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Jamaican gangs give peace a chance

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A year ago the rundown Craig Town section of this city was a battleground.

But today the barricades are gone, and instead of arming for shootouts with rival gangs, the youth of Craig Town are going to class and helping keep a fragile peace.

As part of a grassroots push to reduce crime in the capital, Craig Town gang members have negotiated truces with their counterparts in the other neighborhoods of impoverished, west Kingston. The peace pacts are "the main reason for [a] decline" in homicides, says Anthony Harriott, a professor of criminal justice at the University of the West Indies.

According to Jamaican government statistics, homicides in the gang territories of west Kingston fell from 200 in 1997 to 69 last year, and the number of murders overall in Jamaica declined 7 percent from a peak in 1998 - signs of hope in an island nation known almost as much for its crime as for its beaches.

Harriott says the youth-gang peace process should be expanded to other parts of Kingston. "That requires some support from government," he says. While not costing a lot of money, it does require a strong political commitment."

The youth gang peace agreements require constant vigilance. But so far, the truce is holding in Craig Town.

A year ago, the area regularly saw double and triple murders. When a gang member from a nearby neighborhood was killed, his gang retaliated by randomly murdering people walking the streets of Craig Town. Local gangs responded, as the spiral of violence escalated.

People came to "our territory and slaughtered our friends and parents," says Patrick Roberts, a Craig Town community leader who works with gang members. "We had to defend our territory."

Fed up with the violence, residents of west Kingston began pressuring the gangs, echoing similar community initiatives in Los Angeles and other US cities. The gangs, who rely on local residents as a buffer against the police, yielded to the community pressure and began to work on peace pacts.

Jamaica's organized gang problem goes back to the 1960s, when the country's two main political parties fought for electoral control of big-city neighborhoods. The Jamaican Labor Party and the People's National Party both created armed militias, according to Brian Meeks, chair of the University of the West Indies government department.

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