Two armored vehicles rumble through the late-night darkness along a blighted Kingston street as soldiers cock their rifles and set out on foot patrols. A gaggle of stragglers quickly disperses into an alley.

In a nearby neighborhood nicknamed Tel Aviv, troops clutching high-powered firearms stand on corners to enforce an overnight curfew. Their silhouettes are barely visible because gunfire between gangs has blown out the street lamps. Not far away, three soldiers detain a passing car at gunpoint and search it for illegal weapons. An army helicopter hovers overhead.

Scenes like these, reminiscent of military occupation, play out around the clock in more than a dozen troubled communities in the hard-bitten Kingston area. The security measures, including deployment of the armed forces, are part of a crackdown launched earlier this month to stem a surge in murders that Prime Minister P.J. Patterson has described as "criminal madness" and "a national challenge of unprecedented proportions."

Overall, 505 people have been slain this year, most of them young, unemployed men who belong to heavily armed drug gangs that compete for turf in poor neighborhoods in and around Kingston. A total of 185 people were killed in May and June, most of them in the capital.

During one 17-day stretch running into July, 66 victims--including an elderly woman shot in the head by robbers and three young girls who were raped--were felled in bloodshed that sent dozens of panicked residents fleeing their inner-city homes. Some sought refuge inside police stations, where they set up makeshift camps.

Jamaica has had one of the highest murder rates in the world for years--ranking third after South Africa and Brazil in the latest U.N. estimates--despite its reputation as a happy-go-lucky island of sun, sand and reggae. But the latest spasm is viewed as a particularly acute symptom of the seemingly intractable problems that darken the future of this nation of 2.6 million people.

Some observers associate the surge of violence with the large numbers of Jamaican criminals deported back to the island each year from the United States, Britain and Canada. Last year, the United States alone returned 1,196 criminals.

Furthermore, large numbers of guns smuggled into Jamaica by Jamaican gang members and other criminals in the United States continue to find their way onto the streets, a flow that Patterson insists must be arrested through more effective detection.

The recent shootings have been condemned not only by Jamaica's vast underclass but also by members of the uptown elite, which has been relatively insulated from the violence. Their ire was flamed when Heather Little-White, a well-known newspaper columnist and nutritionist to the Jamaican World Cup soccer team, was shot and left paralyzed in an attempted car robbery on an uptown Kingston street. In another high-profile crime in the capital, Tajh Burrell, son of the of Jamaica Football Federation's president, Horace Burrell, and a friend, Jason Byles, were shot dead Sunday.

"We have gotten to a point where we are no longer willing to just sit on our verandas and discuss it," said Daryl Vaz, a car importer and member of the newly formed Citizens for Civil Society. "It is time for pressure. It is time to make sure we get good governance."

Although most murders spare popular tourism venues such as Montego Bay, concerns mount that news about the violence could hurt the island's top industry, which last year attracted 1.25 million visitors--more than two-thirds of them from the United States. Ralston Smith, communications adviser to the prime minister, noted the anti-crime operation itself could damage tourism.

"The government is loath to do what it is doing now because of the negative publicity," he said, "as well . . . as the assault on personal liberties."

Poor Jamaicans and business leaders alike have grown frustrated with what they see as a lack of effective response by Patterson and his People's National Party, as well as the opposition Jamaica Labor Party, to the problems that contribute to violence. In addition to the returned gangsters and firearms imports, these include a faltering economy, a dysfunctional judiciary system and a largely uneducated and unskilled populace. To combat the latter problem, Patterson has proposed something just shy of mandatory schooling.

A three-year economic contraction has forced large numbers of local businesses to close, move operations to less expensive countries or downsize in the face of competition from imports and high interest rates designed to keep down inflation.

Over the last year, Jamaica has lost at least 11,000 jobs, largely in the financial and manufacturing sectors, leaving the island with an unemployment rate of 15.5 percent; some private groups say the rate is closer to 20 percent. Discontent hit a high in April during three days of riots to protest an increase in the gasoline tax. In the end, the Patterson administration rolled back the hike by 50 percent, but not before nine people had been killed and 152 arrested amid widespread looting and arson.

The demonstrations, many of which were organized by the opposition party, were seen as a political disaster for Patterson; he was viewed as out of touch despite winning an unprecedented third term in December 1997.

Many observers say the violence is a legacy of the very political establishment now trying to control it.

In the 1970s, the two major parties helped organize and arm residents, producing "garrison communities" where gangs controlled the streets at the behest of politicians and marshaled voters at election time. By the early 1980s, many gangs became involved in cocaine and marijuana smuggling as Jamaica developed into a transshipment point for drug trafficking to the United States. With money of their own, they no longer needed the patronage of politicians and began to operate independently.

"For me it is simple. The culture of crime in Jamaica started from politics, and it could be because of that fact that crime has become acceptable here," said Roy Smith, 76, a retired electrician.

Patterson has redeployed about 500 soldiers from public works to law enforcement alongside the 7,000-member police force.

Operating with broad powers in 15 neighborhoods considered to be havens of gang violence, troops and police officers last week imposed 22 curfews, conducted 65 searches and raids, seized 24 illegal firearms and 121 rounds of ammunition, and arrested 14 wanted criminals. While the number of murders dropped to seven last week from 24 the preceding week, Patterson has insisted the operation will not ease until most illegal firearms have been confiscated.

The numbers of major crimes in all categories have dropped compared with the same time last year, according to police figures. Administration officials, however, are at a loss to say what kind of strategy, if any, would be devised to control violent crime over the long run or how the cash-strapped government would fund it.

"We like the patrols as long as they don't start brutalizing people and getting trigger happy. We can sleep more comfortably now because the place has stopped being like a Texas gun town," said Arville Marlo, 30, a roofer whose mother was the elderly woman fatally shot in the head at her store. "But all of this will only be good for as long as it lasts. And you know it won't be forever."

Island of Crime

Jamaica, long known as a country with high crime rates, recently has seen the number of murders rise again. Among the suspected killers are many Jamaicans deported from the United States for criminal offenses there.

Murder rate per 100,000 inhabitants

Fiscal year Jamaica D.C. U.S.

1996 35.6 73.1 7.4

1997 39.9 56.9 6.8

1998 36.8 49.7 NA

Total number of homicides

Year Jamaica D.C. U.S.

1996 925 397 19,645

1997 1,038 301 18,209

1998 953 260 NA

1999* 505 116 NA

Jamaicans deported from the United States

Year Total Criminal reasons Non-criminal reasons

1996 1,184 1,009 175

1997 1,789 1,228 561

1998 1,805 1,196 609

Homicide victims killed by a firearm

Per 100,000 population in 1997

South Africa 26.63

Brazil 25.78

Jamaica 18.23

U.S. 6.24

Estonia 6.12

SOURCE: Jamaican police, U.S. Embassy, D.C. police, United Nations

* Through June.