No way out!
The dead-end realities of Jamaica's gangster life
The likely avenues for getting out of the gangster lifestyle are imprisonment or an early death.

Gangs and their leaders have bewitched so many Jamaican youth robbing them of the opportunities to be progressive nation-builders. For a slim minority, the Jamaican gangster lifestyle offers short-lived illicit opportunities to acquire fancy cars, money, glamour, and a sense of power. However, most gang members do not access these so-called 'benefits'.

Without a doubt, those involved in Jamaica's criminal underworld eventually progress down the rabbit hole of terror and devastation. Gang members live in constant fear; they are exposed to physical violence, psychological trauma, isolation, and face extraordinarily high rates of imprisonment and early deaths. Jamaica gangs are total institutions and, once you become entrapped, there is no positive way out. To put it bluntly, the gangster life guarantees two things — the jail cell and/or the grave.

Recently, Police Commissioner Major General Antony Anderson informed the nation that 875 charges had been laid against youth between ages of 15 and 17 years old for serious crimes and violence. This data from the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) reveal a grim reality about the inclusion of the nation's children as perpetrators and victims of deadly violence.

This is a clarion call to Jamaica's youth, especially to the nations' boys, to stay away from the culture of badness and the toxic allure of gangsterism. It is a dead-end road, full of sorrow, regret, and emptiness.

Criminologists conclude that individuals who are members of gangs should anticipate an early death, given that gangsters tend to live in high-risk environments. In general, research suggests that the average life expectancy of gang members (especially for males) ranges between 20 to 30 years old. The mortality rate for male gang members is three times higher than males who have no gang affiliation. If a gang member lives beyond their 30s in Jamaica they are called 'elders' within the system. Life expectancy in Jamaica currently stands at 75 years. Gang membership cuts this in half. The factors that severely jeopardise the lives of Jamaican gangsters include confrontation with the police, attacks from rival gangsters, and internal gang disputes.

The Jamaican state has demonstrated that it has the capacity to track, confront, and when necessary, neutralise gangsters. Operation Relentless II, launched in September of this year, is an example of the police's capabilities. Quite often, joint police-military operations result in the imprisonment or death of gang members.

While gangs are watching out for police raids, they are also hypervigilant of their rivals. In Jamaica's garrison communities, drive-by and drive-through shootings from rival gangs are constant threats that gang members must be prepared for. Unfortunately, when gang rivals cannot find their intended target, family and close friends of that individual are sometimes attacked. Death and destruction is also exported beyond the shores of the island.

The adage, "There is no honour among thieves" provides a good description of the deception that runs deep among gangsters. Internal wars among Jamaica's notorious gangs that leave scores of gang members imprisoned, seriously injured, or dead are testament to the 'in-house' souring of relationships. Essentially, the risks of imprisonment and death sometimes originate within one's own gang, rather than from the police and external rivals.

The Jamaican State and society must be unapologetic and unwavering in denouncing gangs and the gangster life. The State, through the Ministry of Education and Youth, should establish at-risk registries in the island's secondary schools. These registries would perform surveillance and monitoring functions in identifying youth who are most at-risk. Students with high risk profiles should be recommended for early intervention strategies such as mentorship, conflict resolution training, and counselling.

Researchers contend that youth at risk of being violence producers and gang members tend to be bullies and display hyper-aggressive behavioural traits. Added to this, such individuals usually have close friends or family members who are gangsters and live in communities controlled by gangs. Also, at-risk youth are inclined to threaten teachers and bring drugs or other contraband and weapons on the school compound. This list is by no means exhaustive, and the Ministry of Education in partnership with the JCF and local research think tanks and higher educational institutions can work together in developing a refined at-risk scorecard or profiling tool. To be clear, this is a suggested strategy for early intervention to prevent young people from falling prey to gangs, other criminal syndicates, and a life of violent criminality. Seasoned gangsters require more hard policing strategies.

Jamaica's gangster life is short, miserable, and laced with existential fear and anxiety. Gangsters are always on the run from the police, rivals, and even 'friends'. Parents, community residents, civil society groups, the media, and institutions of the state must join hands in communicating to the nation's youth that gang life in Jamaica is an assured dead end. The likely avenues for getting out of the lifestyle are imprisonment or an early death.

Damion Blake, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science & Policy Studies and faculty fellow for race, ethnicity and diversity at Elon University, North Carolina. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or dblake3@elon.edu.

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