The dark side of life in Jamaica has featured recently in the news, with gun battles on the streets after gang members resisted attempts to apprehend a leading criminal. Prominent in despatches was the parish area of West Kingston, where Slí Eile volunteers have been working with local children for the last three summers. The parish priest is a Canadian Jesuit, Fr Peter McIsaac. When he visited Dublin last October, Slí Eile presented him with funds they had raised for his work. The volunteers hope to go to West Kingston again this July, but the events of the last week have put the trip in jeopardy. Some of the worst of the fighting between the army and the gunmen took place just a short distance from the school where the volunteers work. Read Fr Peter’s full account below. He has also been interviewed for RTE Radio’s Drivetime.
THE CRISIS IN WEST KINGSTON
Over the past few months tensions have escalated between inner city “garrison” communities, particularly those in West Kingston (Tivoli Gardens and Denham Town) and the government over the US request for the extradition of Christopher “Dudus” Coke, one of the most powerful criminal “dons” in Jamaica, a man apparently with strong links to crime in the US, Canada and the UK.
After a political crisis over a week ago in which the Prime Minister apologized for his exposed connection to a legal contract intended to protect the West Kingston strongman, the extradition papers were signed. The network of Tivoli Gardens and Denham Town gunmen in reaction erected road blocks and barricaded the two communities in an effort to frustrate the execution of the warrant for the arrest of Mr. Coke.
On Tuesday, May 18, just a short distance from St. Anne’s Church and schools (in the border of Hannah Town and Denham Town), an army vehicle that attempted to clear a roadblock was assaulted by gunmen and made a retreat. The roadblocks were intensified by the local gunmen, and by Saturday morning there was no road access to the two communities (in which St. Anne’s Church and Rectory are located). The St. Anne’s Infant, Primary and High Schools were closed Thursday and Friday.
On Sunday, May 23, the police attempted a preliminary incursion into the communities, but withdrew, and in retaliation the Hannah Town Police Station (about two hundred meters from the Church) was overtaken and burned. Two other police stations were attacked. The Prime Minister announced a limited state of emergency.
On Monday, May 24, the army began their offensive. The gun battles continued for eight hours, and it seems that they successfully recaptured the communities in that period. One soldier and two policemen were killed, and many more have been injured. The official count of the civilian dead (including the gunmen) at present is over seventy (70), but given the length and intensity of the gun battles, it seems as though the casualties will be much higher. It is not clear if there is adequate transparency in this regard. Gun battles were often accompanied by large explosions.
Tuesday morning, May 25, the soldiers were out in full force, and going from corner to corner, and searching houses. There was sporadic gun fire, and no one was permitted on the road. The defense forces continued to search houses and patrol on Wednesday and Thursday and there is still no free movement of residents.
Those who are familiar with West Kingston, will know that this recent violence is not unprecedented. However, the direct defiance of the government by an alliance of communities is a new development in Jamaica’s recent history. The present standoff represents much more than the protection of a local leader. The formation of “garrison” communities, and their partisan political affiliation has led quite naturally to their growing power; ultimately, it has created the autonomy of these garrisons’ leaders. Resolving the present crisis will require more than the strategies of security forces. The recently resigned Police Commissioner, Rear Admiral Lewin, a week ago indicated that there must be a change in the “political architecture” of the country, and a general reform of politics in the country. Our present crisis will require a long process of recovery and national transformation. It is my hope that the nation will have the resolve, and the necessary social structures needed to undergo that process.
It has been about four to five days that people in the community have been unable to leave their homes safely. Hunger is become an acute issue, and there is desperate need for medical services. Tivoli Gardens, the base for Mr. Coke, and the centre of the conflict, has received most of the attention for relief. Denham Town, by contrast, with high death tolls, and still suffering the effects of the conflict, has received virtually no assistance or governmental attention.
Today, St. Anne’s Church staff was able to negotiate with the armed forces a distribution point for people in the community. The soldiers assisted in the organization and control of the relief effort. In two hours, the entire food supply was depleted: 600 pounds of rice and 50 liters of cooking oil, as well as some tinned meat were given out to hundreds. Food for the Poor, based in Miami, with a strong presence in Jamaica, has promised another 1,000 pounds of rice again today, Friday May 28. It is hard to reach those who are most in need, but the Church is trying to set up various distribution points in the Denham Town area.
Rev. Peter McIsaac, SJ
The Society of Jesus in Jamaica