Fri | Sep 30, 2022

The perils of the witness protection programme

Published:Sunday | April 10, 2022 | 12:15 AMCorey Robinson - Senior Staff Reporter

In their world, nothing is safe or certain, and it is always wise to have a suitcase packed and ready for relocation. To be otherwise could be deadly.

This is life for some 326 Jamaicans in the island’s witness protection programme – the majority are key players in gang/gun trials now under way.

With roughly 400 murders since the start of the year, some in broad daylight, there are invariably many more witnesses living outside the programme that cannot accommodate all.

According to the police, several have declined to be part of the witness protection programme – the task of uprooting and forfeiting life as they know it to live in hiding is too much to bear.

That decision has resulted in the deaths of many over the years, the police have revealed; while for the others, it means additional pressure on law enforcement to keep them alive.

“It happens every day. People can’t afford to give up their lives and livelihood, and so they opt to avert the programme,” noted Superintendent Aaron Fletcher, head of the St Andrew North Police Division. “Certainly, however, this puts them at greater risk.”

PERENNIAL TASK

There have been 21 murders since January in St Andrew North, and witness management, according to Fletcher, is a perennial task for sleuths in that division. They must also combat at least a dozen warring factions shooting, extorting, and robbing persons in the space.

Both covert and overt operations are employed to ensure the safety of witnesses in gun/gang trials and it is even more tedious when entire families of deceased persons or of those fingered as perpetrators of crimes, come under threat from warring gangsters. Due to the sensitivity of the issue, Fletcher declined to cite specific cases.

“If you threaten a Crown witness, it is a criminal offence and offenders are generally brought before the courts,” he explained. “But it places an additional burden on the police in our crime-fighting effort to ensure the safety of witnesses. It might require more extensive patrolling. In some situations, witnesses’ residences have had to be monitored on a periodic basis.”

The Government spent an additional $25 million in the financial year 2019-2020 and an extra $29.5 million in 2020-2021 on the budgeted figures for the witness protection programme, according to responses from the Ministry of National Security to an Access to Information request by The Sunday Gleaner. The budgets for 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 were $141.3 and $151.3 million, respectively.

SEPARATION COSTS

In the years 2019 to 2021, the Government spent $3 million, $5.5 million and $5.2 million, respectively, for separation costs, which include monies used by witnesses in the actual parting of ways with loved ones before entering the programme.

Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Paula Llewellyn said that in some instances witnesses have had to be relocated within 24 hours after learning that their safety may have been compromised.

Glorification of gun/gang violence and the pervasiveness of cellular phones in prisons are among the challenges to witness protection in Jamaica, the DPP explained, noting that victim intimidation from persons behind bars is a constant factor. Intimidation and dissuasion from witnesses’ own relatives is also a variable.

“There are instances where you have said ‘please (witnesses) go on the programme’ and they have declined. And the next thing you hear is that either the person has disappeared, they still have to leave the area anyway, or that they have been harmed,” Llewellyn said.

“It all depends on the community dynamics and where they are with their family and friends. Some people believe that they are safe within their community,” she said, noting a case involving a well-known Kingston don, where a witness opted to remain in the area.

“I didn’t understand it at first, but after talking to him, talking to the police and becoming aware of that particular community dynamics, and where he fell and how he was perceived in the community, I realised why he felt safe remaining there,” the DPP stated.

corey.robinson@gleanerjm.com