“Gangsta’ for Life:” Jamaican Gangs and the American Connection

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Jamaica: Tropical paradise, or land of gang violence? Image by TeslGoddess

Live by the gun die by the gun” is a common phrase in Jamaica, when referencing gun violence either by gang members or death by the police force.

Jamaica, a tropical paradise, is a small island in the Caribbean with just under 3 million people.

It’s known for its music (Bob Marley), white sand pristine beaches, sincere hospitality, its food, and the “yea-man” vernacular so happily used by tourists.

But there’s a negative side; large criminal organizations and gangs – connected to criminal elements in the United States.

Gangs in Jamaica

According to Lorna Black, author of the Jamaica section of Teen Gangs: A Global View, there is no age differentiation in gangs in Jamaica, as there is in the US, and the Jamaican gangs maintain members locally,  as well as in overseas countries such as the U.S., Canada and Great Britain.

Where do the gang members come from? Some are local, others are deportees – convicted of crime in foreign countries and deported back to Jamaica with no means of support. Unfortunately many of these deportees learn all about gang culture before being sent back to Jamaica, and they bring their knowledge home with them.

Black also says, aside from the current crisis of the gangs in Jamaica, the country has the highest per capita murders rates in the world and that the criminal gangs consisting of young males as young as 12 years of age congregate on the inner city streets.

Jamaican Gangs: Anti-Gang Bill and Statistics

In a recent statement, Minister of Security Peter Bunting expressed victory in response to an anti-gang bill that the government recently passed, “there are nearly 300 hundred gangs in Jamaica, including school children and we will keep working to reduce that number and save Jamaican lives every year.

Decoded Science interviewed one of the locals, Mr. Donavan Street, and asked his opinion on the anti-gang bill. Mr Street stated “the bill will not work as the youths are under post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD). Many were left to be raised by their grandparents, aunts and uncles while the parents migrated to seek a better life so the youths do not have any role models to look up to, no one who to give respect.” He believes “the discussion needs to be further in depth before talking about anti- gang because the new measures will be similar to perennial state of emergency.”

Gary Spalding of the Jamaica Gleaner, report that Mr. Horace Levy, board member of the Peace Management Initiative (PMI), and Dr. Peta-Ann Baker, social work coordinator of the University of the West Indies, spoke against the anti-gang bill, saying an effort to dismantle the gangs was focused on the wrong target. Dr. Baker and Mr. Levy’s comments were based on a survey they conducted at a retreat. In this survey, they spoke to 97 inner-city youths aged 15-27.

Of the youth, nearly ½ had been to jail or prison, 1/3 had come in contact with a gun, and 2/3 had been affected by gang violence in one way or another. In addition, the majority had dropped out of school, had friends and/or family members in a gang, and had lost a friend or family member to gang violence. 

Where Does Jamaica Stand?

According to the CIA,  Jamaica is the transshipment point for cocaine from South American to North American and Europe as well as the illicit cultivation and consumption of cannabis, even though the government has an active manual cannabis eradication program. Corruption is a major concern, and there’s substantial money-laundering activity. Colombian narcotics traffickers favor Jamaica for its illicit financial transactions.

What Can the Police Do?

The US Dept. of State Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) reports that though the Jamaican police receive training from the U.S. and U.K. law enforcement entities, there’s a lack of funding, resources and proper management. This results in poor response times, poor investigative techniques, and arrest/conviction rates of suspects which fall below the standard found in the U.S. police departments.  In general, they consider the Jamaica Constabulary Force to be underpaid, poorly trained and corrupt.

Can anti-gang programs help the youth in Jamaica? Image by krosseel

Anti-Gang Programs that Work

The Bronx group of Islington, England, created an effective gang prevention group that Jamaica could potentially adapt for the same purpose. They provide targeted intervention with kids aged 10-17, and age 18-24 who are at risk for joining gangs, providing support, education, and positive alternatives to gang involvement.

  • The Bronx group works along the school system where at-risk kids are identified through police intelligence, to prevent kids age 10-17 from joining gangs in the first place.
  • The group also gives 24 hour support to young adults involved in gang related offenses and violence. The aim is to reduce the gang membership so they provide a pathway into employment and educational opportunities and positive activities.

In Jamaica, there is no national anti-gang program, but there are attempts by some churches to reach out to the youths.  There is one inner city community that has partnered with the police to create a youth club in an effort to give the youths alternatives to joining a gang.

The club focuses on education, agriculture, the arts and motivation.  Decoded Science spoke to one of the club’s coordinators, Mr. Verdane Wright, about the effectiveness of the club. He stated that it is a joint effort between the community and the police, and consists of  kids aged 13- 25,  mostly from single parent households. Their effort is to reach at-risk kids to prevent them from joining gangs by getting them engaged in various activities.

Dialogue has to be limited to what takes place inside the club, as any mention or attempt to offer deterrent can put the club member’s life at risk by being labeled a “snitch” or “informer.” A rule of thumb for all gangs is that” informers must die.”  There is a movement to get youths from the gang into the club with hopes to reform them, but those efforts have proved futile.  

Their success comes from the members that have refused to join a gang and remain in the program until they achieve gainful employment, or an opportunity for tertiary education. All members he said, are connected to the community by a club, school or church .

Kindling the Fire

A 2011 National Gang Intelligence Center (NGIC) report indicates that Jamaican gangs in the U.S. are most active in California, Maryland, Missouri and New Jersey.  However,  Richard Walker of Gangs are Us, detailed a partial list of a  few more groups, and claims there are 32 Jamaican gangs active in North America, in Baltimore, Miami, New York, Boston, Seattle, Houston, Dallas, St. Louis, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Pittsburg,  Cleveland, Hartford, Detroit,  Kansas City, Los Angeles, Buffalo and spreading across to Toronto and Quebec.

The Shower Posse maintains the largest gang in the most cities, they have still not been dismantled. The Spanglers Posse and the Montego Bay Posse are the next largest Jamaican gangs in the States. When the posse members are deported, they simply take their skills to the gangs back in Jamaica and fuel the fire.

Return to Paradise?

The emphasis that needs to be placed on dismantling the criminal organizations/gangs on the island wears thin. This may be due to a lack of proper intelligence and resources. The Ministry of Education Youth and Culture is the governing body formally responsible for the Jamaican youths, but has remained silent on the matter of gangs or support to the anti-gang bill.

Jamaica is in trouble. An island which depends heavily on services is now at risk due to its gangsterism reputation.  The anti-gang bill has seemingly missed the mark by not addressing the contributing factors such as the socioeconomic conditions and a lack of employment.

Because of these conditions, coupled with frustration, the gangs will continue to grow. The beautiful little island in the sun, where there is lots of  rum and fun may lose its reputation as the jewel of the Caribbean as it is fast becoming a Gangster’s Paradise.

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