In a Feb.26-March 11 issue of Canadian Business, reporter Matt McClearn wrote a story on Montreal-based Forensic Technology Inc. and how its Integrated Ballistics Identification System is being used to fight gun crime in Jamaica. The IBI according to the story, points out that violence in that island nation is not a recent phenomenon – nor one that is likely to disappear any time soon.
Background on violent crime in Jamaica:
The proliferation of gun play in Jamaica was enough to prompt the government to ask their colonial masters in Scotland Yard to help implement Operation Kingfish, an anti-organized crime initiative. The point man was assistant police commissioner Leslie Green who went to the island in 2004. According to Green, most of the guns the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) had been traced lead back to U.S. manufacturers or suppliers. “They get in through a multitude of ways,” he says. “Fishing boats. Containers. Post. Barrels that are sent over, especially around Christmas, from Jamaicans abroad. You name it.”
If guns are not yet ubiquitous, that’s of little comfort. Jamaica’s firearms get passed around so much that they lend new meaning to the term “hired guns.” Says Green: “They rent guns out… Even though there’s lots of guns in Jamaica, there are still not sufficient numbers that people are careless with them.” When they are, more violence sometimes ensues. “People will get killed here if they misused a gun they were looking after, or if they’ve lost it,” says Green. In the wrong hands, a single gun can do a world of damage.
2005 was the bloodiest year on record, with 1,671 murders. To put things in perspective, some 2.7 million people live on the island. Canada’s largest city, Toronto, obsesses over its rising murder rates and has roughly the same population. But in stark contrast, Toronto suffered just 69 homicides in 2005, nine of them shootings. Jamaicans face a more serious problem: they’re nearly as likely to be murdered as die from common ailments like heart disease and diabetes. In recent times, Jamaica consistently boasted one of the world’s highest homicide rates, topped only by ultra-violent nations such as South Africa and Colombia which incidentally have larger populations.
Numerous studies have grappled with uncovering the root causes of Jamaica’s violence. A number of factors are broadly blamed on this phenomenon; this includes a wide variety of economic forces frequently mentioned, including poverty, high unemployment, and inequality and so on. And much of the population is young. Young men are far more likely than anybody else to be perpetrators – and victims – of gun crime.
To have a smidgen of understanding for Jamaica’s violence, one must start with its politics. Decades before the country’s independence from Britain in 1962, supporters of the Jamaica Labour Party and the People’s National Party were stoning, beating and stabbing one another for control over the island. They created rival gangs that evolved into organized criminal networks, and violence escalated over the decades as semi-automatic firearms replaced sticks and other basic weapons. Violent political relations grew amongst the people grew even more after independence leading to the creation of neighbourhoods controlled by enforcers of one or the other political parties. These “garrison communities” persist to this day as criminal strongholds. Jamaican elections are typically accompanied by increased bloodshed, and key political figures have often associated openly with overtly criminal figures.
With crime lords and politicians forming a bond, it’s not hard to guess who or what influences organized crime. Drugs are their commodity of choice which is the reason why Jamaica serves as a major trans shipment point to the large consumer markets of North America and Europe. Several years ago, Jamaica’s minister of national security claimed that one-fifth of America’s demand for cocaine was satisfied by product flowing through Jamaica. Again out of this come newer business such as extortion and the protection rackets.
Cultural forces of neo-colonialism and the shadowy spectre of the Maafa are some of the causes for the violence in Jamaica. Even though Slavery was abolished in 1834, the systemic use of violence to enforce unpaid labour – or rebel against it – is sometimes cited as a root cause. At the University of Wisconsin, one professor Obika Gray has described a unique brand of insubordination adopted by Jamaica’s alienated urban poor called “badness-honour” – an attempt by the disenfranchised to secure a veneer of power and respect through intimidation.
“In the slums, a near-sacred defence of imperiled black humanity fed racially saturated claims to honour, power and economic need,” Gray claimed. Sexual licentiousness at Jamaican dance halls is another expression of this defiance, he wrote. But it led a few to gun-slinging outlawry. “The rebelliousness that led to crime, banditry and general mayhem among the poor was the work of only a tiny minority,” Gray concluded. That’s often all it takes.
To be fair, such behaviour is not native in Jamaica as intelligent people over stand that an oppressed people, whether sexual, religious economical or otherwise, will seek their own form of expression against the objects of their anger, some turning that anger or rebelliousness inwards.
Jamaica’s crime problem are said to be a source of concern to foreigners hoping to partake of the islands many beautiful features without caring about their object poverty or needs. Considering that tourism has long been one of the island’s key industries this has seemed to be a problem in some quarters, however Jamaica is not a crime-ridden island, just one where problems surface in certain areas. Based on what I am hearing, the tourists thoroughly enjoy and keep coming back to Jamaica because it’s a nice safe place to go.
Politicians and criminals all too often linked the violence and many Jamaicans place little faith in government. Police, meanwhile, are sometimes accused of being involved with or is encouraging crime dons to increase their influence in particular communities – in effect, tolerating certain criminal activities and outsourcing community policing to criminals. The JCF is also widely accused of brutality: Amnesty International has alleged summary executions and unlawful detentions for years, and police shootings are a statistically significant cause of injury. All this means that many Jamaicans have an uneasy relationship with the people charged with protecting them.
What is not being said is that the police, too, suffer large numbers of death. Their families are also targeted. One report, published in 2000, noted that constables were so fearful in certain neighbourhoods that they conducted their patrols in haste, avoiding engagement with the local community that might otherwise build a more constructive relationship.
If police are viewed as part of the problem, they’ve also been viewed as ineffective in solving it. A 2001 report by Amnesty International lambasted the JCF for conducting lacklustre investigations. “The scenes of shootings are not preserved,” it complained, “with forensic and ballistics evidence contaminated or removed. Autopsy reports are so poor that one respected international pathologist described them as ‘not autopsies in the normally understood sense of the term.'” Another study observed that the JCF doesn’t have enough vehicles to do its job – or even sidearms.
Cycle of violence continues with the children
A leading international authority on violence against children has urged the Jamaican legislature to concentrate on the plight of children in Jamaica’s effort to break the cycle of violence affecting the country.
Professor Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, who directed the 2006 United Nations Secretary-General’s Study on Violence against Children, outlined some startling finding about violence against children in Jamaica, as he sought to elicit the help of parliamentarians to offer more protection to children.
Professor Pinheiro was given the rare opportunity to address the Jamaican Parliament last Tuesday on the invitation of the Speaker of the House, Delroy Chuck through The United Nations Children’s Fund UNICEF.
He singled out the Jamaican statistics from the worldwide study that showed the extent to which violence affects Jamaican children and the significant gender distinctions in how boys and girls are victimized.
Pointing to the situation in Jamaica, the Brazilian-born human rights activists noted that girls are primarily the victims of sexual violence, where in 2006, girls under 16 accounted for 32 per cent of all sexual assaults in Jamaica.
“Not only do these girls suffer from a cloak of silence, in the same year, only 20 per cent of rape cases were reported to the police – they often end up with unwanted and unsafe pregnancies,” Professor Pinheiro remarked.
Boys, he stressed, are more often targets of intentional injuries and murder, noting that of the 175 children under 18 who were murdered in 2006, 149 (85 per cent) of them were boys.
Professor Pinheiro decried the findings of the data showing that children of both sexes are exposed to high levels of violence in their communities. According to the study, 60 per cent of nine to 17 year-old children reported that a family member had been a victim of violence and 37 per cent had a family member, who had been killed. Only 28 per cent of children thought their home neighbourhood was very safe, the study revealed.
He stated that both boys and girls are commonly punished in violent ways, generally starting at age two, but boys are often punished more frequently and harshly.
The violence against children expert made reference to a 2005 study revealed showing that only 11 per cent of parents use positive forms of discipline.
Professor Pinheiro told the parliamentarians that reducing violence against children is a critical first step in lowering the overall steep rates of murder, crime and abuse affecting the country.
“In an environment where violence breeds more violence,” he said, “the way in which Jamaican children experience and are subjected to violence is inextricably linked to the unrelenting levels of crime and violence affecting the island.”
Jamaica may face an uphill task in breaking what appears to be a deeply embedded culture of violence, but Professor Pinheiro reminded the Parliament that all forms of violence are preventable.
Noting that there are “no instant magic solutions”, he urged the country to build on progress it has made in protecting children from violence and mitigating its impact.
Professor Pinheiro called on Parliament to quickly adopt the National Plan of Action on an Integrated Response to Children and Violence, an important blueprint for a multifaceted approach to reducing violence against children.
He urged the Jamaican legislature to ensure that preventive efforts aim to improve parenting skills, expand life-skills based education in more of the nation’s schools, and strongly promote positive forms of discipline.
Professor Pinheiro called for a tightening of laws to hold perpetrators accountable for all forms of violence against children, particularly sexual abuse, while emphasizing the need for early and humane treatment of victims.
Additional Jamaican news