There are certain things typical of an island paradise that remind me of growing up in Jamaica. It was a quiet life. During weekend trips to the beach, I hid in the shade from the brutal sun and stole sips of my mother’s cold Red Stripe beer. We lived in a treehouse in the middle of nowhere, and at nights I fell asleep to the sound of crickets and cursed the tree frog perched in the bush outside my window that croaked so loud he kept me up half the night. The air always seemed to smell vaguely of ganja, as if someone had extinguished a spliff just before I’d arrived.
There were more sinister signposts of growing up in a country that briefly held the dishonor of having the highest murder rate in the world. Some mornings, my mother would have to drive me to school on the back route, taking the dirt roads in the sugar cane fields because the roads were blocked by people protesting corruption and the failing economy yet again. There were the burglar bars, the emergency buttons, the alarm systems and the security guards. Although our dogs were called “Brownie” and “Bambi,” they were rottweilers—and trained to kill. Once, when I was a teenager, eight of us piled into a Toyota Corolla to go to a party, and I sat on my friend’s lap until he told me to move—I was sitting on his gun. I thought it was a lazy dirty joke. “No, no, you are sitting on my gun,” he said, and moved me to his other knee. Every night, the news anchor announced yet another murder—the gunmen always “escaped into nearby bushes,” until it became a national punchline.
A state of emergency doesn’t stop a record-breaking 4.7 million tourists from coming.
And then in 2010, the state of emergency began. By this point, I was 16 and felt suffocated by the smallness of the island; I had gone away to the UK for boarding school. I watched the announcement on television while sitting on the floor of Heathrow airport. I was gangly, five-foot-ten, 100 pounds and bursting with excitement to return home. I was lying in a dogpile of dirty students as we waited for our separate flights. On the television in front of us, soldiers ran through burning cars in some godforsaken war-torn place. And then someone nudged my shoulder. “Hey… is that Jamaica?” they said, pointing at the television screen. “No way,” I said, thinking that I had misunderstood him. But there was no contradicting the red banner at the bottom of the BBC news segment that read: “Jamaica, State of Emergency.”
The reason: the arrest of the drug lord Christopher “Dudus” Coke, Jamaica’s answer to Pablo Escobar. Dudus, a “don,” or gangster-politician of one of the island’s garrisons, ran Tivoli Gardens, a ghetto that is loyal to the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), one of Jamaica’s two major political parties. Dudus had risen to become a cultural icon—a gangster Robin Hood, both brutal to and caring for his community. He had inherited his position from his father, who ran Tivoli Gardens before him. Dudus ran the family’s drug-trade empire and the Shower Posse, a violent gang named for the way they “shower” bullets down on their enemies. Police couldn’t enter his garrison without asking for permission. His connections with the JLP government were well known; in parts of Tivoli Gardens, 100 percent of voters cast their ballot for the JLP.
Dudus’s constituents called him President or Prezi for short. It was said no one in Tivoli paid for electricity because he had hijacked power from the grid. On weeknights, he enforced a curfew for schoolchildren. There was a courtroom in the back of his house where he decided people’s fates and meted out punishments. Stories that romanticize him are easy to collect, because it is unlikely that anyone would have been able to speak out against him without forever living in fear, knowing as they did they couldn’t count on the police to protect them.
So when the US decided to extradite him on drug charges, his people revolted. They blocked the roads to the community with old cars. Thousands of women in white came out for a protest holding signs that said he was like Jesus. The military and police invaded. Seventy-three civilians died. Then, Prime Minister Bruce Golding tried to hold the extradition request off as long as possible, and he eventually had to step down for what some felt was a blatant act of political corruption.
I landed in Montego Bay—a four-hour drive from the violence in Kingston—15 hours later. My flight had not been canceled; not even a national crisis could compromise getting airplanes full of tourists into the island’s main tourism hub (the sector is Jamaica’s second biggest source of income). Walking out of the arrivals hall, I anticipated the tanks and soldiers I’d seen on the news. Instead, the sun glistened on the sea. The breeze blew in the poinciana trees. The taxi men harassed me. The only bleeding red came from the sunset; there was no sign of emergency.
Since declaring independence from the UK in 1962, Jamaica has experienced seven states of emergency, five of which have been because of violence and two because of hurricanes. The first was in 1966, caused by political violence in the constituency then run by Dudus’s father, who was then the leader of the Shower Posse and also the bodyguard of JLP Prime Minister Edward Seaga. At the time, violence occurred between the gangs associated with each political party. In 1976, supporters of the two parties, the Jamaica Labour Party and the People’s National Party, broke out in fighting so terrifying that the Prime Minister called another state of emergency. Hurricanes came in 2004 and 2007. The state of emergency in 2010 was caused by Dudus.
And then there were two in 2018. In January 2018, two men walked across the main road right outside the airport of my hometown and emptied their AK-47s into a taxi cab. The police alleged the killings were gang related. Now that the violence had overflowed into the island’s tourist capital, it became impossible to ignore. The Prime Minister called for a limited state of emergency for the surrounding areas of Montego Bay.
It was only supposed to last two weeks but continued for over a year. At the time, I was home on Christmas break from grad school, and I anticipated that it would mean I would be trapped there for the rest of the holiday. The news offered no concrete information about what to expect, although newscasters did tell us the Minister of Tourism had renamed the emergency status to “Enhanced Security Measures” so as not to scare tourists. The night it went into effect, a WhatsApp message filled with typos circulated among friends to advise what time businesses were to close. Supermarkets had to shut by 8 p.m. The rum bars, 9 p.m.
Jamaica’s crime is its own form of identity politics. At first, it was the idea of associating with one of the two political parties. You were either JLP or PNP, green or orange, “Shower” or “Power,” and you would kill whoever was in the opposite party. But political violence went out of fashion and people were looking for new ways to find community. Often, that was with gangs or other criminals. These dons, like Dudus, are often seen as heroes in their community, and there aren’t a lot of ways to be a hero in a country where the minimum wage is US$55 a week. There is a viral YouTube video of police arresting a criminal and an old woman throws herself at the officer’s feet, telling them what a great man he is. “He’s the defender of the earth,” she wails. Because she knows that when the criminals leave, nobody is left to look after her.
Crime has changed a lot in Jamaica since 2010. After Dudus, the gang leaders gave up some of their renown; the large criminal gangs of the past fractured into smaller, more low-key units. In Montego Bay, a criminal enterprise arose in the form of “Lotto Scamming,” a practice in which Jamaicans call vulnerable Americans, usually the elderly and the sick, and convince them they’ve won the lottery and can receive their winnings only if they pay an administration fee. The scammers intimidate their victims and continue to extort money from them. A song by local artist Vybz Kartel called lotto scamming “reparations.”
On the day after the most recent emergency went into effect, the roads in downtown Montego Bay felt empty because the illegal taxis were taking back roads. It was a pleasant side effect. Checkpoints manned by soldiers were erected on the roads entering and exiting Montego Bay. As I drove through the first of them, my palms started to sweat. The ramshackle checkpoint had about ten soldiers with assault rifles peering into cars. I rolled down my window, and a soldier locked eyes with me. I suddenly panicked, wondering if I had remembered to bring my license. But then, the soldier blew me a kiss.
Friends laughed at the uselessness of the checkpoints. One told me she heard that gunmen were bypassing them by walking through the bushes around them and jumping into taxis on the other side. There were other criticisms of the state of emergency. Some said that the gunmen had gone into hiding or escaped to other parts of Jamaica only to return.
The elite and the poor of Jamaica live side by side but universes apart. At that time, I lived in Freeport, a small peninsula built on a set of small, swampy sand banks that is a goldfish bowl for the upper crust. A state of emergency doesn’t disrupt my gym routine, nor did it stop a record-breaking 4.7 million tourists—twice the population of Jamaica—from coming in 2018. But it is an entirely different matter for the people of Mt. Salem, Rose Heights, Norwood, Granville and Flankers, upon whom the military and police descended, conducting raids and arresting thousands of young males, 95 percent of whom were not charged with a crime. Given the track record of the Jamaican police, the number of complaints of abuse was relatively low. Murders in Montego Bay have been reduced by 72 percent and shootings by 63 percent, but were the means used to suppress the violence just creating yet another generation of youths growing up resentful of the police?
The knee-jerk response to a state of emergency is that it is a human rights abuse. But it isn’t that simple. People living in the most-affected areas say that they love having the military present, because for the first time, they slept without gunshots ringing in the night. Both the legitimate police force and the illegitimate don men running the area had left them used to men with big guns that the military was nothing new for them. This is the real state of emergency: not that the human rights abuses occur, but that we’ve reached a point where there is no other option. This is the only immediate solution that has been effective in decreasing the body count.
In January 2019, after nearly a year, the state of emergency in Montego Bay came to an end. Its end has sparked hot debate in Jamaica. The opposition party voted for it to end, saying it was time to focus on more long-term solutions. The current administration felt it was the only thing holding the country together, and the Prime Minister said twenty of Jamaica’s most wanted criminals would be let back out onto the streets. Many residents agreed and were not ready to see it go. But you don’t need an official state of emergency to keep up a police presence in these neighborhoods.
The truth is that Jamaica is in a constant state of emergency, whether or not the government decides to announce it officially. In recent years, our country has liked to talk about Jamaica as a “brand.” “Brand Jamaica” is cool, fun and funky. It is not very “Brand Jamaica” that our country has a murder rate so high that some academics classify it as in a civil war, and that we should be treating residents for PTSD. The paradox of “Brand Jamaica” is that a low minimum wage is what allows these hotels to host their reggae nights and rum punch parties. After a renegotiated deal with the IMF, the Jamaican economy is on the upturn for the first time in decades. It is time to develop a new type of “Brand Jamaica”: one that pays its employees enough that the locals can live in the kind of dignity that foreigners are sold. Give a Jamaican a microphone and he becomes Bob Marley. Give him a track and he becomes Usain Bolt. If there is a decent minimum wage, we might be able to come up with a new type of “Brand Jamaica” that works better for the people who live here.
Summer Eldemire is a Jamaican journalist currently based in New York. She writes about crime and culture and her work has appeared on the BBC, the Intercept and The Fader.