Jamaica struggling to cut its alarming murder rate
New head of national security faces a raging crime wave
BY YVES COLON
Surpassing 900 murders this year, Jamaica's chronic cycle of crime and civil disorder won't be broken until the people finally become sick of it, a top police official says.
Jamaicans ``must decide not to tolerate it any longer because
everyday people are dying around them,'' said James Forbes, the assistant
superintendent who is the
police spokesman in the capital Kingston.
And there is plenty for Jamaicans to be sick about.
So far this year, 910 people have been killed in confrontations, about 30 more than in all of last year -- a damaging statistic for an island that relies heavily on tourism for its livelihood.
Stung by these numbers and worried over damage to the image of the lush island, Prime Minister P.J. Patterson last week removed his longtime friend K.D. Knight as the head of national security, and replaced him with Peter Phillips, a former transportation minister with a reputation for effectiveness.
In addition, the government is placing more police officers, along with soldiers, on the streets to patrol the areas of Kingston where many of the killings have taken place.
Knight, who steps down Thursday, said this week he regretted that
the country's crime rate had not declined during his tenure. He then called
called on ``all patriotic
citizens to collaborate with the police in the fight against crime.''
However, Edward Seaga, a former prime minister whose Jamaica Labor
Party will challenge Patterson's People's National Party in upcoming elections,
changes should not make Jamaicans feel any safer.
``It's the same deck of cards that he has reshuffled,'' said Seaga,
whose party expects to challenge Patterson and his backers for the country's
leadership in coming
``He had an opportunity to bring in some new people, some new ideas, but he didn't,'' Seaga said. Patterson may have put Phillips in a new position, but Seaga said ``it remains to be seen whether he can can do the job, considering the brutalities that have taken place.''
Seaga led Jamaica from 1980 to 1989. He's also a member of parliament for West Kingston, which by police statistics is the most volatile area in Jamaica.
According to the police, drug and gang violence accounted for nearly 200 of the 900 killings, many of them in Seaga's West Kingston; Domestic murders are put at 273, and reprisal killings at 287. Although only eight killings were directly tied to politics, police say political tension, which includes reprisals, may be the source of hundreds of deaths.
The coming elections promise more tension.
``We're entering into election mode, and that's attracting some
violence,'' Forbes said. ``We're associating a large number of the murders
to political gangs, and the drug
trade. What we do know is that we have reprisals and that most of them take place in the political garrison,'' meaning neighborhoods loyal to a party.
Jamaica's recent history of political violence dates to the 1970s, when political parties supplied weapons to their supporters. This year, violence with political aims has been reported since the drive-by shooting in April of William ``Willie Haggart'' Moore, an influential neighborhood leader, in an area affiliated with Patterson's party.
In July, more than 41 people died in clashes in Western Kingston.
Amnesty International received reports of torture and arbitrary detention
during that time, including
allegations of young men being forced to lie on the ground for prolonged periods in extreme heat and of members of the security forces firing automatic weapons
indiscriminately in heavily populated areas.
Knight and his security officers have been the lightning rod for accusations of human rights abuses.
Working at the National Security and Justice Ministry since the
PNP election victory of 1989, Knight earned the reputation as the worst
performing minister in the
administrations of former Prime Minister Michael Manley and Patterson.
A close friend of the Patterson, Knight managed the prime minister's campaign when he decided to run for head of the party after Manley retired in 1992.
In his dozen years as minister of national security, more than 10,000 Jamaicans have been victims of violence, especially in the last few years when Jamaica became a major transshipment point for drugs -- triggering gang warfare in many areas.
Throughout, Knight has refused to resign, and some Jamaicans believe
that it took his friend Patterson to convince him that this time stepping
down was best for the
country. In the past few months, violence has been flaring sporadically in West Kingston, as well as other parts of the city.
Forbes said police have increased their presence on the streets,
providing buffer zones between warring gangs in different neighborhoods.
That has brought positive
results, Forbes said.
``We've pretty put a lid on the movement of things down here,'' Forbes said. ``That has worked in crippling the movement of these gangs and their activities.''
Two weeks ago, he said, Patterson's government began a 30-day operation that involves deploying 700 troops from the national reserve on the streets to improve security throughout the island.
Forbes said the new strategy is paying off, but he doesn't expect it to have lasting impact unless Jamaicans far from crime start to get involved. It's going to take a joint effort to fight a common enemy, Forbes said.
``Somewhere, it has to break,'' he said. ``People are frustrated with the image of the country. They must get tired of it.''