Showing posts with label Jamaica. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jamaica. Show all posts

25 March 2018

Down in Montego

by R.T. Lawton

When the cold, snowy winds of winter come blasting across the Front Range, thoughts of Jamaica bring soothing visions of warm, sandy beaches, cool tropical breezes, a refreshing plunge into clear Caribbean waters, and perchance a local rum drink in a tall glass to smooth out a lazy afternoon. And that's the way it's been on the tourist end of the island for many years. But, with the increasing droves of tourists arriving on the island, along came problems, lots of problems.

left side of Montego Bay
As more and more tourists flew into Montego Bay's airport and more cruise ships tied up to their wharf, Montego Bay in the 1980's emerged as the tourism capital of Jamaica. To provide service to this influx of people with money to spend, native islanders moved to the city, seeking jobs and housing. This sudden growth left the city without enough places for these new workers to live. With nowhere else to go, the new labor force gradually moved inland, where in the local lingo, they "captured" land and built on it. Roughly nineteen unplanned communities, without the infrastructure of proper roads, street lights, addresses or other amenities, cropped up above Montego Bay. Existing roads were dirt, buildings were hidden behind zinc fences, and with all the congestion, the local police didn't have the manpower to effectively patrol these unplanned communities. Theft of utilities, such as water and electricity became common practice. Criminals soon found this uncontrolled environment conducive to their illegal activities. Gangs took over and the crime rates soared.

Harbor at Montego Bay
In St. James Parish, where these informal communities sprouted up, the chief criminal organizations went by names such as One Order, in the Flanders area; Killer Bees, in Granville; Piranha, in Bottom Pens; and Tight Pants, in North Gully. (For a fearsome gang to be named Tight Pants, I don't know if that was a fashion statement or if someone had a sick sense of humor.) At that time, the most infamous gang, known as Stone Crusher, ruled in the Norwood community. From 2002 to 2010, the Stone Crusher gang was believed to be responsible for most of the over one hundred murders per year in St. James Parish, of which Montego Bay is the parish capital.

With money and power being the main motivating factors for organized criminals, the major schemes began. The guns for drug trade is alleged to have been thought up by a Jamaican and a Haitian while both were serving time in a Miami jail during 2001. The Jamaican sent drugs to Haiti and in return, the Haitian sent guns to Jamaica. In 2002, part of the first shipment of guns was alleged to be used in an eight-hour gun battle against the police in the Cantebury section of Montego Bay. Three of the alleged gunmen were killed and three policemen were wounded. The police subsequently seized several high-powered rifles and over a thousand rounds of ammunition. Joint operations by the U.S. and Jamaican authorities later resulted in the arrest of several prominent Montego Bay residents involved in the crime and corruption.

With local and international attention being focused on the drug trade, criminals started moving over to the emerging lotto scam. Con artists in Jamaica would dupe Americans into believing they had won the local lottery. All the "winner" had to do was send money to pay the "processing fees." This scheme brought in an estimated thirty million dollars during a six year period. Rival scammers soon got crosswise with each other and turned to corrupt policemen and the local gangs for protection. At this point, the Stone Crushers entered the lucrative protection and extortion rackets. Lotto scammers who didn't pay up were murdered.

Police corruption ran rampant. Two local policemen were alleged to work for the Stone Crusher gang as hitmen. Those people living in the unplanned communities became afraid to complain of crimes against them. They no longer trusted the police. Political leadership was ineffectual. Pastors of local churches began to preach for a return to moral values. A local newspaper, the Gleaner, started its own investigation into the problems. A monthly award of $100,00 was offered by the Police Commissioner to the police unit making the most arrests and gun and drug seizures. The bodies of gang leaders, hitmen and other gang members began to stack up during gun battles with the police. With heat on the lotto scammers coming from both sides of the law, many moved on to armed robberies, which put them in direct conflict with the police.

With this evolving of crime in Jamaica, the current tourist should not be surprised to find armed guards in front of jewelry stores, even in the tourist areas.

So, where does that leave the tourist who wishes a relaxing vacation in Jamaica? Fortunately, the majority of violence has been contained to the unplanned communities in St. James Parish, places where the tourists wouldn't want to go anyway. As for you, you've gotten a safe peek at the underbelly of a Caribbean paradise without personally ending up in the line of fire.

Life's a beach in Ocho Rios
For myself, I prefer the area of Ocho Rios or Negril as places to vacation on this island. They are smaller and more laid back, more friendly.  Sure, there's a Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville in both Ocho Rios and in Montego Bay, but you can walk to the one from the wharf in Och Rios, whereas the one in Montego Bay will cost you a hefty taxi ride. And even then, you had best settle on the amount of the fee in advance, else you may feel like you got robbed without a gun being pulled on you.

Will I go back to Jamaica? You bet. I'll just be careful which parts I choose to visit. I still remember going to Montego Bay with the federal Jamaican narcs in the mid-1980's to run down one of our fugitives. Those guys told stories about crime and violence even back then.

Gotta go. Going through all this has made me thirsty for one of them rum drinks in a tall glass.

Have a good one.

13 January 2016

Seven Killings

David Edgerley Gates


A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS, by the Jamaican writer Marlon James, came out in 2014, and won the Man Booker the following year. It isn't a mystery or a thriller, not exactly, but then again, neither is THE GREAT GATSBY. What it is, is a dark meditation, lit from below.

First off, we're talking about Kingston, which is of course one tough town, and we start by going back more than forty years, to December 1976 and the attempted murder of Bob Marley. In this telling, it's very much political, a war between two Kingston ganglords who've been bought off by each of the major parties, and a proxy fight over the next election. Marley's headlining a free concert, advertised as a peace overture, but widely seen as support for the government in power, and that this is a spoils system goes without saying. The police are corrupt, everybody feeds at the trough, devil take the hindmost.


"This is the first mistake God make. Time. God was a fool to create time. It's the one thing that even he run out of." SEVEN KILLINGS covers quite a lot of time, actually, but there's a disquieting sense that time is static, and inertia (or entropy) is the only gravitational force. This in spite of the attrition rate, and the turnover in senior management, with gangs cranking up the firepower, and killing each other off. It's not like we notice measurable improvement in the quality of life.

The story's told in many voices, most of them Jamaican, but a couple of outliers - the local CIA station chief, a rock groupie from Rolling Stone. One device is to have somebody speaking to us from beyond the grave, but that doesn't necessarily make them any the wiser. Each of these voices is individual, none of them are omniscient, Everybody takes it personally and nobody pulls back from the tight close-up, which is claustrophobic. Then again, it's total immersion. Like traffic slowing for an accident scene, you can't look away.

The use of dialect is supposedly a deal-breaker. So is using real people or actual historic situations in a fictional medium. The argument being that it removes a barrier, and the author's own voice intrudes, which spoils the illusion. You're being shown the mechanics, the levers and pulleys, you're made aware that the narrative isn't seamless, that in fact it's been constructed, built out of air. Both reader and writer agree to a pretense that the story has a life apart, and if the reader stubs his or her toe on the writer's building materials, it shakes their confidence. I see the point, but I don't entirely agree. It depends what kind of story you're telling. In the case of SEVEN KILLINGS, it's not so much that it depends on suspension of disbelief as that you're persuaded by the last voice you hear, and you soon realize that all the narrators are unreliable - which could mean the author's voice, as well. This is quite the tightrope walk. How the guy keeps his balance is what creates surface tension.


One other note. This isn't a novel that 'transcends' genre, whatever that's supposed to mean. It's a book that uses generic conventions in vigorous and unsettling ways. I've never really subscribed to the idea of low culture or high - most basically literate people know the difference between good stuff and crap, what Chesterton calls "printed matter." That being said, SEVEN KILLINGS is violent and coarse. There's nothing shy about the language. Women are manhandled with disturbingly commonplace contempt. The context is Darwinian. It adds up to a familiar noir world, although one which happens not to be invented. At least not for dramatic purposes, or a convenient shorthand. It's a world of brute force. If not the world most of us would choose to live in, it is the world many people have no choice but to live in. It isn't metaphor, or literary convention. There's no agreement to keep faith, or suspend disbelief. Human voices wake us.




09 May 2014

Crime Cruise-Ocho Rios

by R.T. Lawton


Everybody dreams about going to Jamaica on holiday. It's tropical breezes, sandy beaches, clear ocean water, dark rum, exotic flowers and coconuts. Tourists of one type or another have been coming to this island since Christopher Columbus discovered it on one of his voyages. Even the pirates of centuries ago enjoyed this paradise on earth until an earthquake destroyed their town and harbor of Port Royal. A later fire finished the destruction. Survivors moved over a few miles to establish the town of Kingston, destined to become the capital of Jamaica after the Governor moved the government offices out of Spanish Town due to the scandal of brothels in said community.

Ian Fleming's house, now a resort hotel
No doubt, many of you original James Bond fans will remember scenes of Jamaica from the movie Doctor No.If you don't remember the scenery and you are a guy, you were probably distracted by the sight of Honey Rider coming out of the ocean in her white bikini, a daring piece of swimwear in those days. In any case, the scenery was beautiful. Ian Fleming, author of the Bond series, liked the place so much he kept a house, Goldeneye, in Jamaica.


The Tour
Dunn's River Falls


After four previous ports of call, we were pretty well toured out for scheduled land excursions, so we went ashore on our own. Plus, Kiti and I had been to Ocho Rios some thirty-two years before, at which time we toured Fern Gully. (Them crazy bus drivers insist on driving on the wrong side of the road, which is slightly unnerving when you're sitting in the forward part of the bus and see oncoming fast vehicles also driving on the wrong side. What were the British thinking when they came up with that system?). During that earlier trip, we went on to climb Dunn's River Falls in swimsuits and tennis shoes, wet but refreshing in the heat of day. Of course, when our cruise ship ported thirty-two years ago, Ocho Rios didn't have the nice new dock it now has. Instead, we docked at the wharf for the local bauxite mine shipping point. Way back then when I got off the tour bus at the mandatory shopping site, a local Rastafarian sidled up beside me and in a whispered voice offered to sell me some "bud." I told him I couldn't because I was on vacation. He had a very confused look on his face as I walked away.

New cruise ship dock in Ocho Rios
For our 2014 port of call, our group of four went down the gang plank, up the new winding dock, through Jamaican Customs and into the new construction of the town of Ocho Rios. Incidentally, there are no eight rivers here. It is speculated that the British corrupted the Spanish words "Las Chorreras," which means the waterfalls, a name given to the village because of the nearby Dunn's River Falls. (As writers, we all know what a problem language can be.)

Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville on the beach
After running the gauntlet of vendors and taxi drivers (it's only a three block walk to town and the price decreases considerably the further you walk), we went through the usual tourist shops, Blue Mountain coffee stores and jewelry establishments (the latter maintained armed guards out front). Then it was time to head for Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville on a nearby beach. Here we whiled away the hours with Jamaican nachos, the local Red Stripe beer, rum drinks and one free margarita for every customer. Thank you Jimmy Buffet.

The Crime

According to United Nations estimates, Jamaica has had one of the highest murder rates in the world. Kingston, Montego Bay and Spanish Town were cursed with high incidents of crime and violence over the years. In 2005, Jamaica had a murder rate of 58 for every 100,000 people, the highest in the world for that year. Three years later, the Jamaican Parliament voted to retain the death penalty by hanging. Due to subsequent increases in police patrols, curfews and more effective anti-gang activities, that high murder rate fell and continued to fall. Many of the murders were reported to have been committed by organized crime involved in the illegal drug trade.

In 1976, Bob Marley, the famous reggae singer, and two others were wounded in an assault by unknown gunmen in his Kingston home. This murder attempt was thought to have been politically motivated by one of two warring political groups, since Marley's then upcoming free concert was seen by some as backing one particular politician.

A view of the old bauxite mine and wharf from the other side of ship
During the mid-1980's, I flew into Kingston to follow the paper trail of one of our fugitives. Parts of Kingston that we drove through were burned out buildings with political slogans painted on the walls still standing. That night, the other agent and I stayed at a hotel which was surrounded by cyclone fence with concertina wire on top. We were advised not to go outside the compound at night. It was explained to us that there were two political parties in the country and that a different criminal gang had attached itself to each of the parties. Kingston being on the opposite end of the island from the tourist resorts, we were assured the resort areas were kept safe because no one wanted to scare away the tourist money. The two Jamaican feds we worked with, and who escorted us everywhere, informed us to stay out of the mountain country at night and not to run any army checkpoints in the middle of the country. Those guys will machine gun you, we were told. But that was back then.

For our 2014 walk into the resort area of Ocho Rios, I was entirely comfortable with our environment. Our worst problem was saying "No" to vendors and taxi drivers. My only regret was not having the gear and time to go snorkeling on my own. Seems I should have signed up for the snorkeling excursion. Still had a great time at a beachside bar in a warm sun with balmy breezes...and out of the Colorado snow and cold. Sure, we'd go again sometime.

That was our last port of call before heading back to Ft. Lauderdale, disembarkation, U.S. Customs and the airport for home. It was a fun trip, seeing the tourist side, yet knowing what was or had been lurking in the past of each city and/or country we had visited.