Police & Thieves
11 a.m. The ghetto of Armour Pen, in Kingston, seems quiet. I’ve come to check Bramma, a young rude boy who survived the political wars of the 1990s, and who spends most of his time at his girlfriend’s bar, on the main road. Out of the blue, a youth comes into the bar, bumping into me without really noticing. Seventeen, maybe eighteen years old. He has a dark look. After a short and tense discussion with Bramma, he jumps on his bicycle and pedals quickly down the road. Bramma calls out to the people in the bar: “Shevanne’s gone for his brother with a knife!” Every one rushes outside—looks like trouble’s ahead. Down the road, Shevanne throws his bike away and starts to yell at his brother who hangs out with an up-to-no-good bunch of gangster youths. He’d like him to leave them and to join his own little gang. The discussion comes to an abrupt end—Shevanne takes out his knife and cuts his brother’s arm. As blood spills, his brother’s friends get mad and chase Shevanne away by throwing stones at him.
"In the 1990s, there were proportionally more killings in our little community than in New York. It was Iraq down here."
It did not last more than a couple of seconds but the whole community is upside down. In Jamaica, such an incident can turn into an everlasting war, generating blind shootouts and innocent victims. Further down the main road, a house still bears the stigmata of the latest drive-by shooting that cost the lives of two persons. It left some impressive holes in the wall, as big as golf balls. What kind of gun can cause such damage? The mediator of the community, an old-timer who tries to maintain peace through dialogue, laughs: “AKA-47, man.” Around here, people shoot at each other with army rifles. Armour Pen is a notorious war zone, a divided community. During the 1990s and the 2000s it was probably the most dangerous place in Kingston. Wars often break out over a stupid incident, a harsh word or a stiff look. “There’s nothing we can do right now,” says the mediator regarding the incident between Shevanne and his brother. “We have to wait for the dust to settle. The youths threw stones and picked up some batons but them remain pon the sidewalk. It means they did not run for their guns. That’s a good omen. The only problem being—” Yes? “Today ah-Friday, the day when they go out at night with them friends, to drink and smoke.” The mediator shrugs: “Well, there was a time when gunshots would have started long ago. In the 1990s, there were proportionally more killings in our little community than in New York. It was Iraq down here.”
One week later, our taxi stops exactly were Shevanne cut his brother. Our driver looks concerned: “You sure you know what you’re doing?
- We good, man, everything is all right.”
Our speaking patois surprises him, he wonders what we are looking for in this volatile community. He eventually drives away, glancing at us a couple of times in his rear-view mirror. We look around us, trying to look as cool as possible. After all, someone is expecting us. His name is Rico, the Don of one of the small gangs who rule Armour Pen. Each gang rules a precise territory where it usually extorts money from taxi drivers or businessmen, and sells girls or drugs. Earlier on the phone, Rico told me he would not come to pick us up, we would have to cross the river by ourselves and enter his turf where one of his soldiers would wait for us. “What will he wear?” I asked. Rico smiled on the phone: “A yellow T-shirt, man.” Under the bright sun and in front of the gorgeous landscape of the nearby luxurious hills, all these precautions seem derisory. But violence in Armor Pen always sleeps with one eye open. Let’s say that the risk seems acceptable today. A few years ago, before the downfall of Dudus, the taxi driver would have refused to carry us down here as he could have been held responsible, if something happened to us. As a matter of fact, two months after we were there, a dozen masked gunmen raided a nearby lane and tracked their victim down to his house, shooting their way in to murder him. Another man jumped through the window to save his life.
"Unwritten rules are crucial in the ghetto. You live by these rules, or die by them."
Armour Pen occupies a hillside. On the crest, the main road is divided into what are gently called communities with rough war names. Turfs run from the crest to the foot of the hill, where a river traces a natural frontier with another turf, Rico’s kingdom—where we are heading. Rico usually lives in peace with the communities from the hillside, but sometimes he doesn’t. Right now, there is tension. It all started when one of his soldiers had an argument with an elderly man from the main road community. Bramma, the youth with the face of an angel who spends his time in front of his girlfriend’s bar, stepped in, to settle the argument. He laughs when we ask him about Rico: “Him and him boys—shitty! Them look for trouble, man. Rico says me should have never said anything to him soldier—shitty! They just try to expand them territory to extort people from the main road. But this is our community, we won’t let you disrespect people around here, man. Else it would mean we are weak.” Unwritten rules are crucial in the ghetto. You live by these rules, or die by them. Tension has risen through different messengers who go to and fro between the two communities to carry news, but things have not come to a breaking point yet—they could, though, in the twinkle of an eye.
We cross the river under the burning sun, jumping from one big stone to another. This river reminds me of violence in Jamaica: a few streams gently running down to the sea, making a delightful noise; but when the tropical rain pours down, water rushes down the hill, raging and exploding against the river banks, destroying everything on its way. Once it starts, it is already too late—nothing can stop it.
Since we’ve been walking in the open, we are under the watch of a sentinel. We can’t see him, but we know he’s here, hidden somewhere on the other bank. Rico puts sentinels all along his frontiers. All gangs do... Everywhere you go, you can see youths sitting on concrete walls. You might think they’re just skylarking, they’re not—they’re on a mission. They observe and report every suspicious move. Sentinel is the first step on the ladder of crime. A few days earlier, as we were talking to Rico in front of his house, or yard as Jamaicans say, the Don’s phone vibrated—he took a look at it and suddenly went for a small bag of ganja (marijuana) in his pocket and threw it away. We observed him, puzzled. A few seconds later, a pick up from the police slowly drove by behind us. “It was a sentinel,” smiled Rico, showing his phone. “I’ve got one in front of the police station, permanently. As soon as the police come out, I know about it.” Hard to catch him red-handed; even harder to catch him gun-handed.
"We know about you foreign journalists,” he says. “You French are the worst. You’re going to judge us and to tell the world God knows what..."
Guns, in Jamaica, are seldom shown—except at night, maybe, the killers’ hours. Otherwise, covered with grease, wrapped in old rags then placed in plastic bags, they are carefully buried underground. The police rarely catch gunmen with them—unless they are on the rampage, or ready to commit a crime. A policeman from the Mobile Reserve, coming out of a well-known hang-out of the Clansman gang in Spanish Town, sounds disheartened: “We have no metal detectors and their guns are buried close by.” The lack of resources is only one of the many disadvantages linked to one of the most dangerous jobs in Jamaica, namely, being a police officer. Torn between the wish to do well, the corruption of some of its members and political pressure, the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) is conscious of its weakness and fears outsiders. The Director of Communication of the Force, Mr Karl Angell, is a former journalist who obviously holds a grudge against his one-time colleagues. He reluctantly welcomes us to his tiny office in Up Park Camp, smoking a cigarette. To follow police patrols? “We know about you foreign journalists,” he says. “You French are the worst. You’re going to judge us and to tell the world God knows what—like the Human Rights Watchgroups that keep on complaining: Why don’t you use Taser rather than deadly weapons? Do they have any idea of the price of a Taser? We already have trouble matching the machine guns of gunmen, not to mention the shortage of ammunition. Had it depended on me, you would never have obtained this authorization.” But it had not depended on him, but on Owen Ellington, the Commissioner of police, and Peter Bunting, the Minister of Security, who jointly granted us this rare privilege. They did not justify their decision. Probably a desire for transparency? The welcome remains distant, though. “The last time we had some journalists,” says Sasha, a young policewoman from the Mobile Reserve, “they were lovely. They remained with us for four days. Then they put out their documentary: Killer Cops of Jamaica. Don’t be offended if some of us are a little bit distant.”
The police hardly feel supported by the authorities. And this is an understatement. They are well acquainted with political ambivalence. Speaking to HG Helps, a journalist from The Observer, the super cop Renato Adams, retired from the Force in 2008 after sixty years of service, does not beat about the bush: “One of the reasons we could not deal with the crime as it was at the time was that people like me who advocated certain laws and actions were bluntly refused by the Government. This would include eavesdropping equipment, which I asked for when I went to the CMU (Crime Management Unit). I asked for certain other equipment to set up instruments covertly and to videotape what was being said, using the technology available at the time. This was refused, as the Administration said that it would be encroaching on the human rights of criminals.” Some unknown political forces would be at work, suspected to be responsible for the dismantling of the very efficient King Fish squad. In 2007, under the JLP administration—the party behind Christopher “Dudus” Coke—this Special Task Force Unit was suppressed without any reason and the official Commission in charge of the investigation seems unable to explain this decision, nor to find out who took it. Several Ministers of Security and influential members of the Force have been questioned, but no one knows where the order came from. It could only have been given by the Ministry—but no one can be blamed in this story where no one knows anything. (...)
Read more: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00FAOFXU8
Gangs of Jamaica, T. Ehrengardt (DREAD Editions)