Violence and Politics in Latin America and the Caribbean: A Comparative Study of Kingston, Jamaica

Enrique D. Arias, Political Science, City University of New York, John Jay College

Research Grant, 2009

This project seeks to understand the political role of armed groups in Kingston, Jamaica. Scholarship on gangs in Jamaica indicates that over the past thirty years criminal groups in that city, which were founded with the support of the country’s two main political parties in the 1960s and 1970s, have become increasingly less political. My findings support this general observation but also suggest that there is a wide variation in the political posture of criminal organizations in Kingston. What accounts for these differences?

Large swaths of the city’s working-class neighborhoods are dominated by politically connected actors that engage in extortion as well drugs and arms trafficking. The core of impoverished areas close to the downtown business district and other older impoverished areas in the southern and southwestern part of the city are often organized as what some refer to as garrison communities in which a single gang dominates an entire neighborhood or parliamentary constituency. Other impoverished regions, often newer settlements or areas that have fallen into poverty over the last 30 or 40 years, have high levels of criminal activity but are subject to a looser form of gang dominance in which smaller, but no less violent, gangs control different streets and compete with each other. Despite this conflict, these smaller gangs, as a result of shared political affiliations, will often work together during elections to protect the neighborhood from outside armed groups.

The project consisted of approximately 100 open-ended qualitative interviews conducted with leaders of different working-class communities in the city as well as members of civic organizations and policymakers and approximately 400 residents of two communities dominated by different types of armed gangs. One of these neighborhoods is located in the Kingston Western Constituency, next to the historic downtown commercial area, and the other is located in eastern Kingston in the Mountain View Road area, a region characterized by impoverished formerly middle-class housing developments. From the 1960s until mid-2010, a powerful hierarchical gang controlled much of the Kingston Western Constituency. The portion of the Mountain View Road area I studied is led by a set of decentralized gangs that negotiate local control and fight amongst themselves. The armed groups that operate in the two areas are both active supporters of the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP), one of the two dominant parties in the country. Where many consider western Kingston a key stronghold for the JLP’s armed wing for the entire country, the JLP-controlled neighborhoods on Mountain View Road are a key component of the JLP’s armed operation in eastern Kingston. A close analysis of the two areas, however, suggests that that the armed group in western Kingston maintains a much stronger link to the JLP and, despite the fact that the JLP has won every election in the Kingston Western Constituency since independence in 1962, plays a very active role in the voting process, attacking residents who refuse to turn out for elections. The armed actors on Mountain View Road, on the other hand, display comparatively less interest in actual voter turnout despite the fact that that the constituencies in that region have been the site of considerable electoral contestation over the past two decades.

Evidence gathered suggests that what drives gang-led political violence in the two areas is not the historic question of party affiliation but the criminal dynamics and interests affecting each area and the role that connections to the state play in those armed projects.

Evidence gathered suggests that what drives gang-led political violence in the two areas is not the historic question of party affiliation but the criminal dynamics and interests affecting each area and the role that connections to the state play in those armed projects. The gang that controlled Kingston Western was involved in a multifaceted criminal enterprise focused on international arms and narcotics trafficking, mass extortion of downtown businesses, and obtaining government contracts and patronage. The leadership of the gang depended on close connections with the government for protection from law enforcement and access to contracts. Thus, while the electoral outcome in the area was always a given, the leadership of the gang sought to boost turnout in its efforts to display its power and efficacy to party leadership. The result is a criminal enterprise that trades on political connections and, thus, at times acts as a political gang. The gangs in eastern Kingston, however, are involved in much more limited extortion activities and they receive comparatively little in the way of government contracts. The gangs make most of their money on the international and local retail arms and drug trade that is articulated through corrupt police. Thus, while party contacts may be important in providing some protection against arrest, they are much less important to these gangs than to their counterparts in the west. The result is a set of gangs with a political identity and connections that has less interest in taking actions to bolster those connections or directly profit from them.

This project is part of a larger three city, six neighborhood, study that examines similar processes in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Medellin, Colombia. The project as a whole examines the role of armed actors in providing security as well as their involvement in elections and policy making.

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