By Linda Nwoke
Jamaica, an island country in the Caribbean Sea, is known for its beautiful beaches, lush rainforests, and vibrant culture. It is an island home to more than 2.8 million English and Jamaican Patois-speaking people and a popular tourist destination for many worldwide.
The island’s economy is based on agriculture, manufacturing, and tourism. Yet, like other countries, it faces several challenges that dwindle the brightness of its inviting shores.
The Rock, or Xaymaca, as the Taino people call it, grapples with one of the world’s highest rates of gun violence. According to the Jamaica Constabulary Force, in 2021, over 1,370 murders were recorded, and more than 70% of these homicides were committed with firearms.
Moreover, in the past two years, Jamaica has been among the countries with the highest murder rates in the entire region and has consistently ranked within the top three in the preceding years. Hence, the gravity of the situation is undeniable.
Gun violence in Jamaica extends its formidable reach into public health, giving rise to a host of complex challenges. These challenges manifest in the form of lives lost, injuries sustained, lasting disabilities, and the profound psychological trauma experienced by survivors. The impact ripples across various stages—individuals, families, and entire communities—leaving indelible scars and hindering social and economic development.
Understanding the Complexity of Gun Violence in Jamaica
Numerous factors converge to contribute to the distressing prevalence of gun violence in Jamaica. Key among them are the proliferation of illegal firearms, the role of the drug trade, pervasive poverty, and deeply seated cases of social inequality.
Conversely, the issue of illegal firearms has become an item of paramount concern. For instance, more than 100,000 illicit firearms have infiltrated the nation and have remained tools in the hands of individuals engaged in gang conflicts, drug-related disputes, and domestic violence.
Dr. Horace Change, minister of national security, highlighted during an interview with the Jamaica Observer that “over 85 percent of the deaths are caused by firearms”.
Over the years, the figures have become worrisome; for instance, in 2021, local media reported the seizure of over three hundred firearms along with more than five thousand rounds of assorted ammunition. The following year, 2022, the figures rose, with over three hundred and seventy illegal guns and more than seven thousand rounds of confiscated ammunition.
Curiously, most of these small arms find their way into Jamaica from neighboring countries like Haiti and the United States.
Another critical factor for the whole network is the drug trade. According to a 2019 report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, drug-related gangs and criminal organizations employ firearms as tools to settle disputes, defend their territories, and intimidate rivals. The report highlighted the role of drug trading in smuggling firearms into Jamaica from external sources.
Furthermore, the relative ease of accessing firearms within Jamaica is a problem. It is an after-effect of the availability of illegal firearms, and the absence of stringent gun control laws is a significant concern. Dr. Chang noted that small firearms, including revolvers and pistols, are the weapons of choice for criminals due to their affordability and ease of access to ammunition, among other advantages.
Key Facts on Gun Violence in Jamaica:
One stark reality that emerges is the geographical inequalities that prevail in Jamaica, with gun violence disproportionately concentrated in specific areas, notably inner cities and rural regions. Many people, especially the local community members residing in the region, contend with higher rates of gun-related incidents.
Besides, there are demographic variations in gun violence across the nation. For example, most individuals, especially young men, who are living in poverty are more likely to be affected by gun-related incidents. This demographic variation is essential in designing appropriate interventions to address the issue’s root causes.
The impact of this societal malaise shows that beyond the immediate human toll, gun violence has a substantial economic impact on Jamaican society. Research findings estimate that over $1 billion is lost annually, encompassing expenses related to medical care, law enforcement efforts, and lost productivity.
Role of Jamaican Government in Gun Violence
In recognition of the challenge, over the years, the Jamaican government has implemented a range of policies and laws in its determined effort to curb gun violence. They have explored multifaceted interventions, including an increase in the number of police officers, the introduction of stringent gun control laws, and the launch of various community-based violence prevention programs. Central to this approach is an unwavering focus on combating the underlying causes of gun violence, such as poverty, social inequality, and the persistent drug trade.
Sadly, despite these efforts, gun violence continues to cast a shadow over Jamaica.
Various onlookers identify several key challenges that have persisted in each of the solutions, including perceived shortcomings in the strictness of gun control measures, lapses in the effective implementation of gun control laws, and the lingering corruption within the police force. These factors collectively create formidable obstacles to investigating and prosecuting gun-related crimes, thereby undermining the government’s efforts.
Additionally, poverty and social inequality remain disturbing factors in the equation. Experts claim that the lack of substantial investment in social and economic development has fostered an environment that enables crime and violence.
One case study is the 2010 security operation known as Operation Tivoli Gardens. It was a project that aimed at capturing the notorious drug lord Christopher “Dudus” Coke. Sadly, the operation witnessed significant challenges, including the loss of over 70 lives, including many civilians. It also faced allegations of excessive use of force and a lack of accountability for civilian casualties, serving as a constant reminder of the complexities inherent in addressing gun violence.
Another campaign ran until December 2022: the Reducing Small Arms and Light Weapons Joint Program, known as SALIENT. The UN in Jamaica managed and ran the initiative on a budget of $70 million. The initiative focused on addressing the root causes of violence while dismantling the factors that facilitated the influx of firearms into the country.
According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), SALIENT’s primary objective was to reduce gun flow into the country and the hands of criminals. It worked in tandem with the UN’s broader mission to fight minor arms trafficking and focused on reducing small firearms to curb violence in the country.
A pilot project within the program – Community Violence Audits- commenced on June 17 in Norwood and Denham Town communities to deepen the government’s understanding of the underlying factors contributing to Jamaica’s broader pattern of violence. In addition to the community studies, SALIENT had a youth training component focused on conflict resolution. Sadly, while the SALIENT program presented a true reform in the government’s strategy, its impact was not immediate.
Critics of the SALIENT Program
One prominent critic of the program, Dr. Erica Simmons, a Jamaican criminologist, and sociologist, argued that SALIENT failed to reduce gun violence in Jamaica because it focused on the wrong solutions, such as increased police patrols and gun buybacks, and not the covert solutions that tackle the causes of gun violence, like inequality and poverty.
Moreover, Dr. Simmons argued that SALIENT focused more on the supply side of the gun violence equation and not enough on the demand side, which will stem from the reasons people turn to violence as a solution.
In 2022, Amnesty International, the human rights organization, noted in its report that SALIENT failed to reduce gun violence in Jamaica because it concentrated its focus on law enforcement and not enough on human rights.
Although authorities have increased their seizures this year, these efforts are unlikely to significantly impede the influx of firearms because Jamaica receives over 100 illegal guns per month from neighboring countries like Haiti.
The SALIENT program differs from other policies because of its holistic approach, which focuses on gathering knowledge rather than punishment.
Instead of emphasizing punitive measures, the UN program aimed at understanding the causes of violence through audits like legislative changes, training, and law enforcement reforms.
If the programs in the two locations—Denham Town and Norwood—had succeeded, they would have expanded to other communities and created the foundations for more informed violence reduction strategies.
Yet, after years of reactionary policies that couldn’t stop gun trafficking in the Caribbean nation, Jamaica has decided to retrace its steps and take a different approach that is slower, more holistic, and data-driven.
Amnesty International called for SALIENT to adopt a more human-rights-based approach to gun violence reduction. Consider including measures like reducing the use of deadly force by the police, increasing accountability for police misconduct, and investing in socio-economic development.
On its side, the Jamaican government has defended SALIENT, arguing that it has made progress in reducing gun violence. However, critics continue to say that the Jamaican government’s focus on law enforcement and physical solutions failed to address the underlying causes of gun violence in the country.
Role of Jamaica’s Ministry of National Security (MNS)
Aside from the SALIENT project, the government introduced several policies and programs to combat gun violence through the Ministry of National Security (MNS). Some are the National Firearms Policy, Gun Buyback Program, Firearm Licensing Authority (FLA) reforms, and the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) efforts.
The MNS invested in socio-economic development programs in high-crime areas to tackle the root cause of the problem. While the initiative has recorded some success, it requires continued enforcement and investment.
Undoubtedly, gun violence is a significant impediment to Jamaica’s overall development. It affects the country’s social fabric and hampers economic growth and stability by inhibiting progress and instilling a sense of insecurity.
All these obstruct the country from realizing its full potential and achieving its development goals. The government should use group-targeted interventions that focus on challenges.
While the Jamaican government has rolled out various policies and programs in its battle against gun violence, most of the initiatives have been slow to deliver significant impact within society. The government must be more decisive in elevating the country from its economic struggles.