MURDERS in Diego Martin, Belmont, Sea Lots and Laventille in the last two weeks have prompted the belief – currently shared by senior police sources – that gang warfare is on the rise in the capital and more reprisals may be in store.
The situation is chilling and demands a strategic response from the State and law enforcement officials. But it also requires civil society as a whole to address the factors that are allowing gangs to flourish in this country in the first place. It’s time we woke up to the truth: the State will not solve this problem. We will.
Gang activity is nothing new. But its prevalence has exploded exponentially since 2000. According to figures from the Crime and Problem Analysis Branch of the Police Service, three per cent of murders in 2000 were gang-related. But by 2013, about 48 per cent were tied to gang activity. And according to figures held by the Ministry of the Attorney General, there are now 211 gangs with 2,458 members.
The problem continues to worsen even as the State pumps billions of dollars into solving the problem. Many tactics have been tested by successive administrations, from the establishment of elite divisions like the Special Anti-Crime Unit to lockdowns conducted by joint army/police patrols. Despite these, gangs keep coming back. And the modus operandi of the gangster keeps changing.
Recent reports have linked gang activity to attempts to coerce homeowners to abandon their properties as well as to deadly initiation rituals. Whereas gang activity has long been traced to the drug and gun trade, gangs are now reportedly aligned to ideologies, with two gangs having monikers referencing Islam and Rastafarianism. This shift to belief has ironically appeared to encourage more violence.
The local trend is the opposite of what is happening in countries like the UK. According to a new study by London South Bank University, gang culture is transitioning away from turf wars and violence and is instead focusing on profit above all. The study states there are as many as 4,500 people in about 250 gangs in London.
“For some young people the temptation of making money through drugs appears more attractive than legitimate opportunities,” the study, commissioned by the Waltham Forest Council, finds.
And this is the nub of the problem, even here. As long as youth are not given more viable alternatives in an unjust society with an inequitable distribution of capital and power, they remain vulnerable to choosing gangs over all else.
Tackling the gang menace requires more than just police and guns on the streets. It requires the people in our society who hold power and influence – whether at the commercial or communal level – to open their minds to the possibility that they can play a decisive role, through decency and generosity, in turning the tide.