Communities pay high price for soaring crime

KINGSTON, Jamaica, Monday May 31, 2010 – Last week’s standoff in Jamaica, in which 73 people were killed as police searched for a wanted gang leader in the Tivoli Gardens neighbourhood of Kingston, is focusing renewed international attention on the island’s seemingly intractable violent crime rate.

In total, more than 600 people have been murdered here since the start of the year – unrelated to the latest confrontations – making Jamaica one of the world’s homicide capitals. 

The crime wave is one of the biggest problems facing the Bruce Golding-led administration. And it has led to conflicts with Jamaica’s development allies, such as the European Union, which recently threatened to withhold promised equipment for a school because violence had hampered the construction of four new classrooms. 

“I made a pledge back in September that if everything was done within five months, we would have equipped that computer lab [at the Maverly Primary and Junior High School in Kingston],” the head of the EU delegation to Jamaica, Ambassador Marco Mazzocchi Alemanni, said earlier this month. “I know it is very necessary but a deal is a deal, my friends, and you did not do it in time.” 

“I know why you didn’t do it in time, and it was not the contractor’s fault. There was violence, there were flare-ups, but I cannot equip the computer lab,” Alemanni said. 

In a speech that was criticised by the Jamaican media as “harsh” and “less than subtle”, the head of the EU delegation told the children and teachers who had been waiting anxiously for the computer lab that a message must be sent to the criminals who have been plaguing Marverly. 

“Tell the big men that you are depriving us, the European Union had promised us something if we had done it in time, but we couldn’t do it in time because you had to fight and some people even died….The big man is not helping you, the big man is hurting you,” Alemanni said. 

He was referring to three fatal shootings that occurred during the construction phase. While the police have not officially linked the shootings to the school, some residents claim that conflicts related to the project led to the deaths of three young men. 

In the end, the EU ambassador acknowledged that the contractors and the school community did make every effort to keep their end of the bargain, and in recognition of that, some of the computers were handed over to the students. 

Speaking before the latest outbreak of violence in Kingston, Member of Parliament Derrick Smith said he had seen a “respite” in crime in recent months. 

“The thing is, no one seems to be able to tell us what they are fighting about, what they are shooting about,” he added. “I think it is just too many guns in the hands of unemployed or unemployable youngsters. That is the problem island-wide, and Maverley has more than its fair share.” 

Indeed, the treatment of youthful offenders is another area of concern, rights groups say, with many confined to jails that also house adult offenders. 

Reform groups hope the juvenile correctional system will get a desperately needed overhaul with the recent announcement of about 800,000 dollars from the EU to renovate existing facilities and build new ones to prevent overcrowding and the incarceration of minors at adult institutions. 

The EU is currently seeking input from local NGOs, like the human rights watchdog Jamaicans for Justice, on how the funds should be spent. 

Calls for reform have grown since a tragic incident last May 22, when the Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre went up in flames following a riot, with young girls locked inside the facility. When the smoke cleared, five wards were dead, and two more girls later succumbed to their injuries. 

After the fire at Armadale, the government outlined a strategy to improve juvenile holding centres, but a shortage of funds has hampered the plan’s implementation. 

Alemanni said the EU is also hoping to dispatch a special anti-mafia prosecutor from Italy, who had visited Jamaica last October, to provide help in dismantling organised crime syndicates. 

“Italy may have something to contribute and other countries that have organised crime in Europe – I think we have to try everything because the monster is so monstrous that we have to try everything,” he said. (IPS)