Jamaica is on high alert for gang violence — but officials say island safe for tourists

Jamaica Prime Minister Andrew Holness enacted the state of emergency.
Jamaica Prime Minister Andrew Holness enacted the state of emergency. International Monetary Fund

Jamaica’s National Security minister told the country’s lawmakers Tuesday that a heightened state of alert sparked by warring violent gangs in St. James Parish is “going very well,” and has led to the arrest of a Florida man wanted on multiple sexual offenses involving minors.

Peter Marley, 51, of Florida, was among 197 people detained since a state of emergency went into effect Friday for western Jamaica after an uptick in gun violence, according to National Security Minister Robert Montague. The crime wave led the United States, Canada and Great Britain to issue travel warnings to their citizens. Montague did not provide further details on Marley.

“We asked for and are getting unprecedented support from the public,” National Security Minister Robert Montague said in parliament Tuesday as he defended the deployment of soldiers and additional police officers on the streets. “We ask that members of the public continue to flood us with information. Tell us where the guns are! Tell us where the gunmen, lotto scammers and criminals are.”

While noting that the increased security presence has nabbed dozens of suspected gang members, as well as individuals wanted for shootings and murder, Montague warned that the state of emergency is “not a panacea” for Jamaica’s spiraling crime problems.

Last year, the Caribbean nation, while welcoming more than 3.8 million cruise and overnight visitors in 2016, also logged 1,616 killings and 1,469 shootings. More than 330 people were murdered in St. James Parish alone.

“Since the start of the year we have continued to see an unacceptable trend in the country’s murder rate,” Montague said. “Naturally, some have become fearful and frightened. This is not lost on the government and as such, we have declared a state of emergency in St. James.”

Normally criticized by the population, the state of emergency, enacted by Prime Minister Andrew Holness, has been welcomed by most Jamaicans. It is a procedural matter that allows the government to deploy the army and beef up police presence in certain areas. It also allows security forces to stop individuals and conduct searches and arrests without a warrant.

So far, the alert is only confined to St. James and its communities, which include touristy Montego Bay. Four firearms and 30 rounds of ammunition have been seized and 178 people remain in custody, Montague said.

In the wake of the increase in gun violence, the U.S. State Department earlier this month updated its travel warning urging U.S. citizens to avoid certain areas of the country, and to exercise “increased caution,” even at all-inclusive resorts. Canada and Great Britain also issued similar warnings. Jamaican officials, however, say tourists remain safe.

“Things have been pretty calm,” said Major Gen. Antony Anderson, national security adviser. Montego Bay, he said, “is a very secured environment,” which continues to receive tourists who are going about their normal business.

“We understand the challenges and the perception,” he said of the heightened security decision. “But it’s safe for our visitors and for our citizens.”