Violence in Paradise: Escalations of Violence in Jamaica

Haleigh Johns

November, 2017

A beach club in one of Jamacia's more popular tourist destinations, Montego Bay

A beach club in one of Jamacia's more popular tourist destinations, Montego Bay


The small island nation of Jamaica has seen a staggering upsurge in crime in 2017. During the first six months of this year, almost 600 people were victims of homicide in Jamaica, representing a 16% increase since 2016.

With a population of approximately 2.8 million people, the state has an equivalent in population size to the city of Chicago. Despite having such a small population, Jamaica boasts the world’s 6th-highest homicide rate. When adjusted for population size, the current homicide rate has meant that Jamaica sees the equivalent of the 9/11 attacks every week in terms of civilian deaths.

Although the sheer increase in violence is cause enough for concern, it has been the geographic spread of violence that has resulted in the most scrutiny on the Jamaican government. Violence and shootouts between police and gangs have spread to the western half of the Island, and into major cities such as Kingston and Montego Bay. As the western regions of the island are major tourist attractions, the violence in these areas has resulted in a call for government action for fear of lost tourism revenue.

Opposition Spokesman on National Security, Peter Bunting, has called for action from the Jamaican government. Bunting has advocated for the allocation of more resources for the police and military, in the hopes that the increased presence of law enforcement will decrease the amount of homicides. The Jamaican Ministry of National Security fell victim to a two billion-dollar budget cut this past fiscal year, and the opposition is pinpointing this decision as one of the main factors contributing to the rise in violent crime in Jamaica in 2017.

However, it might be the actions of Jamaica’s police and military that have led to this dramatic increase in violence. Recent law enforcement protocol in Jamaica has focused on the elimination of street gangs, whose rivalries often result in violence and danger for citizens.

Gangs in Jamaica are heavily involved in transnational drug trading, as marijuana is easily accessible in Jamaica. Marijuana is illegally exported by gangs to the United States, as well as cocaine. Protection rackets, extortion schemes, and scams are other economic activities over which Jamaican gangs exercise a monopoly. Their economic prowess has meant that this gang culture invariably affects the politics of the nation, thus necessitating government action to curtail these organizations.

The government has used the strategy of “decapitation”, whereby gang leaders are targeted in the hopes that a disruption in leadership will result in complete disintegration of the organization as a whole. However, this strategy has historically failed in many instances across the world, and Jamaica is no exception. Instead of dismantling gang structure, the focus on gang leadership resulted in these criminal organizations becoming more covert and more apt at avoiding detection by law enforcement.

In addition to their ineffective strategy of “decapitation”, the Jamaican government has also suggested that the country’s criminal justice system may be reformed and constitutionally-protected rights may be infringed. The Jamaican Bar Associated has called these measures “of great concern”.  The Caribbean has long been known for the widespread corruption of government officials, and the willingness to override citizens’ constitutional rights is a troublesome indicator of a power-hungry executive branch.

Like many other nations in the region, Jamaica’s development and success has been impeded by the constant presence of gang violence. However, if the government continues to attempt and solve this issue by simply exerting more force and increasing military presence, this cycle of violence will simply be perpetuated and recreated. The root of the problem – the unemployment of young people who turn to gangs for a source of income – should be addressed instead. Until the Jamaican government alters its strategy, violence in Jamaica will continue its upward trajectory toward state failure and recession.