Posted on February 8, 2006

Gang Violence Raises Island’s Murder Rate

Jonathan Ewing, AP, Feb. 1, 2006

SPANISH TOWN, Jamaica—In a white silk suit and white square-toed shoes, Dominic Bennett was carried by pallbearers in a glass casket as thousands of onlookers gathered at his funeral.

Bennett received a hero’s funeral, but he was a gang leader — admired by some, feared by others — who helped fuel a rash of killings that has made Jamaica one of the world’s deadliest places.

As Jamaica was headed toward its record of 1,669 homicides in 2005, Bennett himself became a statistic when he was killed in a shootout with police at his home in Spanish Town, west of Kingston.

Jamaica, an island of 2.6 million best known for its white-sand beaches, reggae music and gourmet Blue Mountain coffee, has a homicide rate 10 times that of the United States.

Poorly equipped and understaffed, police have been unable to stem the bloodshed, which occurs mostly in impoverished neighborhoods around the capital Kingston, far from tourist hangouts.

The police have developed a reputation for slipshod investigations and for being too quick on the trigger. Rather than help the police, people in the Spanish Town slum sometimes run when officers approach.

“There has been a breakdown in trust on the streets. Some people are just as scared of the police,” Deputy Police Commissioner Mark Shields said in an interview with The Associated Press. Shields, a veteran of England’s Scotland Yard, was hired last year to become Jamaica’s second-ranking policeman and help cope with the soaring homicide rate.

The violence has its roots in the 1970s, when political factions armed gangs to intimidate opponents before the 1980 general elections. About 800 people were killed in election-related violence that year.

Twenty-six years later, the politicians have lost control of the gangs. Armed with AK-47s and other assault weapons, they are now fighting a bloody turf war for control of extortion rings that has provoked a cycle of seemingly endless revenge killings.