A broad state of emergency announced across Jamaica in order to rein in rising violence has been met with scorn, as it is the latest in a long line of such measures that have achieved little.
Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness declared a state of emergency across nine of Jamaica’s 14 parishes, including parts of the capital, Kingston and the tourist hotspot of Montego Bay, starting on December 6.
This decision was taken as Jamaica reached 1,421 killings so far in 2022, surpassing the 1,375 killings seen from January to early December 2021, a police spokesperson told the Associated Press. Jamaica had the highest murder rate in Latin America and the Caribbean last year, according to InSight Crime’s 2021 Homicide Round-Up.
This latest state of emergency is an extension of a stalled effort in November when Holness imposed similar measures in Kingston and other parishes, which ended after two weeks as the Senate refused to extend them.
Similar strategies have been rolled out frequently in Jamaica, usually targeting hotspots for crime and gang violence. While the country’s homicide rate has continued to climb, the states of emergency have been associated with accusations of police brutality and arbitrary detentions.
Political opponents and human rights activists have lambasted Holness’ continuation of the strategy. Yet the prime minister defended the move, saying that the suggestion that the state of emergency “allows the security forces … to detain persons arbitrarily, without charge indefinitely, is absolutely not true.”
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Andrew Holness’ position is unenviable. The country is riven by gang violence, with the prime minister claiming that these groups are responsible for upwards of 70% of homicides.
The country is dealing with multiple inputs contributing to this culture. The dismantling of the Klansman gang in 2021 and 2022 and the trials of its members showed how numerous Jamaican young men, especially from impoverished areas, were embroiled in generational, hierarchical gang structures controlled by powerful bosses.
Extortion has reached eye-watering levels, with the Klansman gang alone pulling in up to $100,000 a week just from shaking down public transport drivers in the southern city of Spanish Town. Homicides and access to weapons are commonplace, as illegal guns pour into the island from the United States. The government has become so desperate to stem the flow of firearms it even called the United Nations to help last June.
Jamaican gangs have also cashed in on the country being a transit point for cocaine and marijuana shipments bound for the United States, according to the US Department of State. The country’s gangs have also expanded internationally, being reportedly active in the likes of Turks and Caicos
And hundreds of inmates continue to be hurt and killed every year at the country’s overcrowded and underfunded prisons.
None of this is original to Jamaica. The same factors drive violence across the region.
The backlash is growing. The leader of the opposition People’s National Party, Mark Golding, derided Holness’ decision as unlawful and unconstitutional, pointing out that soldiers and police could be deployed in violent communities without the need for a state of emergency.
“Putting the majority of Jamaicans at risk of being detained for extended periods by police or soldiers without charge, is no way to address Jamaica’s longstanding challenging problem of criminal violence,” said Golding.
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