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.
More than 800 people were killed in the run-up to the 1980 national elections. Walking through parts of Kingston in those days, he says, "it could have been Lebanon."
By the early 1980s, Jamaica turned toward free-market policies. With reduced government budgets, the party in power had less money for paying armed supporters. So the militias became outright criminal gangs, relying on marijuana and cocaine- smuggling for profits.
Today, the gangs remain loosely allied with the political parties, according to Detective Inspector Edsell Scott, who is in charge of criminal investigations for five western Kingston police stations. He says gangs feel they can gain immunity from prosecution when their party is in power; in turn, the political parties use gangs as enforcers during election campaigns.
The crime problem is exacerbated, Scott says, by the US policy of deporting Jamaicans convicted of crimes. The US has sent 4,168 criminals back to Jamaica over the past five years, according to official records.
He recalls several recent cases in which major drug dealers in his area turned out to be deportees. "On several occasions they have been linked to a lot of crimes," he says. "Their contribution to crime is very significant."
That view is contradicted, however, in a new report on crime in Jamaica issued by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a US-based police research group. The report says that many deportees were returned for illegally entering the US or for drug possession charges - and only 14 percent had committed murder or other serious crimes while in the US. "These figures do not suggest that deportees play a major role in Jamaica's crime picture," the report says.
Jamaican police do not keep statistics on crimes committed by deportees.
The government has begun new community policing initiatives and is seeking international assistance to fight crime. But officials and police say it will be a long struggle.
Back in Craig Town, the peacekeeping continues, as groups of youths walk the streets and help cool down incidents that could flare into violence.
But Roberts says their efforts can only go so far.
In the long run, he says, "We need training schools, youth centers, and sports facilities." Most important, "we need jobs."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor