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Jamaica's killing streets - Garrison politics the crux of crime

Published:Sunday | March 14, 2010 | 12:00 AM
Police patrol an inner-city garrison-type community in Kingston. Most of the murders committed in Jamaica take place in political garrisons. - File photo

The following is an excerpt from the recently published book Killing Streets and Community Revival, authored by Horace Levy, University of the West Indies research fellow and member of the mediation group Peace Management Initiative. See Part 2 in tomorrow's Gleaner.

Community plays a critical role in local homicide. Historically, on a national scale, community has been paid enormous attention from the days of Jamaica Welfare, which was started in 1937 by Norman Manley, one of the 'Fathers of the Nation'. The specific quasi-community or anti-community formation playing a role in homicide is the 'garrison' ... .

Other approaches to this subject of crime and violence have selected other roots and contributory factors, as well as corresponding 'solutions'. In the mid-1990s, when the escalation in the murder rate began to attract attention, domestic murder, defined broadly, was named by the police as the main trouble source ... .

The next trouble source, as proclaimed by a former minister of national security, then became drugs, the international trade in drugs in particular, which fitted well with the concerns of the northern countries to which the drugs were going but locally came in for sharp criticism from knowledgeable sources. This meant that the funding needed to fight the drug scourge became accessible to Jamaica. However, successes in 2005 and 2006 in taking out some big traders and curtailing the trade - acknowledged and praised by the North American police whose collaboration made much of it possible - have not led to the subsequent slowing or reversal of the climbing murder level that should logically have followed.

Organised crime

Recently, attention has turned to organised crime and ... a new level of organisation is described as taking place and having an effect. It is said to be an approach more advanced than those that gave rise to the 'posses' of the 1980s in the United States of America, which have since been decimated by northern police. In those days, when the Jamaicans as newcomers were carving out an empire for themselves, they were ruthless in their methods and drew police attention and competence they were unaccustomed to ... . Today's clever drug traders, on the other hand, steer away from the frequent murders that attract ... attention. Hence, unless competition can be shown to be also involved, it may be contradictory to be trying to pin an escalation in homicide on organisation, even if, in fact ... organised crime is on the increase.

The police and other experts are also currently attributing the high rate of homicide to gangs, which the police say number islandwide more than 200. Clearly, this large number would have to include those identified in this study as community gangs [corner crews] as opposed to criminal gangs. The police do not officially distinguish them in that way, preferring to see them as an earlier stage of criminality.

The attribution of most current murders to gangs by anthropologist Herbert Gayle rests on the view that many gangs in Jamaica are family based and that family feuds lie at the root of many inter-gang conflicts. While there is much to commend this view, at the same time it is my impression that homicides that would better be classified as simply inter-personal are on the increase ... .

It is not at all my intention to say that domestic conflict, drugs and organised crime are negligible factors in this matter. The intention is rather to put a spotlight on community, a major social organisation of human beings and particularly important to Jamaican inner-city people ... .

If there is a driving force and sustaining structure of community homicides in Jamaica to which this paper does point an accusing finger, it is party politics in the way it has functioned in Jamaica. Combined with a focus on the garrison, this will not be earthshakingly new: the 1997 Report of the National Committee on Political Tribalism, which says much about garrisons, is 11 years old this year ... .

Root of the problem

I argue for a simple point staring in our faces, that the root of the problem is to be found in what the political parties with popular consent have done in their quest for power - converted communities into garrisons and transformed instruments of unity and solidarity into war machines. Authoritarian garrison structure with violent ways turned communities into killing fields, robbing them of their cohesion, vitality and ability to function as communities. Youth corner crews, drawn into community defence, became community gangs and a dominating force in the communities.

Garrisonisation also facilitated along the way in some communities, as a natural by-product or corollary, the formation of ... criminal enterprises. The focus here, however, is on the community gangs, which have operated not only in but also on behalf of their communities. Even while distinct from criminal gangs, they are to be held responsible for homicides in a significant number, the more so as they are being currently put through training in criminality.