Fri | Sep 24, 2021

Kevin O'Brien Chang | Cry, my murderous country

Published:Friday | December 21, 2018 | 12:00 AM

Jamaica's homicide stats are horrifying. The planet's second most murderous country in 2017. Earth's highest violent death rate for women. Almost 10 times as murderous as the world average. A total of 20,642 murders in the 15 years 2004-2018, or 51 per 100,000. Probably no country not officially at war has seen such a high sustained murder rate. To paraphrase the famous novel, 'Cry, My Murderous Country'.

Even more terrifying are the barbaric acts we regularly experience.

The 2005 Barnes Avenue massacre where thugs threw Molotov cocktail bombs into a house and stood guard with automatic weapons to prevent anyone aiding the three adults and child being burnt alive. (

The July 2011 Lauriston beheading of Charmaine Rattray and her 19-year-old daughter by invading gunmen.


The October 2016 March Pen massacre where two adults and three children were shot, killed and their homes torched. (

The August 2018 gang rape and murder and burning of 14-year-old Yetanya Francis in Arnett Gardens. (

In 1962, Jamaica had 66 murders and a lower homicide rate than the US. Our 2018 rate is more than 10 times that of 1962, and 10 times that of the current US rate. What caused this tragedy? Only one of set people could be responsible, our politicians.

Both the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and the People's National Party (PNP) have shown incredible indifference to Jamaican lives. The first signs came in 1965-1966, which saw the second greatest murder percentage increase in Jamaican history-surpassed only by the 'civil war' election upsurge of 1979-1980.

Murders went from 64 in 1965 to 110 in 1966, a 69 per cent spike focused in west Kingston, with political undertones. The then JLP prime minister approved a state of emergency in west Kingston, even though it was a JLP seat. Who was to blame for this deadly upsurge - sitting JLP MP Edward Seaga, PNP challenger Dudley Thompson, or both?

An inexorable spread of political gun handouts, dons and garrisons followed. Murders rose until our under-four per 100,000 rate of 1962 became 60-plus. One of the planet's safer countries became one of the bloodiest. Every Jamaican politician should hang his or her head in shame. So should we who elected them.

Most Jamaicans were disheartened by the recent decision of 21 PNP MPs to vote against the security forces' request for a renewal of the state of emergency that has cut the murders by 22 per cent. A March Don Anderson poll showed 89 per cent in favour of the SOEs. Vox pops suggest support has not declined.

We all know the SOEs, in and of themselves, are not the complete solution. But they are indispensable to any realistic strategy along the lines of:

- Short term: Intelligently applied force to normalise matters, by taking the irredeemable out of circulation - namely SOEs.

- Medium term: Social intervention to redeem the redeemable.

- Long term: Ending our education apartheid by enabling inner-city access to decent education, including early childhood interventions.

The arguments for voting against the SOE extension seem weak. The public defender's report highlighting supposed human-rights abuse was not supported by the facts. The conditions and number of detainees cited were shown to apply only to the early operation stages and not to obtain now, nor were detainees fed bread and tea as stated. Her claim of 125 children locked up has been contradicted by the Office of the Children's Advocate (OCA).

Children's Advocate Diahann Gordon Harrison says investigations found that fewer than a quarter of the 105 individuals classified as children and said to have been detained under the SOE in St James were actually minors. Public Defender Arlene Harrison Henry had told the parliamentary committee that 105 children, up to the age of 17, had been detained.

The questionable accuracy of the public defender's report quite undermines the arguments of those citing it as proof that human-rights abuse has made the SOE untenable, and has led to some rather spurious arguments. The '4,000 locked up and only 139 detained' statements leaves out the '353 lives saved' reality. The 'human rights of poor young black men being taken away by the SOE' assertion forgets that 80-plus per cent of murder victims in Jamaica are poor young black men, and it is mostly these lives the SOE is saving. Is the greatest human right not the right to stay alive? Who has been locked up can be let out. Who has been slaughtered cannot be resurrected?

We also hear 'It's not SOE measures making the difference, it's merely more boots on the ground' and 'We need to forget the SOE and focus on a comprehensive crime plan'. But such logic ignores murders climbing from 439 in 1989 to 1,616 in 2017. The last 30 years have seen over a dozen 'crime plans and strategies' and countless 'flooding areas with police and soldiers'. Buju Banton immortalised the infamous 1992 Operation Ardent: "Wid helicopter inna air, bright light a shine a grung ... . Mi see 14, me see matic an' SLR gun ... . Soldier corral de place from head to de grung.'

Like all such knee-jerk half-measures, Ardent failed, as murder unprecedentedly increased every year from 1989 to 1997. The only good plan is what works, and since 1989, only the 2010 SOE and the 2018 SOEs have sharply cut murders. All else has been but talk.

Some cry, 'But we have had a whole year of SOEs!' Well, yes, and murders have fallen by 22 per cent. We were hoping a mere 12 months of SOEs would cut murder by 100 per cent? If we had three years of SOEs with homicide declines of 20 per cent, annual murders would fall to 800. Which life-valuing Jamaican would not welcome that equation?

Under Security Minister Peter Phillips, 2002-2007, murders went from 1,139 to 1,574, a 36 per cent increase. Under Security Minister Peter Bunting 2012-2015, murders went from 1,125 to 1,193, a five per cent increase. Both manifestly failed to create any successful crime plan when in charge. Which makes it difficult to take seriously their loud claims to now have all the solutions to crime and know better than the security forces what needs to be done to cut murders.

SOEs and other associated crime-fighting measures over the past year have, to date, resulted in 353 fewer murders than 2017. If sustained, this would be the largest absolute and percentage reduction in murders since 1981, 37 years ago, and the second largest ever. The main pillar responsible for this historic drop is what the Opposition voted down nearly two weeks ago.

Claims that the SOEs might be unconstitutional should surely be tested in court with pro and con arguments, producing a final legal judgment. You don't abruptly vote down the most successful anti-crime measure in 37 years, unless absolutely certain you have no choice. Not if you value Jamaican lives.

But consider this. Our Constitution was written for a country with a murder rate of 3.7 per 100,000. Would those who wrote it not have considered a murder rate 12 times that a true national emergency?

The most lunatic 'let's stop the SOE' argument must be 'Murders have returned to normal, so let's go back to normal crime-fighting methods'. This chart puts the Jamaican murder rate in a global context. Latin America is the most violent region on earth, averaging 16 murders per 100,000. Jamaica's current murder rate is about three times that. Anyone who claims our current murder situation is 'normal' must be drunk, insane or heartless.

Yes, other crime-fighting measures are needed, such as more trained police, more modern equipment, and better police communication with the public.

But we can continue the SOEs while working on these. How much longer should we keep SOEs in place? The first goal must be to get murders below the psychologically critical 1,000 mark. And if Jamaica's murder rate can be reduced to Latin America's average, homicides would go under 500 a year, about 1989 levels. Only then could we consider ourselves a 'normally' murderous country.

- Kevin O'Brien Chang is a commentator and businessman. Email feedback to and