Hundreds of people have fled escalating gang violence in poor neighborhoods of Jamaica's capital in recent weeks, taking refuge with friends and relatives and creating makeshift camps in police stations.
Some 500 people have been killed in Jamaica this year, including 71 in the past three weeks, prompting Prime Minister Percival J. Patterson to declare war on "a spate of criminal madness."
On Monday, Patterson gave the military wide authority to crack down on crime, saying soldiers would become "a permanent fixture" in the most troubled Kingston neighborhoods.
"They are there to find the guns, those who carry the guns and those who control the guns," Patterson said, authorizing broad powers that include spot checks, cordons, searches and curfews. The police had already imposed overnight curfews in the worst hit areas, where soldiers patrolled in armored personnel carriers as helicopters flew overhead.
Opposition leader and former prime minister Edward Seaga criticized the security measures today, saying the government was focusing on the "same old failed solution" instead of trying to resolve the roots of the violence--poverty and joblessness.
While gang violence is rampant in poor neighborhoods of Kingston, it has had little impact on tourism in the tony beach resorts, located far from the capital.
However, the Private Sector Organization of Jamaica, a business group, warned that the violence could hurt business, including the vital import and export industries, and called on the government to bring it under control.
The roots of Kingston's gang culture can be traced to the political establishment that is now trying to stop it. In the 1970s, the two main political parties--Patterson's People's National Party and Seaga's Jamaica Labor Party--helped organize and arm residents, producing rival "garrison communities" where armed gangs controlled the streets at the behest of local politicians and intimidated voters at election time.
By the early 1980s, many gangs had become involved in lucrative drug smuggling. With money of their own, they no longer needed the patronage of politicians and began to operate independently.