Jamaica counts cost of battle against Kingston's gangs
- 27 May 2010
- From the section Latin America & Caribbean
Conflicted is probably the best way to describe my feelings with regard to Jamaica.
Reporting the violence that has rocked this Caribbean nation to the world is my job, but yet as the child of Jamaican migrants to the United Kingdom I know all too well the damage it does to the nation's reputation.
This island is dependent on tourism to keep its economic head above water, but every headline of "Carnage in the capital" and "Chaos in Kingston" may cause another potential visitor, faced with a choice of tropical paradises, to give the one with bullets a miss.
The reality is - without meaning to sound like a Jamaica Tourist Board advert - that the sun, sea and sand of the resorts are on the other side of the island from the trouble, a good three-and-a-half hours drive in the case of the second city, Montego Bay.
Regardless of the distance, the Jamaican government is desperate to end the violence and separate the tough inner city from the tourist hotspots in people's minds.
Crime against holidaymakers is low because protecting them is a priority and the nation's international image is all-important, but most Jamaicans now want to see an end to the murders that have become an everyday crime in parts of the capital, acts of violence that don't make the front page or sometimes even the crime section in the newspapers.
The fact that people loyal to Christopher "Dudus" Coke - an alleged drug smuggler and gun runner also known as "president" - felt safer under his protection than that of their member of parliament, the prime minister, is a stinging indictment of how bad things have got.
Disputed death toll
In the couple of years I've been here, there have been three ministers of national security and three commissioners of police - the top jobs for tackling crime the least wanted positions in the country. But many now hope that this extraordinary situation will mobilise change, even if the price is in blood and Jamaica's reputation.
The official death toll of civilians in Tivoli and its neighbouring communities at the time of writing is said to be 44, a figure that's disputed by people who live in the communities that have been under curfew since Sunday.
They've rung into local radio stations with reports of unarmed men and women being shot in the street by the security forces, of bombs being dropped from the military helicopters providing air support, and of bodies being burnt to get rid of evidence of human rights abuses.
After the conflicting reports, an independent assessment was requested by Prime Minister Bruce Golding. Accompanied by members of the security forces, Public Defender Earle Witter and the Political Ombudsman, Bishop Herro Blair, met people living in parts of Tivoli considered safe.
In a burnt-out building, they found two charred bodies apparently missed by the security forces in their search - an indication that death toll is likely to rise.
Residents haven't been allowed out of their homes since the operation began on Monday.
"They are running low on food, water and medications and nappies, there are lots of women with small children there who haven't been able to get anything," said Mr Witter. As public defender, it's his job to find out if there have been any human rights violations in the operation he described as military.
The government is aware that, despite having a well-trained army and a police force that is trying to become more professional and dump corrupt officers who are linked to the gangs, there may have been innocents killed.
Fear of reprisals
In Trench Town, made famous by its former resident Bob Marley in the 1970s, fresh bullet holes can be seen in the concrete block walls.
"They just started firing lots of shots," said one man as he showed us an empty bullet casing. "The soldiers fired a lot of shots and there were no gunmen here."
With his face hidden, another man told of how his girlfriend was shot dead in the yard. "I can't tell you what happened - she got shot in the face in the crossfire, I don't know if it was gunmen or police."
The government had asked law-abiding citizens to leave the community before they moved in. Few, if any, took the opportunity out of fear of reprisals or out of support for Dudus, so their testimony may be biased, but the government is aware there could be issues.
"Based on the reports that have come out of there, there is definitely a cause for great concern. I wouldn't want to pre-empt it, but if 10% is true then we will have some issues to address from a humanitarian standpoint," said Information Minister Darryl Vaz.
Meanwhile, the search continues for Christopher Dudus Coke and sporadic gunfire can still be heard in other parts of Kingston - some allegedly linked to Mr Coke and the ruling Jamaica Labour Party he supports, but also in areas that are loyal to the opposition party as other criminals use the opportunity of fewer police in their areas to settle scores.
Since the state of emergency was declared, few details of the ongoing operation have been released to the media by official sources. In the vacuum, rumour has been spreading as fact via social networking, with the government belatedly realising that lack of information was adding to the fear many people felt.
Many Jamaicans here and in the diaspora are frankly embarrassed by the coverage and the picture it paints of their nation. This is a patriotic country, but civil society and the general public now want an end to the violence that plagues its inner city - and now more than ever expect their leaders in government and in opposition to try and finally separate themselves from the criminals that they have been linked to for so long.