Belying its laid-back, beach-breeze image, Jamaica was the murder capital of the world in 2005, with 60 people killed per 100,000 inhabitants. In total, more than 1,600 people were murdered, or five people per day.
Nowadays, efforts spearheaded by a police task force targeting drug traffickers and criminal organizations are paying off, and crime is diminishing. "The most recent data available shows a continuing downward trend in major crimes," Minister of National Security Dr. Peter Phillips told reporters at a recent press conference.
The turnaround began when, just before stepping down at the beginning of 2006, influential Prime Minister Percival J. 'P.J.' Patterson deemed crime as the country's most pressing problem, and urged the populace to play a greater role in fighting criminal activity and violence.
Murders and shootings have been cut by 25 percent nationwide a year and a half after their peak in May 2005, said Phillips.
Phillips credited a two-year-old crime-busting initiative dubbed Operation Kingfish as the main reason for the reduction in criminal activity. Kingfish was set up in late 2004 as a broad-based operation designed to attack drug trafficking and crime syndicates and to thwart gang violence on the island. The initiative set itself apart from previous anticrime campaigns by advocating preemptive strikes against criminals rather than merely containment of activities.
Kingfish task force commander Glenmore Hinds told The Jamaica Observer that his unit is responsible for the dismantling of at least one criminal organization, the Gideon Warriors Gang led by Kevin 'Richie Poo' Tyndale, and the unit has severely disrupted another seven groups, including East Kingston's One Ten Gang, and the Steve 'Mop Head' Hallimann Gang in Jacks Hill.
Other gangs have been further hurt by either the arrest of members or their deaths at the hands of cronies or security forces, added Hinds. One such death was Klansman Gang leader Donovan �Bulbie� Bennett, who was killed in late 2005 during a confrontation with security forces. "Most of these gangsters have huge arsenals at their disposal," Hinds said.
As of late November 2005, the Kingfish squad had confiscated more than 1,200 firearms, along with 50-odd boats, 12 tons of cocaine, and 4,300 pounds of compressed 'ganja,' or marijuana.
Intelligence has also played a key role in law enforcement victories against criminals, said Phillips, and further investments will be made to strengthen information gathering and analysis and to build forensic techniques. The push towards better forensic methods has been enhanced by the freshly minted Automated Palm and Fingerprint Identification System, which already has a database of more than 236,000 prints on file.
A ballistic identification system is being implemented, and the police radio network is being upgraded. Emphasis is being placed on the morale and training of police officers, and past problems between police forces and citizens are being dealt with through community relations.
Despite the overall progress, some problem areas remain, and criminals are constantly adapting. The security minister says, for example, that crime bosses are setting up bases in places they never frequented before, such as growing commercial centers, forcing law enforcement to expand its coverage area in an attempt to curtail the criminal expansion.
If Jamaica is to continue to make headway in the battle against crime, the Jamaican parliament needs to pass the Proceeds of Crime Bill, said Phillips. The legislation would allow the courts to force criminals to forfeit all properties and accumulated wealth that cannot be explained by legitimate activity.
"The bill is critical to sustaining the downward trend, as it will hurt the criminal elite where it matters most, in their pockets," said Phillips. Other bills in the works - including one that authorizes the formation of an investigative body probing criminal activities, and another that beefs up port and border security - are also considered important additions.