Jamaica Moves to Stop the Killings ; with One of the World's Highest Murder Rates the Island Nation Is Importing Help to Fight Crime

By Danna Harman writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, March 16, 2006 | Go to article overview
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Jamaica Moves to Stop the Killings ; with One of the World's Highest Murder Rates the Island Nation Is Importing Help to Fight Crime

Danna Harman writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor

On Monday last week, a thief stabbed and killed 15-year-old Jordano Flemmings as he walked home from a church social.

On Tuesday, Durraine Giddeon, a 28-year-old building inspector was shot dead by a gunman on his way to work. On Wednesday, 16-year- old Romane Brisset got into a scuffle with a passerby over a baseball cap and was knifed to death. On Thursday, 62-year-old Vilma Mais was killed as she walked into church.

And on Friday, local papers celebrated the least violent February in three years: "Only" 99 murders, compared to 129 last year, "only" 177 robberies, down from 178, and "only" 53 reported rapes, as opposed to 85.

In a society eager for any positive news on crime statistics, even such small drops are cause for relief.

With its staggering rate of violence fueled by political rivalries, the drug trade, unemployment, a breakdown of the family, and a weak police force, Jamaica, says Dan Erikson, a Caribbean expert at the InterAmerican Dialogue in Washington D.C., "is in crisis."

New crime-fighting initiatives, including importing detectives from Britain's famed Scotland Yard - along with more holistic, community-based approaches - have recently been rolled out to halt the downward spiral before the Caribbean island nation becomes better known for its high murder rate than its turquoise waters and glitzy mega resorts.

Scope of the problem

In 2005, there were 1,669 recorded homicides in this country of 2.7 million, meaning Jamaica now competes only with South Africa and Colombia for the dubious distinction of having the highest per capita muder rate in the world.

'Nuff respec,' a typical greeting in Jamaican Creole, or patois, is also something to live - and die - by in some areas here.

"You never know how it starts," says Joanna Brissett, a real estate student who lives in the Fletchers Land community, one of the more violent neighborhoods in downtown Kingston. "You could be on the bus and someone steps on your toe. A fight starts. It's about honor. And someone gets killed. Just like that."

There are gunshots nightly in Fletchers Land, says Ms. Brissett. House break-ins are a common occurrence, and, while everyone knows who the guilty are, no one dares "squeal" to the police. Brissett's cousin was killed for using a curse word, then her father was threatened for "dissing" the killer. Her aunt fled the neighborhood for fear, but never put in a report.

According to a poll published Monday in the Jamaica Gleaner, 72 percent of Jamaicans say violence is the country's worst woe today. The wave of violent crime is often traced back to the 1970s when political leaders turned to neighborhood gang leaders, or dons, to rustle up votes. Since then, the resurgence of the cocaine trade through Jamaica has changed the dynamic, with drug lords replacing the politicians as patrons, and turf wars and extortion rings replacing politics.

But, says Brisset, it almost does not matter what is being fought about. "Jamaicans are like that. We will always find a reason," she says.

"There is definitely a certain proportion of this population for whom the only way to deal with humiliation - the only way to regain respect - is through violence," says Mark Shields, a Scotland Yard detective with 30 years experience who has been hired as Jamaica's deputy commissioner of police. "This is a place where many people don't look for ways to resolve a dispute. They take all matters to the very bitter end."

Roots of the violence

To help understand why Jamaica is more violent than similar societies with equal or worse poverty rates, suggests Brian Meeks, a professor of social and political change at The University of the West Indies, Mona, one needs to understand the particularly brutal history of slavery on the island.

Jamaica, relative to most other Caribbean islands, is large, and in the days of slavery, there was always the possibility of an escape to a different life in the hinterlands, he explains.

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