In just two months, authorities detained 906 people in Jamaica under states of emergency across the country, but this bid to reduce violent crime is unlikely to make any long-term difference.
Data from the Jamaica Constabulary Force shows that under the current states of public emergency in Hanover, St James and Westmoreland, 811 of the 906 detained individuals were released after processing, the Jamaica Gleaner reported. Of this wave of mass arrests, only 17 people were charged for their involvement in homicides or shootings, and just two alleged gang members were prosecuted.
Effective since April 30 in the three Jamaican parishes, the states of emergency grant temporary additional powers to security forces by notably allowing the government to deploy the army, as well as to increase police presence in certain areas. In addition, individuals can be stopped, searched and arrested without a warrant.
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The Jamaican government resorting to such measures is not new. A year-long state of emergency expired in St. James in January before being renewed in late April, alongside Westmoreland and Hanover. On July 7, the Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness announced this was being extended to the region of St. Andrew South.
The use of states of emergency are part of the government’s strategy to reduce the staggering homicides rate in Jamaica. In 2018, 47 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants were reported, with 1,287 murders. This is almost three times higher than the average rate for Latin America and the Caribbean. In addition, 70 percent of all murders committed in Jamaica are gang-related, according to Holness.
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Jamaica’s security crackdown, despite some encouraging short-term results, might prove counterproductive in dealing with crime in the long run. Blanket arrests during states of emergency are symptomatic of other Latin American governments, but have rarely achieved sustainable progress.
Jamaica did see a 21.7 percent drop in the national murder rate in 2018, and St. James witnessed a 70 percent drop in homicides during its year-long state of emergency. But Holness told a press conference that the current security plan might not be sufficient to stop violent crime. "The truth is that the level of crime is above the capacity of law enforcement to [effectively] respond. There have been 11,000 murders in the last eight years, and we do not have enough investigators," said the prime minister.
Jamaica's former deputy police commissioner, Mark Shields, agreed that states of emergency and blanket arrests have limitations. "SOEs [states of emergency] will fail if long-term plans are not implemented to improve education, employment and effective enforcement of the law supported by an efficient justice system," he told InSight Crime.
In the meantime, resorting to a state of emergency achieves little more than short-term objectives, such as temporarily containing gangs and reassuring inhabitants by putting uniforms on the street.
High-profile operations involving blanket arrests have been used by several other governments throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Their limited results further point to the inefficiency of using such a strategy.
El Salvador’s recent wave of police confrontations hid a pattern of extrajudicial killings, whereas Argentina’s record-high increase of drug seizures and arrests was criticized for not tackling large-scale drug traffickers.