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The commissioner, gangs, and the occult

Published:Sunday | June 9, 2013 | 12:00 AM
Martin Henry

Martin Henry

"Security must be the first law of the [State]; otherwise, the other laws will not operate effectively." Though not original to him, these are wise words coming through Commissioner of Police Owen Ellington, MA.

Commissioner Ellington must be warmly commended for his contribution to the Sunday Observer last week, 'Dealing effectively with guns and drugs for improved public safety'. Public servants, cowering behind laws protecting state secrets and the tradition of neutrality, contribute too little to public discussions of matters on which they are eminently qualified to speak from where they sit.

If security is the first law, and the first business, of the State, the independent Jamaican State has been a monumental failure on a scale deserving an entry in the Guinness Book of Records. Commissioner Ellington supplies the facts; I supply the conclusion derived from the facts.

The commissioner tells us that although there has been a 40 per cent drop in murder since 2010, down from almost 1,700 in 2009, Jamaica still ranks as the country with the fourth-highest murder rate, trailing only Honduras, El Salvador and Venezuela. Our murder rate now stands at around 40 per 100,000 of the population, down from 63 per 100,000 in 2009.

Jamaica has the second-highest rate of killings by guns in the world, at 47 per 100,000 of the population - second only to El Salvador with 50 per 100,000.

Iraq has two murders per 100,000; Afghanistan has 2.4 per 100,000. Mexico, in the middle of drug wars, has a murder rate of 22.7 per 100,000; and Brazil, which is trying to pacify favelas controlled by drug lords, has a murder rate of 21 per 100,000. In the United States, the rate is 4.8 per 100,000, and in the UK, 1.2 per 100,000.

More than 2,000 Jamaicans are victims of gun attacks each year, the commissioner adds. Just over a half of those die and the remainder are scarred for life. From his domain, Ellington says, the Jamaican police have to endure an average 500 gun attacks each year.

While the police remove from the streets more than 600 illegal firearms and thousands of rounds of ammunition each year and arrest hundreds of gun offenders, most of them return to the streets in short order on bail or on suspended sentences after conviction, even as many are acquitted because of weak prosecution cases.

murder rate

As a new deputy commissioner, Carl Williams, takes charge of the crime portfolio, The Gleaner is reporting from JCF statistics 442 murders between January 1 and June 1 with only a 25 per cent clear-up rate.

And as Government wrestles with the macroeconomy and suffers sustained defeat, Commissioner Ellington states the obvious: "Jamaica's economic development is being held back by a lack of public security. Organised crime and gangs are killing too many people; the prevalence of illegal guns in the hands of criminals is too much for the communities to endure. It is undermining citizen confidence in the capacity and will of the State to protect them in their homes, communities and on public transport."

Last Tuesday, the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) launched its 2012 report, Political Culture of Democracy in Jamaica and the Americas. Gangs and crime figured prominently in the report, with me serving as panel discussant on 'Citizens' Perception of Gangs and the Police in Community Safety and Security'.

The police commissioner will be pleased to hear that the public opinion survey is showing 92 per cent of respondents saying gangs make communities less safe, instead of the view that gangs protect vulnerable communities from being invaded by enemy gangs. And 80 per cent of respondents disliked gangs. Surprisingly, nearly 83 per cent felt the police were doing a good or fair job in their effort to dismantle gangs; and 69 per cent expressed a clear willingness to work with the police in dismantling neighbourhood gangs, with another 16 per cent offering conditional support.

Other countries have come from further back to deal with their problems of violence, crime, and armed resistance to the authority of the State such as we saw on a smaller scale in Tivoli Gardens in 2010. Commissioner Ellington cites Colombia. At the turn of the century, the Colombian government was in control of less than one-third of the country. Rebels and drug lords were the de facto government in the rest. It was a failed state. They were killing police officers and judges, symbols of the authority of the state, almost at will and corrupting state institutions.

The president, Alvaro Uribe, came to power in 2002 and did what no Jamaican prime minister has yet done. President Uribe made security "the first law of the republic". Security meant that every citizen should be able to go about their business, secure in their possession of their property and their rights. Security meant taking back Colombia from the rebels and the drug lords.

Today, the State controls every square centimetre of Colombian territory, current president, Manuel Santos, says. And when he sits in international forums with other heads of state, the first item on the agenda is no longer drug trafficking, violence and kidnapping. "Now we are talking about social development, human rights, the environment, and how to grow at a high rate."

Leadership matters.

Commissioner Ellington, in his recommendations of "options which the society may wish to consider in order to improve public security by reducing violent crimes", makes this critical point: "Public security and safety are a necessary prerequisite for the enjoyment of human rights. Criminals have undermined public security, stability and citizen confidence, triggering stagnation in our economy and, in the process, denied generations of Jamaicans the opportunity to achieve life goals and pursue happiness ... ."

What the commissioner did not say, but I will, or rather repeat, is that if the State is to make security the first law, as it should, budgetary resources will have to be directed from elsewhere to national security and its twin, justice. Even a very modest five per cent slice off the total budget would yield some $25 billion more for national security and justice, the most basic responsibility of government, without any serious damage to other areas of expenditure.

In the crucial matter of dismantling gangs, we cannot afford to ignore critical data about gang behaviour. The Sunday Gleaner, on May 26, ran a column by Glenville Ashby, 'Criminal gangs and the occult: a global threat'. Supporting my long-held view, an Italian criminologist, Dr Enrico de Simone, was cited as saying, "There is a frightening trend in mixing the occult, drugs and crime."

gunmen relying on obeah

From the days of Rhygin, there is abundant anecdotal evidence of Jamaican badmen relying on religious-occultic practices for protection against rivals and law-enforcement agents. As recently as last Thursday, the Jamaican police arrested an obeah man who allegedly rented his car to gunmen. Besides a gun and ammunition, also seized was a book with the names of wanted men and their 'prescriptions' for oils and tablets that supposedly protected them from capture.

Drug use brings users down to their "base, animalistic self", de Simone says. And the use of potent drugs is intended "to connect users to spirits as their guardians creating a feeling of grandiosity and invincibility".

In researching gangs and the occult on the Internet, I came across a piece written by Sgt Richard Valdemar, a retired 33-year veteran of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, 'Criminal gangs and the occult'. Sgt Valdemar writes, sprinkled with cases experienced, "Throughout the long history of Los Angeles street gangs, their members have flirted with the dark side of evil. On the one hand, they claimed to be defenders of their race and neighbourhood; on the other, they acted in league with the devil, both metaphorically and literally. This conflict can be seen in the mixture of religious and demonic symbols depicted on their tattooed bodies."

The retired cop also makes a link between certain kinds of pop music and gangsterism. Some elements of Jamaican popular music have been riddled with violence, both in the lyrics and the form of the music itself.

The Gleaner, not given to editorial probing of the occult and crime, published an editorial on June 1 'May madness jolts the nation'. That editorial said, "the horror of the dismembering of a four-year-old girl in Trelawny; the murder of an eight-year-old left to rot in a latrine in St Catherine; the dumping of a newborn's body in a pit latrine in Trelawny; and the beheading of an octogenarian in Kingston, all within days, have succeeded in jolting the nation into acknowledging an appalling national trend of violently targeting children and the elderly ... . It is scandalous that our small, supposedly God-fearing country ranks among the top 10 in the world for murder."

Since that editorial, only eight days ago, more heinous, 'senseless' murders have been added to the 'grisly litany'.

The number and the character of many of our murders, both by gangs and lone 'deranged' individuals, have suggested to some a direct diabolic influence. Where madness stops and demonism begins and how they intertwine is an open question which people who are not pure materialists want answered.

As posed by The Gleaner, "the inevitable question is this: How will Jamaica find its way out of all this bloodletting and brutality? How can this violence be turned into an opportunity for peaceful existence?"

Clearly, we must listen to the police chief and to President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia to make security the first law of the State. We must reasonably resource that decision. We must take on board the commissioner's expert recommendations and those in the substantial library of accumulated crime reports. And we must not ignore any driver of crime, even if it takes us outside the 'normal'.

Martin Henry is a communication consultant. Email feedback to and