Prime Minister Andrew Holness on Sunday moved to staunch the bloodletting in Westmoreland, where several murders and shootings have been reported since the start of this year, by declaring a section of Savanna-la-Mar a zone of special operations (ZOSO).
Days after the killing of two brothers left residents calling for a strong security intervention in the parish where 128 people were killed last year — a 60 per cent increase over 2020 — the prime minister announced that the communities of Russia, Dalling Street, and Dexter Street have been declared a ZOSO.
“The parish of Westmoreland has several communities captured by gangs and currently in the grips of barbaric gangsters executing brutal terror on our people. These communities are in need of social and infrastructure intervention.
“Some of these communities are urban in nature and their profile fits the application of zones of special operations,” said Holness during what is now becoming a customary Sunday morning media briefing at Jamaica House.
“I have spent time in these areas and I am aware of the conditions of terror that the people endure. I feel their pain and I know that the vast majority of residents in those gang-captured communities, whether in Central Kingston, August Town, or Savanna-la-Mar south, are peaceful law-abiding citizens who simply want to live in peace,” declared Holness.
He pointed out that the lives of residents of a number of communities in Westmoreland have been in peril because criminals have been inflicting terror on these areas.
According to Holness, the ZOSO will displace the criminals and disrupt their pattern of terror.
“It will give the people of these communities a well-needed break — a break from the gunshots every night, from sleeping under their beds every night, from the random and collateral murders, from random acts of terror. However, the zone of special operations is a specifically designed intervention which is more geographically limited and focused on community building.
“So, in addition to the security element, it has a heavy community intervention, social intervention, and community-building component which must be properly organised, so it is not merely a matter of mobilisation of forces into an area,” said Holness.
Last week, Holness declared a ZOSO in Parade Gardens in Kingston Central .
There are now seven communities across the island which have been declared ZOSOs.
But Holness left little doubt that, in addition to ZOSOs, he would like to declare states of emergency (SOE) in some of these communities which are under the gun.
The prime minister told the nationally televised briefing that people are puzzled as to why some leaders with political power do not recognise the “state of emergency” existing in some areas.
“Granted, for the last three decades we have seen this increase in murders, in shootings, and the illegal possession of weapons and, for some, they may take the view that this is the normal state of existence in our free and democratic society. This perspective also leads to not just the acceptance, but it has dulled the emotional response to this level of crime and violence.
“There are some people who just no longer care. It has been normalised. I still care about every life that is lost in this country and I do get very concerned, emotional, yes, because it should not be in this beautiful country of ours,” said Holness as he argued that there needs to be a more immediate and extensive response to violent crimes, which would require special powers in the form of SOEs, which the Opposition has not supported in recent times.
In justifying the Opposition's position President of the People's National Party Mark Golding suggested that a balanced approach involving the strengthening of programmes, such as the Peace Management Initiative, could be used instead of SOEs to tackle violent crimes.
“We believe in a national programme to save at-risk youth from turning to badness and the gun. The education system has failed so many of our youths. This programme must be well funded and include mentorship, remedial education, vocational skills training, life skills coaching, preparation for the world of work, and job placements,” Golding said during a media briefing late last year.
In the meantime, Minister of National Security Dr Horace Chang, speaking at the Jamaica House media briefing on Sunday, explained that the declaration of a ZOSO is another tool to focus on the most violent districts in the urban centre in Westmoreland.
“It will not only restore order in the limited geographical area, it is designed to disrupt the gangsters who operate from this area. Dispersing them shouldn't be a problem, but like rats scurrying from their hole they are easier to identify and apprehend.
“The JCF [Jamaica Constabulary Force], with the support of the entire Government, is moving aggressively to attack the criminal elements on all fronts. We will examine what other law enforcement tools can be brought to bear on this issue and how existing tools can be combined with the ZOSO to reduce violence and restore peace and public order,” said Chang.
“We recognise we are in a war with violent and heartless criminal elements — we will not relent, we will win this war. We will continue to strengthen the Westmoreland Police Division within the limited resources that are available in the short term,” added Chang.
Commissioner of Police Major General Antony Anderson, who, along with chief of defence staff for the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF) Lieutenant General Rocky R Meade, had requested the ZOSO in Westmoreland, pointed out that poor infrastructure has increased the vulnerability in the area.
“The fear in this community is very real. A few weeks ago and as we conducted operations in the Dalling Street, Ricketts Street, and Dexter Street area and you could see people suffering from violence fatigue. They were very aware of the utter disregard for life displayed by some of the criminals in the area,” said Anderson.
He pointed out that, while the ZOSO is for a designated area, the police will actively conduct a range of law enforcement activities in others areas of Westmoreland.