Jamaica’s latest urban security operation has rounded up nearly 200 suspects in an attempt to “cauterize” rising rates of insecurity, but the aggressive approach may be counterproductive to the fight against organized crime.
Jamaica’s National Security Minister Robert Montague announced on January 23 that authorities had made 197 arrests in St. James parish, home to the tourist hub of Montego Bay, during a combined military-police operation that followed the declaration last week of a state of public emergency, the Jamaica Gleaner reported.
Among those arrested, Montague said that 10 were wanted for serious crimes, including murder, and another 83 are “strongly believed to be connected to gangs in the parish.” Two men wanted on criminal charges in the United States were detained and are expected to be deported.
The state of emergency declared in St. James gave security forces the power to arrest individuals without obtaining a warrant, which some residents and legal experts told the Jamaica Gleaner has filled up local jails where conditions are already poor. Legal experts have also raised concerns about slow processing times and restricted access to legal counsel for detainees.
Following the wave of arrests, Jamaica’s Justice Minister Delroy Chuck announced that a special tribunal will be established to hear appeals by or on behalf of those detained under the powers granted to security forces by the state of emergency.
Despite past criticism of the use of states of emergency, officials said the operation in St. James had public support.
"We asked for and are getting unprecedented support from the public,” Montague said in comments reported by the Miami Herald. “We ask that members of the public continue to flood us with information. Tell us where the guns are! Tell us where the gunmen, lotto scammers and criminals are.”
In addition to St. James, operations were launched in the parishes of St. Ann, St. Mary and Westmoreland, as well as targeted raids in St. Catherine.
InSight Crime Analysis
As Jamaica’s security situation continues to deteriorate at the start of 2018 following a dramatic increase in homicides last year, the government’s decision to double down on heavy-handed operations could exacerbate the island nation’s problems with organized crime.
Security Minister Montague has admitted that the strategy of declaring states of emergency “is not a panacea” or a “cure-all.” Instead, he said that the deployment of security forces and waves of arrests are “meant to cauterize the situation, while providing the space for other sustainable interventions.”
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However, in practice, Jamaica’s security crackdown launched late last year has been marred by rushed implementation, at times based on unreliable information, which has raised questions about its effectiveness. As InSight Crime has reported, these operations may also be shifting attention away from important steps to prevent crime, such as the country’s initiative to seize illegal weapons and provide social programs for at-risk youths.
The recent wave of arrests in St. James points to additional concerns, including the potential overburdening of jails and courts with youths swept up in high numbers during operations. This could lead to more young people spending time in jails, which could provide gangs with recruitment opportunities.