Of travel advisories and our crime surge

Of travel advisories and our crime surge

Hugh Blackford

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

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Late last week the US State Department issued a travel advisory to its nationals against visiting Jamaica. The reasons: High levels of criminality including murders, shootings and rape.

For purposes of clarity, a travel advisory does not instruct Americans not to visit a country, but its warning is a virtual “red flag” to a population that generally relies on such strictures, especially for travel and leisure purposes.

In the case of Jamaica, American visitors to the island provide more than 70 per cent of its tourist traffic and is a significant contributor to the country's foreign exchange earnings. The parish of St James is essentially Jamaica's tourism hub, with more than 70 per cent of its tourist traffic arriving at the Montego Bay airport then transported to their various north coast destinations.

Between 2016 and 2017, more than 500 people were murdered in that parish with a whopping 341 deaths in 2017 alone. In 2018, as a direct result of the imposition of a state of emergency (SOE) in that parish, the murders fell by more than 70 per cent to 102. The use of the SOE, it could be argued, led to a precipitous drop in murders across the island; falling from its 2017 high of just over 1,630 murders to 1,287 — a whopping 21 per cent decline.

Late last year the island's Opposition party the People's National Party (PNP) indicated that it would not support any further extensions of the SOEs, a linchpin in the island”s security force's armoury to cauterise the wanton bloodletting that had been shadowing the country for more than two decades. In defence of the PNP, the SOEs was never designed to be used as a full-time crime-fighting tool. Worse, the surfacing of information pointing to rising cases of security force excesses had become difficult to ignore and had started to resurrect some of the long-departed ghosts of the 1976 SOE.

That apart, the PNP's decision would certainly bring pressure to bear on the Government's crime-fighting efforts, especially since the governing Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) had campaigned on its ability to not only reduce the murder rate, but to also significantly reduce crime across the island. The truth, though, is that crime, generally, and our murder problem specifically, isn't a PNP or a JLP problem, but a Jamaica problem that requires the co-operation of the two major political parties if a meaningful solution were to be found.

This past Sunday's events in Montego Bay should provide a wake-up call for all Jamaicans. The brazen Sunday morning ambush of a courier vehicle along with its security escort transport vehicle on Jarrett Street in that city has left two security guards dead and another battling for life in hospital. A reported $1.2 million in cash was taken by the heavily armed thugs.

A major concern of mine has always been that, given the proliferation of guns within the criminal underworld, it was only a matter of time before these are turned against the business communities across the country. This horrific event in Montego Bay provides a graphic picture of the gravity of the problem with which we are faced. It also completely justifies the US State Department's advisory issued last week.

While I agree that there are grave issues with the SOEs, I am of the view that, in the absence of more workable strategies, we may need to revert to this as the marauding merchants of death have not only once again saddled up, they are now in free rein mode. Murder, once again, has trended upwards and is running at a rate in excess of four per day. This will push the island back into territories of 1,500 murders by year end.

The political consequences of the spiralling murder rate are obvious, but so too are the economic consequences. The PNP has the option of hammering the Government on its ineptness at dealing with crime — and they would have every right. After all, wasn't this the same strategy used by the JLP when it was in Opposition? I do not believe that this is a responsible position for the PNP to take. Moreover, the potential for backfiring on the Opposition is real. After all, the country can point to the 21 per cent reduction in murders in 2018, which was a step in the right direction, even if the strategies meant illegally detaining a few Jamaicans indefinitely.

Either way, the maintenance of the US State Department's advisory can cause severe damage to us economically, given the potential for reduction in tourism revenues. Beyond that is the potential for derailing the country's economic trajectory. These are questions that every Jamaican needs to consider at this time, especially those that make up the political classes beginning with both PNP and JLP.

Richard Hugh Blackford is a self-taught artist, writer and social commentator. He shares his time between Lauderhill, Florida, and Kingston, Jamaica. www.yardabraawd.com Send comments to the Observer or richardhblackford@gmail.com.

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