What high crime means to Jamaica: while it persists, get used to low growth

No amount of comparison changes the fact that Jamaica’s crime problems are Jamaica’s problems, and for it to solve, alone or with the help of outside agencies. For the most part, discussion of crime in Jamaica focuses on murders, their level and rate, but the reality is that crime is much more than that. The whole gamut of violent crime causes most ordinary people to be frightened—nothing matches personal violation—and I don’t know if the trauma of possible or actual violent assault can be seen as much different from the thoughts that someone may take your life. Rape is a real threat, especially to women. Assaults on children often raise people’s concerns. We see that criminals strike at the most vulnerable. The threat of burglaries or home invasions would fill most residents with fear. Car thefts and theft of other valuable property isn’t seen as trivial by those who suffer it, but possessions can be replaced; not so limbs and lives. However, the picture of crime in Jamaica that’s usually painted doesn’t touch things other than murder very much, though the narrative of the Jamaica Constabulary Force is changing. However, JCF’s recent attempt to reprofile the image of crime in Jamaica as ‘improving’ by looking at it over a longer time period and comparing averages showing that JCF was making ‘progress’ did not go down well.

To the extent that most serious crimes in Jamaica are inwardly-directed at residents, visitors from abroad can generally largely discount them. The tourist business in places like the Caribbean is fragile, where it is a specially-developed industry, not something that has flowed from the history and culture of a place, as is the case of much of Europe. Its major players—investors, developers, owners, etc. know their product and its image needs to be protected. One way of doing that is always to minimize the risks tourists face. Resort countries like Jamaica have worked hard in that regard and moved to develop all-inclusive hotels and resorts, where almost all of the tourists’ needs can be met in one place, without need to venture out into the general population. If they do that, unguided, so be it, but it’s often discouraged—whatever one thinks of such advice. They may be offered adventures under the umbrella organized by their hotel—coach, guide, designated stops, etc. So, visitors are shielded from many domestic issues by placing them in a well-controlled and comfortable environment, where they rarely have to think about anything beyond their stay—most expenses are already covered. For that reason, Jamaica’s tourists often have positive impressions about the island and some 40% are repeat visitors. Tourists have rarely been the targets of criminals in Jamaica, with regard to violent crime, though enough cases of rape in hotels exist to show tourists are vulnerable. They may be more susceptible to theft and, unwittingly, price gouging (while not a crime, per se, points to the exploitative tendencies of the local population and the readiness of tourists to ‘buy’ their way out of possible conflicts). Harassment may not be a crime but it can detract from a good experience, so that too is often avoided by limiting access to ill-inclusive resorts to only guests or workers or suppliers.

In general, investors’ concerns are about what crime does to any business costs, whether that’s from theft, need to pay for protection, risks to staff and customers. If these costs are unacceptable and unpredictable, they invest elsewhere. Many investors can treat crime like many forms of corruption and pay literally a price for it not be their problem. How that may be happening in Jamaica is not detailed, but it is easy to see how it could be part of a ‘bargain’ struck in places like Montego Bay, not least because it’s quite probable that the collective power of the tourism sector could overpower criminals if it came to buck. It’s illustrative, however, that the premier company in the all-inclusive tourism business, Sandals, admitted to a fraud of $1.65million in 2006 involving real estate company controlled by the then-PM of the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI), Michael Misick, for which they paid the TCI government US$12 million in compensation in 2012. While that was not a Jamaican transaction it proves simply that the business is not ‘clean’, and its principals may make whatever financial or other deals serve their best interests.

If the numbers can make sense, however they are arrived at, then the business venture can go ahead and acceptable revenue and profits can be generated.

This is a general point, but it’s useful to look at tourism because it’s the most visible sector in terms of its interaction between the domestic economy and foreigners and is a good guide to whether crime matters, because people are highly sensitive to personal risks.

However, it’s hard to assess the overall profitability of the tourism sector. We know that Sandals business is sufficiently successful to warrant significant interests in buying it for a possible US$4.5 billion.

Most of the political focus on the sector is on its gross revenues and arrivals. It’s sometimes hard to get composite data for things like how much tourists spend gross. So, we know that, for example, Jamaica earned US$2 billion in tourism revenue for January to June 2019. Jamaica has welcomed approximately two million visitors for the first half of 2019, earning US$2 billion in revenues. In 2018, the country had record arrivals of over 4 million visitors with gross earnings of over US$3 billion. The real importance of tourism to Jamaica is how much of that revenue stays in the country, now about 40%, and how well the sector offers domestic linkages in areas such as agriculture. In that latter regard, the savvy criminals would be seeing where in that chain they could exert their influences and take their share of revenue and control. Transport or the provision of other local services would offer similar opportunities.

The profile of foreign financial inflows to Jamaica and domestic investment reflects those who can tolerate the high crime (murder rate, especially) and those tend to be entities that offer lower rather than higher pay, in part as a discount on crime risks, or businesses so large that local criminals have a hard time exerting significant impact on their core operations (eg mining). Activities that offer higher added value and with that pay will not be implanted when the risk of that being appropriated by criminal elements. In that regard, the cost of crime to investors is similar to the risk of nationalization that sometimes looms over foreign direct investment in infrastructure. It may not be as severe as the total loss of the investment, but it could happen without recourse to compensation.

If crime falls in Jamaica the country benefits first—citizens are and feel safer, and are prepared to do more without fear of personal loss, financial or material, or personal endangerment. Over time, if Jamaica is seen as having lower risks, this should attract higher-paying and added-value activities and entities: risks taken should get better rewards. That’s where the country should be headed, in general.

The average criminal, however, isn’t concerned with wider economic gains except that they offers better chances for income flows and asset control. (The recent constraints placed on the country by the COVID19 pandemic highlights that criminals need a thriving economy to raise their chances of doing well. However, as the restrictions stay in planche longer, criminals many be so strained that they will resort to other more coercive means of getting what they want. Something to watch for.) Individual/gang gains are paramount and fighting over territory to claim those gains is the major thing. We see how that plays out in other countries, especially with organized crime activities. So, the gangs (whom we are told are the main ‘violence producers’) are all about maximizing their own profits, through whatever chain of misdeeds are necessary.

Despite what I have said about crime Jamaica’s own problem, many make the mistake of seeing Jamaica in isolation and ignore that its high murder rate is consistent with a region that is the most violent in the world, which is know to have deep and involved links in drugs and arms trafficking.

Some make comparison between Jamaica’s high murder rate and that in other parts of the world, say Western Europe. While, lower numbers may look like an objective to pursue, it also ignores that Europe did not get where it is overnight or that crime is rampant in many European countries. Jamaica’s rate matters not to the assessment that the UK is the crime capital of Europe; that affects the UK directly, even though it still seems a prosperous place relative to Jamaica, mostly because that assessment affects where most UK interests operate, ie in the unified EU space. It’s also important that the UK’s gang structure is known to be well-developed and has infiltrated many part of life, and is not just involved in violent crimes, but in drugs and human trafficking. It’s a world apart from Jamaica.

Europeans don’t care much about the high crime rates in Jamaica, as demonstrated by the rates at which they visit the country, as noted above. Jamaica is the most popular Caribbean destination for UK travelers. If comparisons matter, they will likely be only if/when people consider relocating. Where ‘Jamaican’ criminals matter more in the UK mind is the fact that they have deep roots in Britain through gangs there (some of which link to the Caribbean) and that areas with large concentrations of Caribbean migrants are often crime hotspots.

UK crime rates are staggering when considered in totality, so its rate of 75 stabbings per 100,000 sits as scarily in the minds of most people as Jamaica’s 48 murders/100,000. UK street crime is more random than the relatively selective geographic spread of Jamaican crime. The wave of knife crimes also creates a frightening environment for most because such crimes often involve robberies and are committed by close personal confrontation.

Living in an area like London, that has almost 170 knife incidents per 100,000 people is about as scary a prospect as living in a war zone, much as people want us to see Jamaica’s 48 homicides/100,000.

While Jamaica’s violent crime remains high it’s almost impossible to envisage a fast growing economy: the GDP losses of crime have been assessed many times. Jamaicans’ low productivity can never compensate for the output loss from crime; it worsens it. Donors have long noticed low political commitments have been to address violent crime, including disengaging from its well-known links. Private investors too won’t sink many real assets here until that’s addressed. Rising stock markets currently give some foreigners options to invest in financial assets. But, generally, most smart money goes elsewhere. Why not? What Jamaicans don’t see is how much money that could have come here and brought jobs and goods and services, end up elsewhere—the opportunity cost of crime.

Whatever concerns the average Jamaican has about violent crime (murder), it’s easier to be sanguine when it’s known to be/portrayed as ‘mainly gang related’ and concentrated in certain geographical areas (say Montego Bay and Spanish Town). Its incidence is not the fear of most people and certainly not that of say uptown Kingston, which barely registered one homicide a year. That many crimes in Jamaica can be shown to involve parties known to each other is more comforting to many, who know they do not circulate in the relevant groups–putting aside those who are in violent communities and can easily get caught up accidentally in disputes. If that incidence changes, then watch the popular recoil. Contrast that to London, say, where the risk of violence shrouds everyday activities.

If Jamaicans aren’t pressing to address THEIR problems why should foreigners? How JAMAICA addresses crime may vary but until it does it more effectively get accustomed to a sluggish economy with largely unchanged inequalities. Sadly, that’s a prescription for crime to continue. It’s a Gordian knot of Jamaica’s making so it’s its to unravel.

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. :)

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