Jamaica gang feuds driving rise in murder rate

February 21, 2012 - 10:15 PM

KINGSTON, Jamaica (AP) — Jamaica is developing a new policy to battle crime as gang violence drives the homicide rate higher, the country's top security official said Tuesday.

National Security Minister Peter Bunting said 165 killings have been reported by police so far in 2012, compared to 135 slayings during the corresponding period last year on the Caribbean island of 2.8 million people.

Violent gangs are deeply entrenched in Spanish Town, just west of Kingston, and in some residential sections of the northwestern parish of St. James, which includes the resort city of Montego Bay. Fighting between the gangs for control of drug trafficking and extortion rackets has long been blamed for the majority of Jamaica's homicides.

Police Commissioner Owen Ellington said at a news conference with Bunting that much of the security forces' resources are now focused on trying to contain 42 active gang conflicts.

Ellington told reporters that the Shower Posse gang, which was controlled by convicted drug kingpin Christopher "Dudus" Coke from his slum stronghold of Tivoli Gardens, has been significantly hobbled since his capture in June 2010 but remains an active gang in West Kingston.

Bunting said Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller's nearly two-month-old government intends to fast-track anti-gang legislation and is crafting a new security policy meant to reduce crime to "First World levels" by 2017, when he hopes to have a maximum of just 321 killings.

A U.N. study on the Caribbean released earlier this month said Jamaica has had the world's third-highest murder rate over the past decade, with about 60 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. Jamaica loses some $529 million a year due to crime, according to the report.

Last year, Jamaica had 1,125 slayings, a roughly 22 percent drop from the 1,442 killings in 2010. A record 1,683 people were killed in 2009.

Bunting said a major goal is to target gang kingpins and facilitators for organized criminal networks, not the people lower down the chain. Many of those arrested in previous years have been underlings who had little connection to gang leadership. Such workers are easily replaced.

"We don't always want to be chasing out the symptoms, we want to get to the infection," he told reporters at the prime minister's offices.

Bunting intends to create a task force to identify and arrest crime facilitators, such as accountants, real estate brokers, lawyers and corrupt public officials. He also hopes to give courts greater power to seize their assets.

He also said Jamaican society must undergo "mental reconditioning" to encourage more people to report crimes. Those who live in Jamaica's slums are deeply distrustful of the police and authorities, and an anti-informant culture is widespread.

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