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'We don't have police, we have gunmen'

Outcry over 'kill or be killed' ethos of the law officers trying to halt crime on the streets of Jamaica

Gary Younge in Kingston
Friday August 29, 2003
The Guardian

Jamaican police officers fired 16 bullets into Reagon Beckford before they left him for dead: one for each year of his life and one for good measure.
He was one of seven young men killed in Braeton, on the outskirts of Kingston, shortly before dawn on March 14 2001.

The police say they were killed in response to shots fired from a house, but neighbours in this densely packed alleyway recall things differently; they heard gunfire, a commotion as the police entered the house, then beatings and pleas for mercy.

"They were screaming for help and shouting 'murder', 'dem murdering us'," said one, asking not to be named.

Some witnesses said that after a brief pause, police told the men to say their prayers, and then the area echoed with gunfire: 46 shots in all. One victim, Andre Virgo, was shot four times in the head.

The police say the men were responsible for killing a retired customs officer and a school principal earlier that month. There will never be a trial, so the facts will never be known. But there is little evidence of a gun battle, no bullet holes in any of the neighbours' houses.

"It would not be possible to achieve the pattern of gunshot wounds on each of the young men's heads in the manner described by the police in their statements," a British firearms expert, Inspector Jon Vogel, said in a report on the killings. "I suspect that their heads were made temporarily immobile while the shots were fired at relatively close proximity."

When Reagon's mother, Valdine, asked a policeman why her son - who had never been wanted for any crime, she says - had been killed, he said: "He was in the wrong place at the wrong time."

When it comes to police shootings there have been a lot of Jamaicans in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Two weeks ago Renee Lyons, 10, was shot in Majesty Gardens when a policeman was chasing a man smoking marijuana. Two men and two women were killed in the Crawle district in May. In 2001, between July 7 and 10, 27 people ranging in age from 16 to 83 were killed in West Kingston.

According to Amnesty International, Jamaica has the highest number of police killings per capita in the world: an annual average of 140 civilians over the past 10 years in a population of 2.6m. But as far as anyone can recall - the police refuse to release the figures - only one policeman has been convicted of unlawful killing in the past four years.

Dennis Daly, a lawyer and human rights activist, said: "Special police squads have had a licence to kill, and to do so with impunity. There has been a tacit understanding that those taking action against criminality would be immune from prosecution."

Andre Virgo's mother, Dorothy Lawrence, said: "They're not fighting crime, they're making more crime. We don't have police, we have gunmen."

Despite the lack of action against individual police officers, there is some evidence that pressure from human rights organisations and foreign governments is forcing the government to respond.

It invited Scotland Yard, the Canadian Mounties and US law enforcers to help investigate the killings in Crawle. In June the crime management unit, which was responsible for many of the killings, was disbanded and its head, Renato Adams, given a desk job.

But given the scale of the problem and the extent of the institutional resistance to solving it, most regard the recent progress as limited at best.

"The rhetoric and the atmosphere around human rights is getting better," Piers Bannister of Amnesty International said. "But the real test will be when the number of killings fall and the number of convictions of police responsible rise."

In a country beset by crime, poverty, inept government, a violent political culture and a huge foreign debt, few believe that the conditions exist for that day to come soon.

Far from Montego Bay and Ocho Rios, where tourists bask in secure communities, murals of Bob Marley and Marcus Garvey, often pock-marked with bullet holes, look out over intense urban deprivation.

Activists accuse the police of failing to protect crime scenes, threatening witnesses and manipulating jury selections to prevent the conviction of those responsible for shooting unarmed civilians.

The police failed to respond to requests for an interview.

Yet despite the killings, public support for the harsh police tactics is high and the political will to address them is weak.

Mr Adams remains a national folk hero, hailed for dispensing summary justice by gun where the judicial system had failed.

"Many people don't have faith in the justice system," said Susan Goffe, the vice-chairwoman of the human rights group Jamaicans for Justice. "So that's why you get this vigilante justice. It is reflected in the wider society."

In areas where unemployment is high and social security virtually non-existent, the gun is more than just a criminal appendage for young men.

Yvonne Sobers, head of Families against State Terrorism, which supports relatives of those killed, said: "In a community without a safety net the gun represents the safety net. The gun is power, money and manhood."

Last year 1,045 people were murdered: the police are not only more likely to kill but also to be killed. They represent the official expression of that vengeful cycle of brutality.

When Millicent Forbes found that her 13-year-old daughter, Janice Allen, had been killed by a police bullet in 2000, an officer told her. "It's just another life, it could be one of us too."

In December the government endorsed a paramilitary style of policing. Scores of young men were rounded up for questioning, 24-hour curfews were imposed, and derelict buildings were demolished. The aim was to cut crime by 20%, but murders are slightly up this year.

Last week the police commissioner, Francis Forbes, admitted: "I think we have to go back to the drawing board."

Ms Goffe says the problem lies in their mistaking harsh methods for effective strategy. "Our homicide rate has systematically gone up. Crime rates have gone up. So it's not worked."

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