Shop owners look up and down the empty sidewalk along Montego Bay’s popular “Hip Strip,” wondering where the tourists looking to buy T-shirts, sip rum punch and dine on authentic Jamaican jerk chicken have gone.
“You see the road?” Gary Verma, 24, a local businessman asked, pointing to the strip, now renamed Jimmy Cliff Boulevard after the reggae music icon. “It is dry now. There is only one tour bus, and no customers are walking in.”
Five months after the government lifted a state of emergency here, Montego Bay is back under the watchful glare of military troops after the high security alert was reimposed April 30 following what officials say was an unacceptable spike in shootings and murders. Soldiers brandishing high-powered rifles are back patrolling the streets alongside police. Together, they are staffing checkpoints, imposing curfews, searching residents and arresting suspects.
“The aim is not to disrupt normal lives unnecessarily,” said Dahlia Garrick, the police spokesperson with the Jamaica Constabulary Force. “The aim is to interrupt violence and to save lives.”
And it is working, Garrick said. Since the state of emergency was reintroduced by Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness and extended for 90 days after an initial 14-day period, crime is trending down and security forces have collected eight illegal firearms and 1,900 rounds of ammunition from the three parishes that are under the crime-fighting plan.
The parishes are St. James, where Montego Bay is located, and nearby Westmoreland and Hanover, where Negril, another popular resort community, is located.
“We have seen where it has interrupted the level of violence in the areas,” Garrick said. “There were several murders in the parishes prior to that and that has significantly slowed since the [state of emergency] was launched. The police and military are working and respecting the rights of citizens. We haven’t had any complaints about that. Yes, there are some inconveniences, like with the checkpoints. But overall, citizens are exercising patience and tolerance. People are complying because they see the benefit and know all of this is creating safer communities.”
Though highly unusual, the high alert illustrates the challenge Jamaica and other tourist-dependent Caribbean countries like the Bahamas are facing as home invasions, robberies and murder rates spike and local police find themselves unable to manage on their own.
Still, in trying to tackle the nagging problem of violent crime, countries are finding that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Even though some business owners understand why the state of emergency was reintroduced here, they say it’s hard to embrace it when it’s having a negative effect on sales.
“If foreign [embassies] are going to tell [tourists] not to go out, then obviously, they will listen to them. They are not going to follow what the taxi drivers and tour guides tell them,” store owner Sam Chhugani said, lamenting about the heightened Level 2 travel advisory the U.S. State Department issued on the heels of the state of emergency, warning American travelers to exercise extreme caution when visiting.
“Tourists have never been caught up in the domestic issues of Jamaica,” Chhugani said. “People come here to enjoy themselves, they never get caught up. Everybody loves Jamaica and the best thing is they are still coming. They just aren’t coming out of the hotels.”
Jamaica Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett said the country hasn’t “seen any fall” in tourism earnings since the alert was reintroduced. In fact, revenues are up by 8.4 percent over last year, while the number of visitors are already about 2 million, he said.
“We are enjoying record arrival throughout the destination,” Bartlett said. “We are always conscious of when there is a spike in criminal activity. We have to move quickly to deal with it. People recognize that the state of emergency is not a statement of a society out of control, but rather it’s a proactive move to ensure that the visitors’ safety record Jamaica has is maintained.”
According to crime statistics from the Jamaica Constabulary Force, shootings in Montego Bay and its surrounding communities are up 32 percent over last year, and murders 45 percent. But over in Westmoreland, homicides and shootings are trending down. In fact, the parish, described as “the most murder-dense” place in Jamaica last year, had no killings in May, Garrick said.
Still, robberies and home invasions are out of control. They’ve gone up 213 percent and 106 percent respectively over last year.
“This is something we are actively tackling,” Garrick said.
Police and residents say a lot of what’s fueling the violence in St. James and other parishes in western Jamaica is gang conflict. Some of it is reprisal shootings, while some of it involves the notorious “Jamaica lottery scam.”
With the scam, unsuspecting individuals, usually Americans, receive a phone call from someone with a Jamaican accent saying they won the lottery. To get the earnings, victims are told they have to send money in order to pay the taxes or fees. It’s estimated that lottery scamming brings at least $100 million a year into Jamaica, where the money is then used by gangs to finance the purchase of illegal arms, drugs and other criminal enterprise.
“Montego Bay is a very volatile area,” said Junior Fields, 28, who works as a body shop technician. “When the state of emergency isn’t in, you have a lot of criminals. The state of emergency lets the typical person who goes to work from 9 to 5 p.m. have a peace of mind.”
It also gives tourists, he said, “a level of reassurance that the state is protecting them.”
Delroy Williams, who owns a vehicle repair garage, said he understands some locals, especially those dependent on tourism and nightlife activities, may not like the new heightened security.
“It has slowed up some businesses like the bars, the small markets and sellers on the streets,” he said. “But I feel safer because I know that the army and the police are out there protecting me. I like what’s going on.”.
A 2017 study on violence in the Caribbean by the Inter-American Development Bank, “Restoring Paradise in the Caribbean: Combatting Violence with Numbers,” said about 40 percent of the population in the Caribbean believes crime and security-related issues are the main problems facing their countries, even more so than poverty, the economy or inequality.
Mark Shields, former deputy commissioner of police with the Jamaica Constabulary Force, said “there is no doubt at all that communities feel safer when they see increased presence of police and soldiers on the streets.”
“People,” Shields said, “generally live in fear when they are not there.”
But the state of emergency can’t be the only solution to tackling Jamaica’s crime problems, said Shields, who believes that the lottery scamming is contributing to the rise in violence in St. James and elsewhere around the country.
“It’s not sustainable,” Shields, who now works as a crime and security consultant, said about the state of emergency. “So much work needs to be done: improving education, employment and opportunities in these communities. All of that is needed to support the work of the state of the emergency.”
Still, Shields said he believes that the suspension of the state of emergency earlier this year under pressure from the opposition was premature.
“I’ve made no secret about that,” he said. “We went from a reduction in murders... to many more people being killed. And now the state of emergency is back on.... It’s been a month but we have already seen reductions in murders since it was reimposed on a wider area.”
As for those business owners complaining about the financial loss due to the state of high alert, Shields said they should see the upside.
“Businesses do suffer, but they have to look at the balance and try to adopt the view that businesses are safer.”