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Gangs Reign in Jamaica’s Inner-city Slums

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In Jamaica’s inner-city slums, citizens are condemned to live with violent criminal gangs and abusive policing, according to an Amnesty International report.

Last year, the island nation of 2.7 million saw 1,500 murders and 272 police killings, ranking it as one of the leading countries in murders per capita, along with South Africa and Colombia. In the first three months of 2008, there have been over 300 homicides in Jamaica.

The report—titled “Let Them Kill Each Other – Public Security in Jamaica’s Inner Cities”—details the situation in the nation’s impoverished areas, gang violence, police officers’ excessive use of force, and the overall poor conditions of Jamaica’s slums.

In these isolated neighborhoods, known as garrisons, citizens live in constant fear of violent gangs, and also suffer from high unemployment levels, poor health and education services, shortages of drinking water, and poor sanitation.

The organization’s Jamaica researcher, Fernand Doz Costa, said, “Poor inner-city Jamaicans are paying the price of this public security crisis with their lives. They are being held hostage in an endless confrontation between criminal gangs, police officers who kill with impunity and authorities who are failing to protect their human rights.”

“Criminal gangs make up a small proportion of the community population,” he continued, “but their actions are devastating: they keep thousands of people living in constant fear and provide an excuse for government officials to label all community members as criminals.”

Much of the violence has its roots in Jamaican politics. Since the 1970s, political parties have ascribed to “sticks and stones” politics, which is used to assure votes. Between elections, gangs in these communities were given free reign, profiting from extortion and other illegal practices—and organized crime became intertwined with the political system.

Those political gangs gave rise to the conditions today, with warring rival gangs controlling different communities of the inner-city.

Despite being besieged with gunfights, rape and daily violence, gang crimes go largely unreported. An unwritten rule is that talking to authorities or betraying the gang will result in one’s death or the death of their loved ones.

There is also a prevailing distrust of police officers. Years of corruption and abuse against citizens have left people with little choice but to accept the violence. Due to a high incidence of beatings and extrajudicial executions, inner-city citizens run from police just as readily as they do from gangs.

While speaking to Amnesty International, an inner-city citizen in West Kingston said, “The youths hide from police, because they will say ‘don’t run from police if you have nothing to hide’; but when you do that, you will sit and die.”

When wars break out between rival gangs, schools are shut down, unofficial curfews are enforced and entire garrison communities are barricaded, with no one permitted to enter or leave. This can result in being cut off from clean water and other supplies.

Women are subject to brutality and compelled to give in to sexual advances, else risk reprisal against them or their families.

Likewise, boys as young as 12 are given tasks by gang members that must be carried out, or face punishment. A Jamaican woman recounted to Amnesty International about the time when “her neighbor’s 12-year-old son was sent by a gang to another community, carrying a gun. The boy was robbed on his way there and he knew he was going to be killed if he came back without the gun and without the money, so he ran away. The mother was killed the following morning.”

The central gang members, who tend to be only a few young men, are in charge of nearly every aspect of the communities and areas they control—essentially becoming a local government. They rule through intimidation and violence, as well as provide protection and welfare services, such as distributing food and materials for education, and allocating jobs to impoverished areas neglected by the state.

In its report, Amnesty International included recommendations as to how the government should take action to begin properly providing for the slums and also to install an independent entity to investigate accusations of police violence. The report also chided the government for not taking an active role in solving these problems and even contributing to the conditions in the inner-city today.

In response to these allegations, Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding said the government is doing all it can within its financial restraints—pointing to the $723 million the government must pay daily for the national debt. “You will, I am sure,” he said, “appreciate the extent to which this constrains our ability to address the urgent need to provide social services and economic opportunities in these areas.”


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