Fighting Phone Scams, Violence in Jamaica

“The biggest headache is getting the men to walk away from certain things,” says Adenike Stephenson, when asked what was the most difficult part of her job as regional coordinator for Jamaica’s Citizen Security and Justice Program.

Stephenson named two big challenges: stopping kids from smoking marijuana first thing in the morning, which makes them lethargic for the remainder of the day.

And the second is a bit of a surprise: “Scamming.”

I’ll get back to scamming in a bit, but first, here’s an explanation why I was in a vehicle traveling along the winding roads in the hills around Montego Bay, with Stephenson and her colleague, Desmond Stewart.

This article originally appeared in the blog Sin Miedos, managed by the Inter-American Development Bank, and was edited, and reprinted with permission. See original article here.

The International Development Bank’s (IDB) Institutional Capacity of the State Division held its annual “knowledge week” in Montego Bay during May 12-15. Around 65 IDB staff and consultants, armed with enthusiasm, books, sports and gardening equipment, visited several locations that were benefiting from the Citizen Security and Justice Program (CSJP), funded by the IDB and the governments of Jamaica, the UK and Canada. Some staff members and consultants painted school rooms or tutored at-risk kids. Others played a “Jamaica vs Argentina” soccer match in the sweltering heat (Jamaica won 3-2). And I was getting a quick education of what a citizen security program looks like from the ground up.

A few years ago, Stephenson explained, drug gangs battled for turf. Today, young people fight over phone leads. This brings us to scamming.

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With a good list of phone numbers, a local youth can make over $1,000  in a couple of days by calling gullible, mostly senior citizens in the United States about collecting lottery winnings or owing back taxes. It is the Jamaican version of the Nigerian prince inheritance scam.

A good list, which is sometimes smuggled out of local call centers, means lots of money. A bad one produces many calls that get hung up or go to voice mail. Young men will fight and kill over the spoils of a good list. And the Montego Bay area has become a hotbed for scammers.

Working with youths to lure them away from a life of marijuana and scamming is just one facet of CSJP. We visit a local school, where kids that fail an elementary school graduation test are put in the hands of Rohan Williams, a remedial teacher. He says he has to use creative techniques to engage these kids to read, such as a recipe to cook Jamaican dumplings; or using coins to reflect costs and basic arithmetic.

At the Farm Heights Community Center, Orville Simmonds, the CSJP Senior Coordinator, is explaining how the program trains parents and youths to develop better skills […] At the back of the room is a stark reflection of just how difficult it can be to contain violence in the surrounding neighborhoods. Half a dozen soldiers with big guns and flak jackets are getting ready to go out on patrol. They have cots in the community center because their barracks are far away. This is not the community policing tactics that most experts espouse, but Simmonds explains residents trust soldiers more than the police and their presence helps the community feel safer. They can’t make arrests so a constabulary officer goes out with them.

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The Farm Heights Community Center in Montego Bay, Jamaica

Later, Simmonds briefs us on the CSJP. Now in its third phase, CSJP is one of the IDB’s earliest and longest-running multi-faceted violence prevention programs, and results are encouraging. Between 2009 and 2013, murders declined 43 percent in communities benefiting from CSJP, against 35 percent in those that did not. CSJP also made people feel safer, with 44 percent saying crime had dropped, versus 27 percent in non-CSJP communities.

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Even so, crime and violence remain huge problems, absorbing 12 percent of Jamaica’s annual healthcare budget. One in four Jamaicans reported being victims of a crime in 2012 to 2013. Communities have a high tolerance for violence and lack economic opportunities and other channels to resolve disputes, Simmonds says.

Going forward, the idea is to focus on especially at-risk youths, such as those in prisons, or those who have been expelled from schools […] Adenike Stephenson and Desmond Stewart are helping make this happen on the ground. Stephenson says there are many success stories that make a difference, but challenges remain, including a stagnant economy that provides few opportunities.

“We reach a lot of young men, we give them the skills they need but there are no jobs,” she says. “So they are going to get back into what they were doing before.”

And for too many, that involves scamming.

This article originally appeared in the blog Sin Miedos, managed by the Inter-American Development Bank, and was edited and reprinted with permission. See original article here.