Jamaica’s homicide rate has risen steeply in 2017, in what is likely the symptom of a splintering underworld.
Between January and June 10, 639 people were murdered in Jamaica, an average of four murders a day, police data revealed. This reportedly represents a 19 percent rise from last year, when the murder rate reached around 50 per 100,000, according to preliminary calculations by InSight Crime.
At the current rate, Jamaica could see around 1,450 murders by the end of the year, in a country with a similar population size to the city of Chicago (approximately 2.8 million). That would be 100 more than the number killed in 2016.
This year’s tally includes 45 multiple killings.
“There were 37 double murders, six triple murders and two quadruple murders,” Police Chief George Quallo said at a press conference, adding that 70 percent of killings were attributed to gangs.
Rural areas have been especially affected of late, with 33 people killed in rural parishes in a single week in June, while 21 were killed in the “Corporate Area” or greater Kingston.
Government opposition spokesman Peter Bunting commented on “the lack of a coherent response from the government on the issue,” and the need to boost police and military presence.
Recognizing that the police’s proposed strategies are not entirely new, Quallo laid out the institution’s short-term plan against the tide of violence. This will see special measures allowing for “cordons and searches, curfews and detentions for preventative and investigative purposes.”
InSight Crime Analysis
Jamaica’s escalating homicide rate over the past three years has much to do with security force crackdowns on Jamaica’s gangs, or “posses,” and the violent repercussions these have had in the long term, according to sociologist Lilian Bobea.
Violent gangs have exerted power on this island for decades, after originally being empowered by the country’s two rival political parties to secure civilian support. But the posse’s nature has mutated significantly since a key event in Jamaica’s recent history: the arrest in 2010 of Christopher “Dudus” Coke, considered at the time to be the biggest criminal boss, or “don,” in the country.
The explosive operation to detain Coke, which sparked a bloody battle between the gangs and state forces, led to the realization that the posse’s power had come to threaten the state itself. From then on both the Jamaican government and, to an extent, the civilian population, began to distance themselves from the gangs.
With their two fundamental support bases weakened and their main leader behind bars, posses became more vulnerable to the ensuing police crackdown on their members, Bobea told InSight Crime. Violence was relatively suppressed, and from 2009 to 2014 Jamaica’s murder rate fell from 62 to 36 per 100,000.
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But the government’s new strategy of “decapitating” the gangs appears to have now backfired. According to Bobea, the gangs used the crisis to redefine their operations and avoid detection, and have since splintered, dispersed and diversified.
This process of decentralization saw posses fragment and expand into new areas, Bobea explained. Whereas violence was once concentrated in a handful of areas in Jamaica’s capital, this has now entered more distant corners, which could explain the rise in homicides in rural districts, according to the analyst.
At the same time that gangs were dispersing, external factors pressured them into diversifying their criminal revenue. Posses have long been facilitators and transporters in the transnational drug trade. But as interdiction efforts curbed the Caribbean air bridge around the turn of the century — and the United States started producing better quality marijuana — this stream of income depleted.
Jamaican gangs turned to the famed “lottery scams,” among other activities, setting off battles between rival rings seeking access to these new rents. Authorities blamed this phenomenon for surging homicides over the last year; indeed, the so-called “lotto scamming parishes” of St James, Westmoreland and Hanover — tens of miles away from the capital — have seen some of the most astonishing peaks in violence this year. On June 12, four family members, including two minors, were shot to death using high-caliber weapons in a rural community in the northwestern parish of Hanover.
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Extortion is another revenue option that has long been used by posses, but which now carries with it more violence as gangs impose their quota outside of their “garrisons,” or neighborhoods, asserting their control in communities that have not traditionally been loyal to them.
With civilians increasingly the targets of attack, the frequency of multiple killings has also grown, according to Bobea.
The Jamaican underworld’s descent towards disorganized crime is reflected in other parts of Latin America, notably in Mexico’s fractured criminal landscape. Here, the “kingpin” strategy of going after criminal leaders has precipitated chaos and record-setting murder rates.
Mexico has fallen back on this problematic tactic, and Jamaica has a history of resorting to military force in times of disorder. But according to Bobea, it would be better for Jamaican authorities to divert more resourced towards prevention, “the most overlooked” aspect of law enforcement, and strengthening the judiciary, without which police efforts go to waste.
Opposition spokesman Bunting echoed her views: “What is happening now is that the police are starved of resources,” he said.
The police has already made efforts to work closer to the community, and several social and gang prevention programs have been implemented. However, according to a recent report on the Caribbean, their impact is not often studied.