A social platform for crime
A few decades ago when Portmore Pines was being built, I was doing some work in the adjoining informal settlement named ‘Newlands’.
Both Portmore Pines and Newlands are located in Portmore.
Newlands has been there from the 1960s, although it has grown considerably over the last 50 years. It is a typical squatter settlement with the board houses and zinc fences, accompanied by an inordinate amount of bloodshed.
Portmore Pines was one of the Greater Portmore housing schemes that is a typical two-bedroom housing development, in keeping with the Greater Portmore model.
Well, about three decades ago they became neighbours.
In Portmore Pines, each house, of which there are hundreds, has an individual pipe that carries water to it from the main, as would be expected.
Newlands, however, had two pipes that ran from the main into the entire settlement that had over a thousand residents using at the time.
The roads in the scheme were paved, the roads in Newlands were dirt. In fact, it is only in the last seven years have they been paved. It took over 50 years.
In this small piece of geography containing Portmore Pines and Newlands you see a representation of the former poor and the pauper playing out like a textbook.
Newlands has a massive gang, Portmore Pines has none.
Portmore Pines has many children attending traditional high schools, Newlands has precious few.
The question is why do gangs form in one zone and not the other? Is it poverty, is it lack of opportunity or is it something else?
I have often been a proponent of the theory that to a large degree, criminal activity most of the time is motivated and created by small space influences of family and close friends, rather than wider influences of the community.
However, let me break down for you how the social and economic environment that exists in a place like Newlands helps to create killers.
For example, if you are a talented dragon boat racer (and yes, believe me it is a sport) it is unlikely you would ever develop your career here in Jamaica as the sport doesn’t exist here. The same could be said of air pistol shooting.
How is this relative to my earlier argument?
It is relative because the environment that exists in the informal settlements, the inner cities and the gully side communities provide a perfect environment for gang activity to develop, once the individuals are so stimulated.
So you have a young male who has an older brother who is a gangster, and that brother is likely himself to be the son or nephew of a gangster.
The aforementioned young male is groomed for gang membership by his close association with his family members, and the social and economic circumstances of where he lives provides the elements required for this grooming to foster him into becoming a violent criminal.
Let us look specifically on a young male in Newlands who may have a cousin and an uncle in the Umbrella Gang.
He is likely no stranger to ‘want’ so he is easy to manipulate. He is not sent to school regularly so he is both present and idle.
Guns are around him for him to become familiar with and he can easily play his part if it is even to help to hide them.
Unlike other communities like the adjoining Portmore Pines, the infrastructure does not exist for him to be protected if in conflict and by virtue of simply who is present with guns most, he is dependent on the criminals for protection from the enemies of his community that exist just a few zinc fences away.
He knows he is the bottom rung of any ladder that exists in his country. He is not spoken to by the police the same as other persons in nearby communities.
The only area of pride he can identify with is that his gang, the Umbrella Gang, is the largest and most feared in his little world.
So he is indoctrinated by his family and then the environment he lives in supports his development into becoming a criminal.
So let us assume that after his indoctrination by his family he is sent to Sweden by some criminal. It is extremely unlikely that he will become a criminal and even less a killer.
Why? Because there is no social environment that allows for that type of character to develop.
The continued existence of these communities and the pretense that they are not contributing to our gang problem is vacuous and it makes everything else we do just another version of ploughing the sea.
There is a study conducted by me entitled ‘Gangs, victim offender/overlap and informal settlements’.
Their role in the Portmore homicide crisis demonstrated that over 50 per cent of the murders in Portmore between 2015 to 2018 were committed in informal settlements, despite them representing less than 10 per cent of the population and occupied land.
Even more frightening is that 90 per cent of all suspects or accused in homicides committed during the period under study were from one of the informal settlements.
Culture, small space influences and social and economic conditions are the equations for our gang problem, and gangs are the driving force behind our murder rate.
This is why rural communities with similar infrastructure don’t experience the same gang development.
This is because one element of the equation is missing, that being the culture.
Just drop some scammers in there and see how fast that cultural adaptation takes place. Look at Montego Bay. We are ignoring the social realities and its contributing elements because it’s easier to treat that way. This is a formula for failure.
We have to adapt the British approach taken after the Beverage Report and start to eliminate informal settlements over a 10-year period. We need to accept that people cannot live like it’s 1865, whether they have done what is required to improve or not.
Education helps but you see, it’s somewhat farcical to say you don’t charge for school attendance if you know as a fact that the pauper cannot find bus fare or buy food when they attend.
I know there is the PATH Programme but it is dependent on parental participation and honesty. That’s doomed to fail if the beneficiary’s parents are fighting for survival. Everything needs to be practically applied.
School buses at no charge, uniforms at no charge, school feeding programmes and all the trimmings.
Then to deal with the settlements. Demolition of the shacks and the construction of Government housing that has the required amenities to provide for decent habitation. This is expensive but so are prisons and so are the trauma wards.
I have not heard any political party speak of ending the informal settlements as one of their promises in any recent election. I’m not talking about reducing them or allowing new ones to pop up for any reason, I am speaking of the end of informal settlements over a 10-year period.
This is not just because it creates the environment to grow gangs, not just because it is illegal, but because no human being should be living in the same conditions in 2023 that Paul Bogle died to change in 1865.