In May of 2010, the streets of Kingston, Jamaica erupted in fierce gun battles between security forces and followers of drug lord Christopher “Dudus” Coke. It took most of us in the international media by surprise -- and many of us were also at a loss to explain what had sparked such an epic showdown, which would leave more than 70 people dead.
To help me understand the upheaval, which revolved around efforts to extradite Coke to the United States, I turned to respected Jamaican-American legal scholar David Rowe.
The Miami attorney, who is also an adjunct University of Miami law professor, laid out for me how the Jamaican government was being forced to sever its long and cozy ties with gangsters like Coke.
“This starts the process,” Rowe told me then, “of extracting the Jamaican government from these horrible connections to criminal overlords like Dudus and their racketeering.”
That shameful arrangement was in no small part responsible for a harrowing violent crime rate that had sadly become as much a part of Jamaica’s image as reggae and Usain Bolt. In 2010 the Caribbean island’s homicide rate was more than 60 per 100,000 people, one of the world’s highest.
It’s one reason that some 2.5 million Jamaicans -- a diaspora that’s almost equal to the three million Jamaicans residing on the island itself -- live abroad today. More than 400,000 of them live in South Florida.
But here’s the good news: That murder rate has since dropped to about 40 per 100,000. It’s still too high, but it’s at least a sign that Jamaica is finally pulling out of its bloody tailspin, a positive development that U.S. agencies like USAID and major media like the New York Times have recently trumpeted.
So it made sense now to ask Rowe to help us understand what Jamaica is doing right, especially since its security improvements could have a ripple effect throughout the rest of the violence-plagued Caribbean, the crossroads the Americas.
In an interview with WLRN, Rowe suggests a number of factors that are easing Jamaica’s violence -- although he feels the murder rate “is still out of control.” Foremost, Rowe believes that with Coke now in a U.S. prison, and with his “Shower Posse” gang weakened, the U.S.-Jamaican anti-crime and anti-corruption partnership has a better chance of succeeding.
While other Latin American and Caribbean countries have tried to militarize the war on violent crime, U.S. aid in Jamaica, says Rowe, has focused on “protocol, policy guidance and equipment” for the Jamaican police and justice systems.
“The current U.S. ambassador to Jamaica, Pamela Bridgewater, has made anti-corruption one of her key areas of bilateral focus,” Rowe adds. “So I think Jamaica has responded to both significant aid and the anti-corruption focus.”
Last summer I interviewed current Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller -- who in 2011 toppled the government linked to Coke -- and she insisted that she had fought crime kingpins her entire political career. Whether or not that’s true, Rowe says Simpson Miller, whom he supports, has been an effective “peacekeeper” in violence-torn urban communities. He gives most credit for the declining murder rate to Security Minister Peter Bunting.
But Rowe fears that no amount of law enforcement progress will keep Jamaica safer in the long run if it doesn’t also improve its struggling economy and job prospects, “especially for younger Jamaican men.”
That is indeed key. Last year I spent a few days talking with gang members inside some of Kingston’s toughest neighborhoods. To a man, they all insisted that more and better jobs were the only real solution, as well as education.
There’s a Catch-22 involved, however. The past decade of hyper-violence, Rowe says, “hurt Jamaican tourism,” its most important industry, “because obviously people who think of coming to stay for even a short time in that idyllic environment, they look at the crime and they start to think differently.”
Ditto regarding investment in industries that could relieve Jamaica’s over-dependence on tourist dollars. “In order for foreign investors to develop the confidence required to make significant contributions to Jamaica’s development,” Rowe says, “they must feel that they are not in fear of their lives.”
Even tourism, Rowe notes, isn’t the economic foundation it used to be in Jamaica. That’s partly because it is increasingly dominated by all-inclusive resorts that tend to shut tourists away from contact with Jamaican businesses and restaurants.
Still, Jamaica’s falling violence rate is cause for hope, especially since it comes after the country celebrated its 50th anniversary of independence last year. Rowe is confident the next 50 years can be more prosperous for Jamaica -- provided it embraces the rule of law that experts like him keep urging.
The Latin America Report is sponsored by Espírito Santo Bank.