Jamaica is to prosecute a gang leader under its new anti-gang law in the biggest test yet for the controversial legislation, which Jamaican authorities hope to use to rein in the island's powerful and violent street gangs.
On January 21, Jamaican police announced that Omar Spaulding, alias "Dawdie," the alleged leader of the Scare Dem gang, will be prosecuted under the Criminal Justice (Suppression of Criminal Organisations) Act -- more commonly known as the anti-gang law. According to local newspaper the Jamaica Observer, this is the first time the act has been used against the head of a criminal organization.
Spaulding was arrested in May last year in a raid on his house, where police discovered an Uzi sub-machine gun, a pistol and a revolver. Police say his gang was one of the main drivers of the violence that saw west Kingston become one of the island's bloodiest zones.
He was charged alongside 11 alleged associates, two of them under 18, and is set to face additional charges related to the recruitment of minors, reported the Jamaica Observer.
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Jamaica's anti-gang act came into force last year in an attempt to tackle the island's powerful street gangs. The gangs have a complicated relationship with both the communities they rule over and the political establishment -- which has traditionally employed their territorial power to gain an electoral advantage -- and the act has been heralded as a new tool to break their stranglehold.
However, the law was passed accompanied by a barrage of criticism from civil society groups. The critics said the hardline legislation criminalized a broad range of behavior and activities, risking dragging otherwise law abiding youth from vulnerable areas into the judicial system and criminal life.
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The Spaulding case comes at a crucial moment, with the police foreseeing a huge expansion in use of the act in the coming year. Earlier in January, police announced they expect to charge 500 people under the act in 2015, compared to just 26 before the latest charges against Spaulding and his associates, according to the government run Jamaica Information Service.
As the Spaulding case involves the alleged leader of a gang, it will test whether the act genuinely has the capacity to break up organized crime networks, or whether it will go the route of other hardline anti-gang laws in countries such as El Salvador, which succeeded in filling the prisons with youths but failed to weaken the gangs in any significant way.