Situation report: Increasing violence in Jamaica

Jamaica has seen a major increase in murders over the past several months, likely as a result of shifts within the country’s criminal underworld that threaten to seriously impact business and the country’s large tourism sector.

Background

Jamaica has long had a serious violent crime problem and one of the world’s highest murder rates, a product of the country’s location as a natural stopover for drug traffickers transporting South American cocaine to the United States. The influx of drug money allowed groups of Jamaican criminals to evolve from mere street gangs to major organised crime groups that controlled territory and doled out patronage and gifts to locals in impoverished areas in order to gain their loyalty. By 2009, the government had lost control of the situation, and the United States requested that Jamaica arrest and extradite Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke on a variety of international drug smuggling and gunrunning charges. Coke was an underworld boss who exercised de facto control of the Tivoli Gardens area of the capital, Kingston.. The same year, murders in Jamaica hit an all-time high at 59.9 per 100,000 inhabitants.

Facing mounting diplomatic pressure to prevent Jamaica from becoming a haven for international fugitives, in 2010, then-Prime Minister Bruce Golding ordered a joint police-military operation to wrest control of Tivoli Gardens away from Coke and his gang, the Shower Posse. While the operation was ultimately successful in detaining Coke, it came at a high price: approximately 80 people were killed, and over 1,000 soldiers were mobilised to contain rioting by civilians sympathetic to the gang who managed to destroy two police stations and launch assaults on several others.

The violence surrounding the arrest and extradition of Coke shocked ordinary Jamaicans and led to a weakening of public support for criminal organisations as well as a decline in the degree to which authorities were willing to tolerate major criminal activity in the country. With one of the most powerful drug traffickers arrested and extradited, and security forces ramping up the pressure on organised crime, criminal groups lost much of their effectiveness. Additionally, as the United States began to overcome its financial crisis, tourism from the  U.S., which is a key segment of Jamaica’s economy, began to increase. Jamaica’s own economy improved, leading to more job opportunities for young people, which in turn made gang recruitment more difficult. As a consequence of these factors, murder rates dropped dramatically, reaching 35.1 per 100,000 inhabitants by 2014.

The return of major gang violence

The decrease in violence seen after the arrest of Coke was not to last, however. Since 2014, Jamaica’s murder rate has steadily risen every year, and has sharply increased this year: the murder rate during the first half of 2017 was 19 per cent higher than over the same period of 2016, and murders are currently on pace to hit a seven-year high by the end of 2017, rivaling those seen during the most violent years in Jamaica’s history.

The increase in murders is once again driven largely by gangs, although they differ in nature from the gangs that ruled portions of the country eight years ago due to shifting dynamics within the criminal underworld.

Perhaps most notably, the transshipment routes used by cartels smuggling Colombian and Peruvian cocaine to the United States have shifted away from their traditional route across the Caribbean Sea. Instead, most cocaine entering the United States is moved through Central America and Mexico, depriving Caribbean organised crime groups of the most lucrative forms of criminal activity. This is compounded by the fact that the United States accounts for a significantly smaller percentage of cocaine consumption than it once did, meaning even less of the drug trade goes through Jamaica, as the Caribbean does not make a particularly good transshipment point for cocaine bound for Europe, Africa, or South America.

Further, following the arrest of Coke and other major criminal leaders, larger gangs have split into smaller factions, as they have elsewhere under the ‘kingpin strategy’ of the U.S., which emphasises neutralising high-ranking international drug traffickers rather than focusing on low-level peddlers. The elimination of such leaders often leaves a power vacuum at the top of organised crime groups, and in-fighting by lower-level criminals who see the elimination of their leaders as a chance to rise within the hierarchy weakens and ultimately splinters many groups.

Analysis

With murder rates raising dramatically, Jamaica appears to be undergoing a dangerous process similar to that seen in Mexico over the past few years: the factionalisation of international drug-trafficking organisations. Paradoxically, as Mexican criminal groups have grown weaker and splintered, they have also grown more dangerous. This is a result of weaker organisations’  inability to bring in major revenues by shipping cocaine across borders. This inability compels criminals to make money through other means, such as kidnapping both locals and foreigners for ransom, extorting businesses, demanding locals pay ‘war taxes’, and forcibly taking control of otherwise legitimate business operations.

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