Crime in Jamaica: A visit to the Twilight Zone

Jamaica has a parallel ‘universe’, where crime lives, & it’s a mental as much as physical space, born from our notions of exceptionalism. It’s a kind of Twilight Zone, whose borders seem to be expancing.

Former National Security Minister, Peter Bunting recently renewed his call for a high level summitchaired by Prime Minister Andrew Holness, with support from the relevant ministries that will give support to the implementation of social intervention strategies. This was in response to a rapidly escalating level of murders in western Jamaica. 

With the best will in the world, it’s the sort of thing politicians will suggest: they are people used to exercising power and influence and see that as a process that comes from above. Personally, I think that while such approaches might have worked at some stages in the past, it’s not clear that they have much hope now? Why?

The battle against crime was lost long ago when ordinary people did not see it was in their interest to not lose control of their communities to criminals. Like a tangling weed, once the cracks started to form, the weed spread. So, it’s much the case that many communities live cheek-by-jowl with crime and criminals, but have become unable to address the negatives that poses. The recent Tivoli Enquiry gives some idea of why that might have happened. Criminals could deliver goods, services, justice, in a manner that the state or other entities could not. The tolerance of criminals was sweetened by a life that many openly admit they wished was still there. Perverse though it may seem, people felt safer.

So, with that sort of background a high-level summit would not get far, UNLESS and UNTIL, it were to include ‘Dons’ and criminals who are also ‘stakeholders.

The other stakeholders who must be there are ordinary citizens. So, if anything, the summit needs to be truly national and probably LOW LEVEL attack. Answers to crime in communities must come from the many ‘Ground Zero’ battlefields where crime has taken control.

That is an enormous challenge. Why?

Jamaicans have grown up with many reasons for not assisting in fighting crime:

  • Informers are not to be trusted and should be eliminated–that means that it’s a very brave soul who openly offers to the authorities information about crime.
  • Police have been corrupt and knowingly complicit in fostering crime–whether the crooked police have been in cahoots with criminals or doing their own range of crimes, law-enforcement agents have been seen as much as cause as cure of problems.
  • Politicians have for too long just uttered ‘buzz words’ with little evidence that these carry content and drive any real change.
  • Politicians have also been long-suspected of being closely associated with criminals. Just this morning, former Contractor-General, Greg Christie (@Greg0706), posed this question on Twitter.Screen Shot 2016-09-27 at 7.49.30 AM.png The fact that such a question could be posed by someone who’s prime role was to look into the awarding of government contracts is startling. However, Former Security Minister Bunting made it clear in 2014 that the link exists, and has been part of the root problem in solving crime

    “Criminals would support party candidates and were often rewarded with contract works. Hopefully, the worst days of this criminal gang/political nexus are now behind us, but we must acknowledge our contribution,”  The ‘worse days’ may be over, but the bitter fruit are still on the tree. So, sinner, heal thyself!

    Bunting, while contributing to the Sectoral Debate in the House of Representatives, said to substantially reverse violence in the country, “we have to change the attitudes and behaviours around the violence-related risks and causal factors”.

    The minister said Jamaica has, for decades, developed a subculture of violence and lawlessness that has been reinforced and promoted by segments of the society. He said the connection between elements of both political parties and criminal gangs and dons is one of the causal factors in the culture of violence:  “Criminals would support party candidates and were often rewarded with contract works. Hopefully, the worst days of this criminal gang/political nexus are now behind us, but we must acknowledge our contribution.”

  • Jamaicans have a strange tolerance for many things that they should oppose. This is a feature of daily life, and shows itself in the most mundane incidents, but rises to the highest levels. Jamaicans often try to find reasons to excuse the inexcusable. If they feel that the welfare of the ordinary citizen (‘the little man’) is at stake, they rally to save his ‘opportunities’ to ‘eat a food’. But, again, like the weed spreading, the nation then finds itself unable to oppose bigger things because it’s been so accepting of everything up to that point.

Former National Security Minister, Peter Bunting, introduced the ‘Unite for Change Campaign‘ in 2013. One of its features was the introduction of a ‘mobile phone application (app) that will enhance the resources currently available to empower citizens and improve their level of safety and security’: “This app will offer each Jamaican the opportunity to play their part by engaging either the iReport, Panic Mode, The Law or Alert icons on their mobile devices in order to report incidents of crime, seek assistance from the police or be informed about their rights.”

Mr. Bunting added: “In this respect the Ministry has embarked on an intensive programme of public education and resocialisation to displace the dysfunctional elements in our culture,” noting that crime is an outcome of failures at varying levels of the society; the family, community, school, church, the built environment and governance structures.

His successor, Robert Montague, earlier this year agreed to continue the program.

Now, I have never seen any report that indicates, at the least, how the public is using this app: eg, number of alerts, follow-up, criminals apprehended, etc. A renewed notice about the app appeared in the newspapers in June. I downloaded it onto my phone when I first saw its availability, but have never had cause to use it. I may just start doing so, however, for the many minor transgressions I witness. MY only problem is that I see these while driving, and being a careful citizen, I’m not going to interact with my device while driving. Maybe, I will have to stop and work it, next time. Watch out!screen-shot-2016-09-27-at-9-35-36-am

But, the other aspect about crime is the inevitable feeling that politicians are cynical–ie about their self-interest and self-preservation, and buzz words are for votes. They came to have little meaning quickly as national elections loomed and business was more about ‘divide to rule’, rather than unite for change. The best example of a unity approach would have been a coalition government, but heaven forbid!

I reminded some people the other day how then-PM Portia Simpson-Miller had rejected the overture from then-Opposition Leader, Andrew Holness to walk together through ‘garrisons’. That tells you a lot. It also tells you why being optimistic about crime being ‘tackled’ based on initiatives from politicians are as likely to be failures than successes.

‘Taking back the streets’ is not an empty phrase. But, for it to have meaning, it has to have meaning. Who is going to start to take back the community in which they live? It’s not for the faint of heart. But, saving your country rarely is.

Putting security forces on the streets will have the effect of making it seem that ‘something’ is being done. But, for the impact of that presence to really mean something, the criminals have to decide to stop committing crimes. The rationale for doing that, however, seems weak. Jamaica is notorious for not being able to catch criminals, and then not being able to use the law effectively to sanction them. So, the odds favour continuing with crime, not stopping it.

The police routinely state that x murders were ‘gang-related’, yet that ‘intelligence’ seems to not be brought to bear to curb gangs beforehand. There’s a peculiar disconnection there that goes back to people’s suspicions about the police. But, it could also be that the police are inept. A report yesterday pointed out how out-dated are many of the police’s practices in the area of tracking crime, with local paper records that cannot be inter-connected, and work practices that seem at odds with effective policing. That tells us about political priorities in the past, and we are living with the consequences of those.

But, all of that has left the country in a state where each day sees the apparent spreading crime, and once-quiet communities now find they are just as prone. I listened to the radio this morning and heard reports of how schools in crime-riddled areas are having to ‘lock down’. These are the actions of a place in a state of war, or siege. Criminals, for their part, seem totally ready to do everything to defend what they have and hope to gain.

Therein lies the bigger problem. Force is not enough to defeat force. It’s not clear, for instance, that the increased policing in St. James can point to people who are being sought. Do the police have targets in mind? If not, just being numerous isnt going to cut it. If villains ‘hide’ out ‘in the open’, the exercise is largely futile.

Changing minds takes time. Putting boots on the ground can be done quickly. Changing minds gives lasting results. Putting boots on the ground may give, at best, a temporary respite.

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)

4 thoughts on “Crime in Jamaica: A visit to the Twilight Zone”

  1. Reblogged this on Jamaican Journal and commented:
    As a foreigner, even though I have been here almost five years, I am loath to comment or theorize about the reasons for the country’s high crime rates. This post by fellow blogger explicates a lot of my own theories and suspicions. It is a good read. Check it out.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I agree with every word – and I’m also a “foreigner” who has lived here close to 30 years! These criminal links with police and politicians have been referred to many, many times. I like the idea of a Summit, just to get people focused. But it is more “top down” thinking. At the heart of it, however, in my view is police corruption.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Very true. Every word. Increasing police presence in St James is probably not going to help the problem. Also the murders tend to be very brazen, criminals kill in the open with witnesses, this type of behavior says they are not afraid of the police. Why should that be? More than likely the ‘taking back the streets’ tactics will have to come from the residents because I think the police force in St. James is wholly corrupt. Crime like this does not does spring up, they are years in the making, if the police force in the parish had been doing their jobs, we would not have come to this.



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