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Jamaica bleeds for our ‘war on drugs’

The tragedy unfolding in Jamaica is symptomatic of a wider crisis of organised crime, armed violence and political corruption caused by a failed “war on drugs”. The tangled political and economic roots of the problem run very deep.

dudus coke jamaicaCaribbean nations were born from the violence of chattel slavery and rebellion, colonial domination and the struggle for liberation and self-determination. The postcolonial flight of capital and structural readjustment have been compounded by the end of transatlantic trade agreements that have led to the collapse of the region’s agricultural economic base. High levels of unemployment and extreme marginality have been the result for many communities.

By accident of geography, the Caribbean islands sit uncomfortably between the Andean coca producers and the cocaine consumers of North America and Europe. Although the Caribbean routes account for only a small proportion of the cocaine traffic (estimated by the UN to be worth as much as $125bn), the islands’ physical location, unprotectable coastlines and transport links to the metropolitan centres of North America and Europe make them an ideal jumping-off point for the traffickers.

The “war on drugs” was supposed to destroy coca production, stifle trafficking and eliminate cocaine use in the US and beyond. It has achieved none of these things. Instead, supply and demand are resilient, and so the “harsh medicine” of drug prohibition has created a lucrative clandestine market with entirely predictable iatrogenic side-effects of political corruption and armed violence. The collateral damage is all too evident across the region – most obviously in Jamaica, but also in Trinidad, Guyana and many other places on the Caribbean rim that have seen gunshot murders escalate to levels equivalent to a bloody civil war.

Jamaica’s problems are particularly acute. Political violence can be traced back to the 1940s at least, and escalated at key moments throughout the 20th century, most notably during the 1980 election when guns were funnelled into the island from the US – allegedly by the CIA – to arm the leaders of the “garrison communities”.

In the poorest Kingston constituencies, the two main political parties – the Jamaica Labour party and the People’s National Party – continue to vie for power, with more than 90% of voters turning out for one or other of the parties. Local politicians and the “dons” exert control but also inspire loyalty among their constituents. In the past, the dons worked as enforcers for the politicians, but they have now accumulated an independent economic power base from drug- and gun-running, protection rackets and corrupt government contracts.

The attempt to extradite Christopher “Dudus” Coke to the US to face trafficking charges has turned from farce to tragedy. At first, the government, led by JLP Prime Minister Bruce Golding, prevaricated, no doubt mindful of Coke’s connections to the party and his ability to deliver votes, but also the power of a man whom many people think of as a godfather who can deliver security and other goods. Bowing to both domestic and external political pressure, the government’s attempt to execute the arrest warrant has so far left at least 44 people dead – without delivering Coke.

Sadly, loss of life at the hands of the authorities is far from rare. Last year, the Jamaican police killed more than 250 people – deaths denounced by human rights groups as extrajudicial executions.

In the short term, there is an obvious need for the authorities to work to restore peace to the affected neighbourhoods. This is going to require fortitude, but also restraint. Preservation of life and the minimal use of force in pursuit of peace and safety should be the guiding ethos, even while the situation remains volatile. Too many lives have been lost already and the danger of escalation is clear and present.

The challenge for the Jamaican people, after that, is to understand the roots of political corruption and armed violence and seek ways to disentangle organised crime from politics, business, the state and civil society more generally. Removing guns and corruption from the body politic is not going to be easy and cannot be achieved by military firepower: war on the streets of Kingston is the problem, not the solution. It will require a peace process akin to the Northern Ireland experience, perhaps with truth and reconciliation, and certainly with some means to decommission weapons and demobilise the young men in corner crews who define themselves as “soldiers” fighting on the front line of garrison communities.

There is a wider challenge facing the region and the international community. The “war on drugs” has not only failed, but positively promotes corruption and armed violence – not only in the Caribbean, but also across Central and South America, West Africa and in the inner cities of Europe and North America.

Could the tragic loss of life in Jamaica bring the world to its senses? People are sick of warfare. We should instead direct resources to building a lasting peace.

By Ben Bowling