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Jamaica Beset by Spike in Gang Violence

Police have been unable to stem the bloodshed, which led to a record 1,669 killings in 2005 -- 10 times the homicide rate in the U.S.

January 22, 2006|Jonathan Ewing | Associated Press Writer

SPANISH TOWN, Jamaica — For his funeral, Dominic Bennett wore a white silk suit and white square-toed shoes. Thousands watched pallbearers carry his body around in a glass casket.

The hero's farewell belied his reputation. A gang leader admired by some, feared by many, he helped fuel a rash of killings that made Jamaica one of the world's deadliest places.

Jamaica witnessed a record 1,669 homicides in 2005, with Bennett one of the statistics. He was killed in a confrontation with police at his home here in Spanish Town, west of Kingston. Police say it was a shootout; his family calls it an execution.

The homicide rate in Jamaica, an island of 2.6 million best known for its white-sand beaches, reggae and gourmet Blue Mountain coffee, is 10 times that of the United States.

The police are poorly equipped and understaffed. They have been unable to stem the bloodshed, which occurs mostly in impoverished neighborhoods around Kingston, far from tourist hangouts.

Law officers have developed a reputation for slipshod investigations and for being too quick on the trigger. Rather than help the police, people in the Spanish Town area sometimes run when officers approach.

"There has been a breakdown in trust on the streets. Some people are just as scared of the police," Deputy Police Commissioner Mark Shields acknowledged in an interview. Shields, a veteran of England's Scotland Yard, was hired last year to help stem the soaring homicide rate.

The violence has its roots in the 1970s, when political factions created armed gangs to intimidate opponents ahead of the 1980 general elections. About 800 people were killed in election-related violence that year.

Twenty-six years later, the politicians have lost control of the gangs. The toughs are fighting a bloody turf war for control of extortion rings, which has provoked a cycle of seemingly endless revenge killings.

The slums have become battlefields, the ever-changing front lines between rival gangs marked by barricades of old refrigerators, junked cars and burning tires. Bennett's gang is called the Clansmen. It is at war with the One Order gang.

In a rare interview, Andrew "Bunman" Hope, the 27-year-old leader of One Order, described how his gang controls its half of the slum.

"If someone lives here, I'm responsible. If someone dies, I'm also responsible. This is the life that we live here," Hope said as he sat in the back of a car parked outside his home. Gunmen on rooftops and intersections kept a lookout for police or rival gang members.

Police say Hope is an extortionist. He denies that, insisting that the payments he receives from business owners are "gifts."

Although the gangs use strong-arm tactics and even kill those who refuse to pay the "gifts," gang leaders, known as "dons," at times act as ad hoc civic leaders.

Bennett, whose nickname was Bulbie, extorted money from businesses and reputedly ordered scores of rivals killed. But when he would stride down Spanish Town's pitted streets, lined with corrugated tin fences and small shops, merchants would walk out to talk to him and seek favors or loans.

Despite his criminal activities, Bennett might pay the school fees for a promising child, help provide electricity hookups or work with politicians to get roads paved.

Many poor Jamaicans, with few opportunities for advancement, have joined gangs to get a better life and earn respect. Some experts believe that gang power, and violence, will persist until the government addresses poverty.

"If the government can't provide basic service for the poor, if they can't alleviate the poverty in Jamaica's slums, the violence will never end," said Msgr. Richard Albert, a New York native who has mediated between Jamaica's police and gangs for more than 25 years.

Bennett's death in October was followed by more bloodshed. A power struggle erupted within the gang, and rival gangs carried out killings in an attempt to muscle in on the Clansmen's turf. Within days, gunmen arrived one night at the home of a top Clansmen, took him from his bed and killed him. Another was taken to old railroad tracks and shot in the head.

"Bulbie's death was destabilizing for Kingston," said Shields, the deputy police commissioner. "The killing of a top leader always creates a power vacuum, which usually means a period of intense violence as people look to take the leader's place."

To avenge a death, a gang sometimes will kill someone who merely lives in a neighborhood controlled by rivals.

Albert noted that young men who venture into a rival gang's territory risk being shot on sight.

"They grow up together, play football, go to school, but they can no longer cross the neighborhood line dividing the Clansman and One Order," he said. "No male between 15 and 35 can cross that line."

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