Photo Caption: Police celebrate the killing of Pablo Escobar
The pictures on television may have shown the soldiers to be Jamaican, but the recent violence on the streets of Kingston was orchestrated by the United States. Applying intense political pressure on their much smaller neighbour, the US demand for the extradition of Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke, led to carnage. Dudus is a suspected drug-trafficker and alleged leader of The Shower Posse, thought to have been responsible for up to 1,000 murders in the US and Caribbean since the 1980s. The response of the Jamaican government was to launch heavy-handed raids on parts of the capital thought to be under the control of The Shower Posse. The bloodshed and alleged execution of unarmed men was carried out by the Jamaican security forces, but it was done so at the behest of the United States.
As they launched raids into city neighbourhoods, the government forces met strong resistance, with gunfire and roadblocks restricting their ability to penetrate Dudus’ stronghold of Tivoli Gardens. Yet it was not only gang members who defended their leader. Many law-abiding citizens support Dudus and wish to see him avoid arrest and an almost certain life-sentence in a US prison. Many of the roadblocks were set up by local citizens who despise the authorities and view Dudus as something of a national hero. It is an image propagated by his followers.
Those who support the likes of Dudus and other similar leaders argue that after decades of government neglect, poverty-stricken areas are these days provided for by the gangs. Strict laws are applied, and the punishment for breaking them is swift and merciless. Robbery and violence consequently become rare and locals are able to travel around their neighbourhood assured of their safety. There are basic services that were previously unobtainable and support is provided for the vulnerable, such as schoolchildren. Then there is the offer of employment to those with few prospects, and the subsequent distribution of wealth.
It is little wonder that when a situation such as the recent one in Kingston arises, local loyalties often lie strongly with the anti-government forces. While life is far from perfect, the gangs can offer a far better standard of living than the state. Particularly when the local population is accustomed to the state bringing oppression, brutality and even death into its community.
It is a major problem for the Jamaican government, which also faces accusations of collaborating with the gangs and aiding their rise in return for armed support and the maintenance of order. By allowing the gangs to thrive and neglecting its duties to its poorer citizens the government has shot itself in the foot. It now finds itself confronting civil unrest that has divided public opinion and brought fury and terror first to the streets and then into the glare of the world.
The recent troubles have highlighted the inadequacies of the authorities to provide a decent standard of living for a great many of its citizens, but it is far from unique as an example of public sentiment lying with outlaws rather than the state. Although in many disadvantaged communities throughout the globe people are maltreated and exploited by overlord criminal organisations, there are other cases where the opposite has been true, and the populace has benefited.
The notoriety of the Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar is the stuff of legend. During the peak of his powers in the late 1980s he was estimated by Forbes Magazine to be the world’s seventh richest man, as the surge in popularity of cocaine in the United States ensured a huge and demanding market. As head of the Medellin Cartel, Escobar was responsible for thousands of deaths, including the assassination of politicians, judges, police chiefs and rival drug-traffickers, and once carried out the bombing of an airliner that killed over 100 people. Yet in spite of all this, and seventeen years after his death at the hands of the Colombian security forces, Escobar remains a hero to a great many of his compatriots, particularly among the poor.
Throughout his tenure as the world’s most wanted man, Escobar invested huge sums in the infrastructure of his home city of Medellin, creating housing projects and building schools, hospitals, sports facilities and roads. He was able to forward the development of the region to a far greater extent than the government had managed. On top of this, he once offered to pay off Colombia’s national debt, provided that all charges against him were dropped although this was promptly rejected by the government.
Escobar remained a fugitive while the US continued to pour billions of dollars into training and arming the Colombian security forces in their desperation to capture or kill him, while he nevertheless retained the respect and admiration of many Colombians. Through funding the growth of Medellin and providing services and jobs to those hitherto denied them, Escobar confirmed the allegiance of a large part of the local population. These people would then act in his best interests, warning him of police movements or withholding information from the authorities. To what extent this, rather than assassination and bribery, allowed him to evade justice for so long is unclear, yet it undeniably strengthened his power.
The policy of investment in the community as a means of self-protection is also practised by many drug-trafficking gangs that control the favelas of Brazil. While the traffickers themselves are inherently violent, it is a violence that often bypasses the favelas’ inhabitants. The gangs maintain order within the community and drug-dealing and petty theft are harshly punished. As many people rarely leave the favela, they live in a relatively low-crime area. The fact that control of their community is in the hands of homicidal criminals doesn’t mean that the inhabitants are plagued by lawlessness. In fact, the opposite is often true. For many of those who live in the favela, their principal experience of violence comes from police raids into the community and the gun-battles that ensue. The association of violence with the police hardens antipathy toward the authorities and therefore strengthens the grip of the gangs.
Of course, life under the control of the traffickers is often miserable as oppressive laws are introduced and movement is restricted. Yet in many cases this bears little distinction from life under the state. As the majority of gang members are from the favela, and well-known within it, it is of no surprise that loyalties lie with them rather than with politicians and police chiefs with little understanding of local needs. The battles between the police and drug gangs act as a vicious circle, with each clash serving only to intensify the resolve of both sides, and leading to further and evermore brutal violence.
For communities denied the basic commodities of a structured society, the development of a system that brings order in place of chaos is embraced. The identity of the architects is of little importance when considering the improvements they bring to the everyday life of the poor. It is not a case of approving of criminal or harmful activity but of basic economics. Who isn’t going to support the governance of the party that grants the highest quality of life? Were the authorities more willing to invest in all aspects of society rather than focussing on the upper echelons, then situations such as the troubles in Jamaica would be less likely to occur. Drug-trafficking wouldn’t stop but the gangs would face greater public hostility. Unfortunately, as the world grows more unequal, and the chasm between have and have-not ever wider, the entwined ills of government neglect, police brutality, organised crime, and public disorder will continue to ensure that violence, chaos and suffering affect large numbers of the disadvantaged well into the future.
Thursday, June 10th, 2010