Experts say that Jamaican gangs are increasingly trying to enlist high school students in their ranks, a reminder that schools often serve as recruiting grounds for organized crime groups.
A recent panel hosted by the Jamaica Gleaner discussed the reasons why many students are susceptible to recruitment by gangs.
"Young boys, in particular, are getting something from being in a gang, which is missing from their home environment. They get respect and they are given purpose," said anthropologist and University of the West Indies lecturer Dr. Herbert Gayle.
"When there is a violent incident, perhaps the father and the mother have been killed and the child or children become orphaned, there is nobody," said Berthlyn Plummer, a member of a government-established civil society organization known as the Peace Management Initiative.
"After that nine-day wonder when everybody jumps around, the media, that child, or children, is not going to school or goes irregularly. Sometimes they don't have proper living arrangements. The next best thing that comes to them in the community is, perhaps, the gang. The gang leader may provide some breakfast or some dinner," Plummer continued.
While some students leave school to join the gangs, others have formed gangs inside school grounds. Jamaican police authorities expressed concern about the rise of student gangs across high schools, especially in the divisions of St. Catherine North and South, RJR News reported in December 2016. These student gangs are usually linked to criminal groups operating in the area, and conflicts between rival gangs can play out inside school grounds.
According to the Acting Commissioner of Police Novelette Grant, in 2016 Jamaica was home to 258 criminal gangs. Of the 1,350 murders committed in 2016 in the country, 65 percent were linked to these organized crime groups.
The National Strategic Anti-Gang Unit carried out operations against 20 gangs in 2016, and 356 members were arrested last year.
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Schools are known to be recruitment grounds for organized crime groups across Latin America and the Caribbean. Given that youngsters are likely to receive more lenient penalties if caught committing a crime, they provide an attractive form of low-cost, low-risk labor for criminal networks in the region.
In Jamaica, youngsters are often employed as "movers," that is, "persons who move around with illicit items, be it firearms, ammunition, etc.," Assistant Commissioner Clifford Chambers told RJR News. Similarly, in Mexico, drug cartels have used children aged between 11 to 17 to traffic illegal narcotics, according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Jamaica
The younger the recruits, the easier it is to manipulate them. Gangs in the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula have been known to recruit kindergartners and threaten children who refuse to join their ranks. In El Salvador, the number of children dropping out of school due to gang threats increased threefold from 13,000 in 2014 to 39,000 in 2015.
Nonetheless, as reflected by Dr. Gayle's comments, working for crime groups is still seen as a conduit for a higher social status, given that illegal groups often offer children a sense of self worth as well as physical and material security that their families cannot provide.