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Saving Jamaica from Lawlessness

Robert Forsythe, a constable with the Jamaica Police Force, was a devout Christian. Whenever things got tough he sought refuge in the holy Bible - this was a routine he had carried out regularly during much of his adult life. Last August, Forsythe once again put his faith to the test. A petty argument with his companion, Maureen Vincent, was getting out of hand so he stopped arguing and went into his bedroom to seek solace from his Bible. Shortly afterwards, Maureen charged in with a machete. Within seconds, Forsythe had been hacked to death. He was only 33.
For Alfred Morris, 70, it had taken a life-time to realise the joy of returning to his country of birth. Morris, a former shop keeper in Birmingham, had returned to Jamaica last October, after 40 years of toiling in Britain. He was barely two weeks in the island when tragedy struck. He was standing outside his uncompleted retirement home when a man walked up to him and bludgeoned him to death. There was no apparent motive for the killing.
In the same month, two of Kingston’s most notorious drug gangs agreed to patch up their differences by organising a friendly football match between themselves. The match was to be a symbol of peace to end the killing in the community. But that was not to be. No sooner had one of the teams gone a goal up that the other side resorted to shooting. By the time the mayhem ended, three people had died of gunshot wounds.
In August 1997, John Prescod, an Army Colonel and Commissioner of Corrections, believed he was doing the right thing when he ordered that condoms be issued to warders and inmates, to prevent the spread of AIDS in the prisons. Many inmates felt insulted by the suggested homosexuality. Within days of Prescod’s order, two of the island’s most notorious prisons - St Catherine and General Penitentiary - went up in smoke. 16 inmates were killed and 40 others injured.
Welcome to Jamaica - an island where violent crime is fast becoming an industry. According to police statistics, some 1,036 murders took place in Jamaica in 1997 - 80 per cent of which took place in the Island’s capital, Kingston. The real figure is believed to be much higher since as many as a third of murder incidents normally go unreported because of fear of possible backlash by the perpetrators. In spite of this, local analysts have predicted that the figure would double in 1998. How has an otherwise easygoing island found itself in such a situation?
Like everything in Jamaica, the reasons for the upsurge in violence is not universally agreed, especially by the political leaders. On one hand, the opposition attributes the violence to largely to the recent economic meltdown in Jamaica. Edward Seaga - leader of opposition and former prime minister - explained: “(The criminals) knew no social agenda. They had to grow up by themselves. For them, there was no planned process of social development. Education was on the back burner. Community centres were neglected and vandalised. Our young criminals are the children of structural adjustment (of the 1980s).”
Seaga’s perception is in agreement with that of the Planning Institute of Jamaica - an independent statutory body. According to the Institute, almost one in three Jamaicans live on 67p per day. Unemployment amongst the youths is alarming. In Hanover - which has a population of 70,000 - seven out of ten young persons are jobless, according to the parish’s Social Development Commission. “This is definitely worrying and a concern which everybody has on the front burner,” said Archibald Edwards, a community leader.
Others say many of the crimes - like murders and homicide - have ulterior motives. One celebrated victim of such a crime was Alfredo Vargas, the Venezuelan Ambassador to Jamaica. Vargas was having a quiet time in his three-bedroom apartment in Kingston, in November 1997, when a gunman burst in to his living room and pumped bullets into his chest. He was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. His death sent shock waves across the diplomatic community in Jamaica, and was only doused by assurances from Keith Knight, the National Security Minister, that swift action would be taken to prevent such crimes re-occurring.
Another avenue for criminals is street demonstrations, which often end in wholesale riots and looting. Whereas slave-era Jamaica often used street riots to achieve social and political objectives, today, demonstrations arise from the most ridiculous situations. In September 1998, a motor vehicle accident in Deans Valley, in western Jamaica, and the killing of an alleged shoplifter by a civilian, in Kingston, led to a three-day riot in the down-town Kingston. By the time police managed to restore order, three people had been killed and several businesses destroyed.
What exacerbated the incident was the arrest and detention of Donald Phipps, an “area don”, on charges of gun-running. His supporters went on the rampage. When they threatened to invade the police station where Phipps was being held, senior police officers capitulated and brought him forward to appeal to his supporters for calm. His intervention incensed the rank and file of the police force who accused their officers of cowardice. “It was a sad day in the life of the police force,” said Howard Brown, chair of Jamaica Police Federation. “If Phipps is now to restore law and order then the relevance of the JDF (Jamaica Defence Force) is now under scrutiny.”
But there are many who see the 6,000 strong force as being part of the problem. In the last few years, scores of civilians have been felled by police bullets either due to “accidental discharges” or deliberate shootings of protesters. In May 1997, a confrontation between the police and residents of Tivoli Gardens in West Kingston, resulted in the deaths of three women and a child. The incident prompted Seaga, MP for the area to call for a public inquiry into the killing. His call was dismissed by the government. However, a coroner’s jury in August 1998 found “no one criminally responsible” for the incident.
The run-ins between civilians and the police sometimes take on a tit for tat nature, with the civilians taking their own pound of flesh. Take the following incidents: In December 1997, Glenston Hamilton, a 46 year old a police sergeant, was having his police car repaired at a garage in down-town Kingston when gunmen pounced on him. Within seconds his skull was perforated with bullets. He died on the spot. Wensbert Thomas, a corporal, was patrolling a housing estate in Malvern, St Elizabeth, in December 1997 when he was ambushed by gunmen. He died in a hail of bullets. Errol Caregie, a 50 year-old, a police officer, had only just boarded a bus in up-town Kingston, when a gunman shot him in the throat. He, too, died instantly. The gunman made off with his service revolver.
Social and domestic violence apart, political violence is another major concern - and many see this as a sad state of affairs in a country that takes so much pride in its democracy. Sometimes the status and calibre of people involved in such violence can be very disturbing. John Junor, a former tourism minister, was having an argument with a political opponent in his constituency in Manchester, in February 1997, when a scuffle broke out. “Quick-thinking” Junor pulled out a gun and fired shots into the air forcing his opponent flee.
Such has been the scale of political violence in Jamaica that some communities are referred to as “garrison constituencies” - an euphemism for political war zones. These war zones include parishes of St Catherine, St Andrews, Spanish Town and Kingston. Of all these parishes, St Catherine towers above the rest in the art of political violence. In June 1996, three people were killed in the constituency in what many described as an insane act of violence between the supporters of Jamaica Labour Party and the break-away National Democratic Movement (NDM). One of those killed was a baby - Ricardo Taylor - who was being cradled in his mother’s arms when he was shot in the heart. He died instantly. “I am tired of burying children whose lives have been snuffed out by ruthless and heartless men,” said a disgusted Bruce Golding, leader of the NDM.
Golding himself is no stranger to threats of violence. In September 1996, Jamaican police had to step up security around his home following the discovery of a plot to assassinate him. If Golding was saved by the timely intervention of the police, Broscoe Lee, his general secretary, was not so lucky. Lee was relaxing in his country home in rural western Jamaica, in April 1997, when two men knocked on his door. As Lee tried to open the window to see who it was, he was greeted with bullets. Although the 56 year old Lee survived the attack he would not forget the incident in a hurry.
Another problem the country faces is the laxity of the prison system. In Jamaica, it is common for criminals to break-out of prisons only to commit more crimes. One prison notorious for breaks-out is the General Penitentiary in downtown Kingston. The last four years have seen routine escapes by prisoners. Since 1994 almost 300 prisoners have escaped from Penitentiary. To date, less than half of them have been recaptured. And there have cases of corrupt prison officers who would happily let out prisoners on payment of a fee. One inmate recently paid £300 to a prison officer to enable him to get married! The scandal led to a mini crisis between the police and the prison authority.
Violent crime in Jamaica is eating into every facets of the society and school children are caught up in the tide. In April 1997 Gregory Grinion, 17, “got on the nerves” of a classmate over the seating arrangement at the Montego Bay Secondary. To the horror of the on-lookers, the classmate returned with a machete and chopped Grinion to death. The incident was particularly embarrassing for the government because it came a year after Knight had ordered improved security across the island’s schools to stop gunmen from chasing fellow criminals into school compounds.
Even simple recreational exercise like using public library can be very risky. Recently, Jamaica Library Service (JLS), a government outfit, cried aloud at its difficulty in recruiting people to work in some of its rural libraries because of the fear of gunmen. Said Gloria Salmon, director of the JLS: “People are still refusing to work in these libraries for fear of their lives because of violence. As a result, many of our branch libraries in these areas are closed.”
One disturbing dimension of the problem is a recent revelation that the mental health of Jamaicans is being affected by the high rate of crime and violence. “We know that many of the people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (due to violence) will become perpetrators or victims later on. This is especially so for the children who witness violence and what we are trying to do is to stop the cycle,” said Earl Wright, a leading Jamaican psychiatrist.
In the face of these problems, however, the government insists that the situation is not out of control and blames the media for its sensational reporting of crime. “What has happened is that there has been some high profile crimes, like murder,” a spokesman for Prime Minister PJ Patterson told Black Perspective in an exclusive interview from Kingston. “Therefore people get this feeling that the crime is out of control. What the (Police) statistics are saying is that last year (1997), crime went down by some 80 per cent.”
The government rejects the view that economic and social deprivation were responsible for the upsurge in crime. “You can’t blame it on poverty,” the PM aide insists. “The fact that people are poor does not mean they should kill each other!” He however admits that drug dealing and feuding amongst peddlers, is a major concern. “You’ve got to realise that all the Caribbean islands are having serious problems with the influx of drugs. Our problems is two-fold: one is where the drug trade is influencing the level of crime and, two, where the free-flow of guns from North America is becoming a problem.”
We asked the spokesman why the police was not policing the borders effectively to stem this flow of guns from North America. “It can’t!” he replied. “Where can poor Jamaica find the money to police its borders? You should remember that we are an island.”
All said, Jamaica is nonetheless determined to rid itself of violent crime and the government is working with other governments in the region in an attempt to crack down on drug dealing and illegal importation of firearms. To this end, it recently acquired new equipment aimed at detecting guns at all ports in the island. Also the government has recently asked a team of university sociologists and criminologists to help examine the reasons behind the high crime rate.
In order to check police excesses, the government has introduced a Police Complaint Authority, run by civilians, to handle complaints relating to police violence and acts of indiscipline, while calling on the people to join hands with the force to bring men of violence to book. “They (policemen) give their lives for you,” pleaded Francis Forbes, police commissioner. “Do you really hope to bring about change for the better when we sit on the fence and scornfully criticise?”
Another government initiative is its decision to bring hanging back to the island, after an absence of 10 years, but the move is already causing unease amongst the human rights activists and some western governments including Britain. More so, Jamaica is in dispute with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which is yet to process its death penalty petition. The Commission’s snail-speed process has outraged the ruling Peoples National Party, which has threatened to take the island out of the regional body.
According to the Prime Minister’s spokesman, “The government’s view about hanging is that it is a law on the (stature) book and therefore by not enforcing it you are tacitly encouraging lawlessness in the country. If the country wants to go through a constitutional process of removing hanging from the book, fine. But so long as it’s on the law book, the government has got to enforce it.”
In addition, the government is using moral persuasion to curb the incidence of violence. “If we don’t fundamentally changed the way we relate to each other in our society, we are never going to achieve the greatness of which we are capable as a people,” warned Prime Minister Patterson. “We cannot continue like this. We must save Jamaica from lawlessness.”
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