Almost 10,000 people have been murdered in Jamaica between 2010 and 2017, with 1,617 last year. These were the result not only of robbery and gang wars, but of a blind rage that has led to killings for trivial reasons. Paradoxically, over the past two years the number of thefts, armed robberies and rapes has fallen by about 20 percent. The hair-raising gang wars are now long gone, after the decades in which the One Order and Klansman gangs had engaged in what was nothing short of ethnic cleansing as they vied with each other for the monopoly on extortion in Spanish Town, “Spain” for locals.
After the arrest of their historic members, today the old gangs seem to be fractured and without a clear leader. Even Dudus Coke, the legendary cocaine boss and leader of the Shower Posse gang, is now ancient history, after the Tivoli Gardens neighborhood he used to rule over as his personal fiefdom was leveled by army mortars during the uprising of his underlings defending him in May 2010. Now he is serving 23 years in a maximum-security US prison.
Nevertheless, during the first three weeks of January, 135 people lost their lives, many because of quarrels over small sums of money or other petty reasons. According to the statistics of the daily Jamaica Observer, Montego Bay, a town visited by around two million tourists a year, has become not only the most violent city on the island, but the most violent one on the planet, with 255 homicides out of a population of 111,000. This was one world record that Jamaica could have done without.
At the end of 2017, the government declared a state of emergency for St. James province, of which Montego Bay is the capital. The US embassy put out a precautionary alert to warn Americans planning to depart for the Caribbean island.
And what are the police doing in response? In terms of violence, all too much. From 2000 to 2014, 3,018 Jamaicans have been killed by special police units, according to figures compiled by INDECOM, the Independent Commission of Investigations on police killings that was set up in late 2010 after the bloodbath at Tivoli. Almost 1,000 people were killed just between 2010 and 2013. And these are conservative estimates, given that INDECOM was not in charge of the first-hand investigations.
More than a third of those killed were passers-by killed in firefights and hostages.
And the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) has a no less impressive civilian body count to its name: senior citizens 75 and 80 years old, mothers on their way home after work, and schoolgirls aged 12 and 13 (Nicketa Cameron and Vanessa Kirkland) were among those killed in the March 2012 raids in the ghettos of Denham Town and Cassava Piece—a total of 35 innocent victims. By October 2013, there were already over 40. One of them, Kay-Ann Lamond, seven months pregnant, was gunned down in a parking lot for talking rudely to a policeman.
The killing of Quincy Frater, which happened at the end of January at the hands of a Special Forces agent in Ocho Rios, is a typical example. According to the version put out by the police, Frater, a security guard at a tourist facility with a spotless record, suddenly pulled out a gun when confronted by two officers on a routine mission, who then killed him in self-defense in the kitchen of his own home. This version is vigorously denied by his neighbors and family, who argue that the gun must have been planted in the house by the officers. The INDECOM officer who arrived at the scene admitted the possibility of evidence tampering by the police, who had had exclusive access to the crime scene for six hours.
According to Frater’s girlfriend, the only witness present, the policemen came at 5 a.m., breaking through the back door without a warrant and waving their guns in Frater’s face. He protested: “Put the gun away, why are you pointing it at me?” One of the policemen shot him at near point blank range, aiming at the height of his spleen. Frater fell and was shot two more times on the ground. The policemen prevented the family from calling an ambulance and searched the apartment, finding nothing. In the end, they loaded the dying man into their Jeep and arrived at the hospital at around 6 a.m., where the doctor on call confirmed that Frater had died on the way.
The girlfriend insists that Frater was unarmed. Family members who rushed to the scene after the shooting claim that they followed the police Jeep to the hospital, leaving one of the policemen alone in the house. The next day, the blood on the floor was already gone. According to INDECOM, it was washed away at the initiative of the family. But the family has told Public Defender Arlene Harrison Henry—the highest authority that citizens can invoke in case of judicial abuses—that it was INDECOM who had the scene cleaned up.
At the headquarters of the Commission in Kingston, the investigators have confirmed that the gun found where Frater was killed is still in the forensics laboratory, and they have not yet been able to examine it. The officer who fired the rounds got his own weapon back the next day. No statement has been released yet, after more than a month. In previous times, the procedure used to be different: the agents under investigation would have their weapons and passports confiscated, and the evidence found at the crime scene would be shared between the forensics lab and the Commission.
The wave of pro-vigilante sentiment that has taken over public opinion and the media after last year’s record number of murders has led to a weakening of INDECOM. The current government has been complicit in this, led by the Jamaica Labor Party (JLP), which never accepted the role of the Commission, set up after the events in Tivoli by the JLP’s rival, the People’s National Party (PNP), then in power.
At the very least, the threat that the position of chief of police would go to Reneto Adams, the former law enforcement official idolized by the masses who led the police death squads that killed 34 people in cold blood in 2001, has been averted during these past few days, after the announcement that Major General Anthony Anderson, former Chief of Defense Staff, will be appointed to the job. Everyone is hoping that Anderson, coming as he does from the army, will put an end to the centuries-old problems that have marred the local police: the high rate of corruption, the low level of professionalism and the lack of adequate technology for crime scene investigation.
In the case of Jamaica, everyone keeps missing the forest for the trees: these three shortcomings are the main causes of the rise in the number of murders, beside the fragmentation of the criminal gangs and the volatile mood of the people. Ignoring abuses and judicial crimes can only add fuel to the fire of a tension which, in the most disadvantaged communities, is already unsustainable.
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