KINGSTON, Jamaica – Joan McCarthy’s voice rises in anger as she describes a police and military raid: Officers searching for a fugitive gang boss grabbed her nephew and son-in-law and hustled them upstairs.
Once they disappeared from view, there was a crackle of gunfire, she says, and moments later, police dragged her son-in-law’s body down the stairs, wrapped loosely in a sheet taken from her own bed. Her nephew’s bloody body was carried down next, she and other slum dwellers allege.
Not a trace of either man has turned up in morgues or lockups since the May raid, they say.
“We had some bad men here, but these police are more cold-blooded than the illegal gunmen. Too cold-blooded!” the 63-year-old McCarthy said with a voice raw with emotion inside her bullet-scarred apartment in Tivoli Gardens, the former stronghold of alleged drug baron Christopher “Dudus” Coke.
Coke was captured and sent off to face charges in the United States after days of street battles that killed 73 civilians and three security officers. The government anti-gang crackdown that followed is the toughest in the island’s history. Soldiers with M-16s and rotating machine guns patrol the streets. Major crimes, especially murders, are trending downward.
But efforts to pacify the slums — a source of the violence that has damaged Jamaica’s reputation and economy — are being undermined by anger. Probes into 37 alleged police killings during the raids are stalled, investigators say, and government promises of social programs to soften the blow of the heavy-handed policies have so far been unmet.
Those who live in the slums known as “garrisons” remain deeply distrustful of the police and authorities, and critics worry that the recent downward trend in crime will be fleeting.
“Not much has changed in the daily lives of the average citizen of Tivoli as the seeds of the original problem are still there,” said David Silvera, of rights group Jamaicans for Justice. “The criminal elements are merely laying low and regrouping.”
Even Jamaicans in normally quiet rural hamlets complain of heavy-handed tactics. On Nov. 9, scores of people in a farming town in St. James parish mounted roadblocks and marched with signs reading “No more police” because masked officers allegedly killed two young men unjustifiably.
Coke was a powerful figure in Prime Minister Bruce Golding’s own parliamentary district and the premier resisted U.S. requests to extradite him for nine months. Finally growing domestic political pressure threatened Golding’s career and he ordered police and troops into action. Coke now faces U.S. drug and gunrunning charges in New York.
Since the sustained assault on gangs that began with Coke’s capture, police statistics show that the number of murders committed in a single month has dipped below 80 for the first time in eight years, with 77 recorded across the island in September. The overall murder toll of 1,065 through the first nine months of the year was down by 135 from last year. And there have been fewer reported shootings, rapes, and robberies.
“Operations to stop criminal gangs have been every day, literally. We’ve used standard police procedures, but our enforcement has been very energetic and has not let up,” said Assistant Police Commissioner Les Green.
Green said authorities must focus on taking down gangsters who battled brazenly and violently for control of the drug and extortion trade in the garrisons, feeding one of the world’s highest murder rates. The island of 2.8 million people had about 1,660 homicides in 2009.
Many citizens are relieved by the drop in crime.
“It is early days yet but we are encouraged by the trends and the commitment being displayed by the government,” said Joseph Matalon, head of the island’s most influential business group, the Private Sector Organization.
Jamaica is finally dealing with “a very important part of what has been dogging us over the years,” said Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett, who has seen the island’s reputation for crime erode an industry crucial to the local economy.
Golding says the government realizes force alone won’t solve problems in the garrisons. He has promised new social programs.
“It must be a helpful — not hostile — state,” he said shortly after the raids to capture Coke.
But few new resources have made it to the slums. Even after a successful debt swap earlier this year, debt payments still take a big chunk of government expenditures.
Information Minister Daryl Vaz said plans to upgrade ghetto housing and improve garbage-strewn markets where thousands of the poor eke out a living “will take a little longer.”
The government has tried to ease the shock of the raids by offering counseling to traumatized youngsters and it has compensated some West Kingston residents whose homes were badly damaged in the assault on Coke’s stronghold.
Yet there is little progress at answering the complaints that police themselves broke the law.
“There’s an extraordinary amount of work to be done before this sorry business can be over,” said Public Defender Earl Witter, whose office is investigating complaints of 37 extrajudicial killings during the May crackdown.
A dearth of ballistics experts and forensic science equipment has created lengthy backlogs. The island has just one functioning comparison microscope to examine bullet fragments that can tie crimes to a specific gun.
Witter said ballistics evidence is crucial because many of the security forces wore masks during the operation, so there is not much chance to identify rogue officers by sight.
Security officials in Kingston say they don’t know anything about the disappearances of McCarthy’s two relatives and another 16-year-old boy and are investigating each allegation of brutality.
Allan Bernard, chairman of the Youth Crime Watch of Jamaica, said the government’s gang crackdown has displayed the state’s might, but will not solve chronic problems in gang-steeped slums, where “dons” like Coke long provided services and imposed discipline — order without law.
“These leadership structures will rejuvenate and reinvent themselves,” Bernard said.
Some impoverished Jamaicans are skeptical of a political class with a long history of forging alliances of convenience with gangsters.
“What Tivoli needs is opportunities for the average person to have a job and thus have an alternative to a life of crime,” said rights activist Silvera. “To date, neither the government, private enterprise or civil society has been able to fill that void.”