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POWER OF A DON - Putting politicians to shame

Published:Sunday | March 7, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Arthur Hall, Senior Staff Reporter

THEY HEAD major criminal networks in Jamaica, even extending to North America and the United Kingdom. But no one seems to know for sure exactly how many of them are in play. Dons - rulers of the criminal underworld - are buttressed by legitimate government contracts, extortion, offbeat business enterprises, political, and even police support. They hold tremendous power in the trenches that rivals legitmate authority and puts elected leaders to shame.

In many an inner-city community, the don is not only the father figure, he is the role model for manliness, the great provider, judge, jury and strategist. Many young men aspire to become dons, as they see the position as an enviable one.

From 'Claudie Massop' to 'Burry Boy', 'Willie Haggart' to 'Bulbie', and scores of others, the legendary figure of the community don has straddled Jamaica for most of the past 50 years.

They have, at times, been labelled community leaders, area bosses, or some other euphemism that fails to mask the fact that they hold unbelievable power over geographic areas and large sectors where their word is final.

Those geographic areas could be as small as a street off Maxfield Avenue where a man called 'Gov' is the 'area leader' for the Stinger gang, which operates in a manner where it seizes the cellular phones of residents to monitor their calls.

However, the don could also wield a level of influence where his word is law over parish barriers, and could even have control over questionable enterprises on foreign soil.

The nation had a frightening look at the power of a major don in September 1998 when former Matthews Lane strongman Donald 'Zekes' Phipps was arrested and charged by the police for attempted murder,

illegal possession of a firearm and unlawful wounding.

While he was being interrogated at the Central Police Station,
Zekes' supporters rioted, leaving four persons - including two members of the
security forces - dead.

It was not until he appeared on the balcony of the police station
and ordered his followers to return to their homes that the demonstrations

All charges against him were eventually dropped, but Zekes was
found guilty of two other murders in 2006 and sent to prison.

By then, his influence and control were waning, particularly
behind reports that the police had seized millions of dollars in cash from his
upper St Andrew home.

But most of the so-called dons who rule the communities across the
island do not have the power of a Zekes.

"You have different degrees of donship," Horace Levy, executive
member of the Peace Management Initiative, told
The Sunday Gleaner

"Many are quite ordinary and in charge of the gang on their
corner, but you have a few very powerful ones," Levy added.

organised gang structures

Usually, the more powerful dons emerge from communities loyal to
one political party, with organised gang structures.

"The leader emerges by earning his stripes through his viciousness
and his access to financial resources. You get to emerge by winning your stripes
through hard work, killings, and all the rest," said Levy.

That is a far cry from the Jamaican don who emerged in the 1960s
as a knife-wielding 'rude bwoy' who kept order in Kingston's dance halls.

That is a development traced by university lecturer Dr Clinton
Hutton in a 2004 interview with
The Gleaner

At that time, Hutton traced the influence of the don to the 1950s
when there was mass migration from rural parishes to some of Kingston's most
hardened areas.

"These communities were re-peopled, meaning one political tribe in
one area. It was the beginning of what (the late professor) Carl Stone called
garrison communities," Hutton explained.

"A lot of this took place in the 1960s in West Kingston (when the
Jamaica Labour Party formed the Government); but when the People's National
Party came to power (in 1972), they reinforced it by building their own
garrisons," Hutton said.

Since then, the don has morphed into a creature almost independent
of the politicians for financial support, turning instead to the lucrative drug
trade, extortion, and other economic crimes.

"They were still under the patronage of the politicians, but they
began to travel more to the United States and started to access their own source
of arms," said Dr Hutton.

"The drug trade started to open up and some of these guys became
extremely wealthy and independent of the parties," added Hutton.

financially independent

Today, that financially independent don is no longer hanging on to
the coat-tails of the politician for his wealth, but the umbilical cord is

"The don still needs the politicians to legitimise them," said
Noel Smith, a social worker in the Corporate Area.

"If there is work to be given out in the community, the don must
get, or the work might mash up. When the politician goes into the community, he
can't deal with every individual, so he depends on the area leader or don,"
Smith said.

The don is also expected to ensure that persons turn out for
political meetings, keep out supporters of the opposing party, and ensure that
residents are protected if they are attacked by their political rivals.

For this protection, residents pay a heavy price.

"They have to accept the ruling of the don in any dispute, and
that ruling could be that a man must get a broken hand or foot, or be killed for
breaking the rules," claimed Smith.

In addition, the don gets his pick of the young girls in the
community by free will or force.

"But is not every don force people to send their young girls to
him. The real big don has women falling over themselves to be with him, so he
has no reason to force any woman to sleep with him," Smith said.

Neither does he bow to the politician, putting an end to the days
when the member of parliament could dictate what happens in a community.