wrong official. Many would not leave.

Soviet sympathisers viewed the gulag as only a product of the notorious Soviet leader Josef Stalin, but Solzhenitsyn and other dissidents saw it as a systemic fault of Soviet political culture. The system, Solzhenitsyn argues, was already ingrained into Soviet society and Stalin merely added his evil imprimatur. He maintained that the terror of the state police had always been critical to the existence of the Soviet Union and the gulags were inevitable in that system.

As the gulags were a by-product of Lenin’s communist society, so are the Jamaican garrisons a creation of our broken political system. Our Westminster model requires that the members of parliament (MPs) be the ultimate deciders of who becomes prime minister. They, in turn, must toe the party lines set by their party leader and PM if they want to progress to ministerial positions. To form a government, politics must be executed locally to get 32 MPs from the party elected. The House majority that eventually forms the government is, therefore, beholden to they who have the power to elect the MPs, and that is where the awesome power of the garrisons become apparent.

Save for a marginal increase in 2007, there has been a steady decrease in voter turnout in every contested general election since a peak of 86 per cent in 1980. The last two elections saw only 48 per cent in 2016 and 37 per cent in 2020. This means that less than 20 per cent of eligible voters selected this current government. Rest assured that the voter turnout was significantly higher in polling divisions drawn from the garrisons. The middle and upper classes have the worst turnouts. The garrisons choose our government when the voter turnout is low.

For a councillor or MP to secure winning votes, time and resources are best concentrated in the garrisons. Votes are cheaper and the people more tribal. However, there is a darker side to garrison politics. The local warlords/dons/area leaders/community activists wield significant power over their denizens. They determine which political party is supported and on election day, they mobilise their forces to get the votes out of each yard. No amount of political propaganda, manifestos or election day workers can compare to a don giving orders that everyone needs to leave their home and vote for an MP. The garrisons can also project their power over neighbouring vassal states and guarantee votes for their supportive party.


Of equal import as guaranteed voter turnout is voter suppression in unfriendly garrisons. Threats, intimidation, and outright violence will keep hostile voters away on election day. To secure their sovereignty and deliver on the promised votes that will guarantee their scarce benefits and political spoils, the dons historically waged wars against hostile states. Now, with support from petty politicians, and protection through the greater political framework, these polities have forayed into organised crime to fund their arsenals.

The tail is now wagging the dog, as political allegiances can be switched at whim and it is the politicians who must do the bidding of the heads of the garrison states.

For a ruling party to do the right thing and disrupt the garrisons is to disrupt the entire political machinery of the party. Without the commitment of the other party, it would be political suicide. No minister of national security or commissioner of police can destroy the electoral machinery that serves to elect the very MPs who determine the government. That is the catch 22 of solving crime in a society with a political system that is dependent on its major producers, the garrison archipelago littered throughout Jamaica’s constituencies.

To end the outsized impacts of the garrison archipelago on the political process, only one action can be taken that will remove the burden of reform from the politicians. We must have mandatory voting. With mandatory voting, the future of the sovereign state of Jamaica will not be determined by the invisible polities within. Voters outside of the garrisons who are more likely to cast a vote based on issues, policies and performance, rather than $5,000 wrapped up in a T-shirt, would now have to be courted. The return on investment in the garrison governments would be less, and the monetary incentives to produce political violence diminished.

Politicians would no longer need to hug up dons to win elections, and being freed of this millstone around their necks, legislators can pass laws that address the proceeds of crime, address corruption, reforms of the police force and the justice system. If you believe it is not a matter of political will to pass reformative laws that have been languishing for years, be reminded that the laws to increase fines for road traffic violations were passed within 24 hours after a Supreme Court ruling made it necessary to save face.

Breaking the bond between politics and criminals is the keystone of any meaningful crime plan. Until then, the use of SOEs, ZOSOs and special squads to control murders will only be Sisyphean tasks.

- Dr Alfred Dawes is a general, laparoscopic, and weight-loss surgeon; fellow of the American College of Surgeons; Follow him on Twitter @dr_aldawes. Send feedback to and