For two weeks, the Jamaican army and police have fought gun battles in Kingston. The many allegations of human rights abuses committed by the security forces – including extrajudicial killings and the disposal of bodies – have received almost no international attention. Nor have the linkages between the Jamaican crisis, the security establishments in the US, Britain and Canada, and the mutations of the “war on terror”.
But strategy and tactics deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan are being applied in Jamaica. Drones fly over Kingston, and were used in the 24 May assault to select targets. On 7 June, Tivoli residents discovered that to enter or leave the area they had to produce “passes” issued by the police (revised, after protests, to restrictions on movement after dark). There is blanket surveillance of electronic communications in breach of Jamaican privacy protections – indeed, it was the illegal provenance of some of the evidence against Christopher “Dudus” Coke that initially held up extradition proceedings.
Propaganda “information operations” are at full tilt: while the army guides the Jamaican press on tours in which soldiers pat the heads of children, and in which criminal “torture chambers” are revealed, abroad we are told this is just about breaking drug gangs.
That Kingston today resembles aspects of Kabul is not by chance. In 2008, the Jamaican army’s Major Wayne Robinson submitted a master’s thesis to the US Marine Corps University: Eradicating Organised Criminal Gangs in Jamaica: Can Lessons be Learned from a Successful Counterinsurgency?.
In October 2009, the manual on counterinsurgency operations of the US joint chiefs of staff equated police action against “criminal organisations” with counterinsurgency, and described key tactics – including aerial and electronic intelligence and targeting, the use of “passes” to restrict movement, and information management. For two years the Canadian Special Operations Regiment (CSOR) has combined operations in Afghanistan with training the Jamaican special forces, the Ninjas. In March 2010 Jamaican newspapers reported a joint US-UK-Canada intelligence operation was being run from Kingston.
Advisers from all three Nato powers are active in Jamaica. The Jamaican army has been tightly integrated with the US military since the early 1980s. The irony is that the criminals the army now fights were also, in substantial part, created by the US and the Jamaican Labour party (the JLP, which now governs) in the 70s and 80s.
The origins of Coke’s Shower Posse lie in the cold war. In 1972 Michael Manley, of the People’s National party, was elected prime minister. He increased the taxes paid by US and Canadian mining companies, while leading third world demands for new international economic and information orders. Jamaica opened relations with Cuba, and defended Havana’s sending troops to defend the Angolan government exactly when the US and apartheid South Africa were arming rebels against it. What had happened in Chile in 1971-73 came to Jamaica, except that in the Caribbean the US also used crime and terrorism to destabilise the regime.
As the CIA station in Kingston became one of the largest in the world in the mid-70s, weapons flooded in to political gangs. A campaign of arson and bombings, allegedly organised by anti-Castro Cubans, spread chaos: one old people’s home burnt to the ground with the death of 150 women. Critically, the transshipment of cocaine from South America began in the late 70s. At the centre of this unrest were the gangs of Tivoli, of which Lester Coke (Dudus’s father) was a key leader. These criminals were enforcers for the JLP and gave help in the 80s to the covert allies of the Nicaraguan Contras through the cocaine and arms trades.
Perhaps the west, belatedly, wants to clean up some of the mess it made in Jamaica. But in 2009, the CSOR’s commanding officer admitted the Jamaican operation helped his unit compete in the “resource-scarce environment” of Canada’s defence ministry.
How much of the current crisis is being driven by the need of the interlocked global security establishment to justify its existence? What price will be paid in Jamaica for the transformation of policing into counterinsurgency? What are the long-term consequences for democracy of treating the urban poor as an enemy population to be beaten into submission, of the militarisation of policing, of the expansion of intrusive surveillance of society? These questions should be asked far beyond Jamaica.
Richard Drayton, Rhodes Professor of Imperial History at King’s College London.