PM Andrew Holness says measures reimposed in many parishes are in response to a wave of gang violence on the island, brushing off his critics, saying he is concerned about saving lives.

Similar to Honduras and El Salvador, Jamaica has been in the grip of a wave of gang violence and has one of the highest murder rates in the region.
Similar to Honduras and El Salvador, Jamaica has been in the grip of a wave of gang violence and has one of the highest murder rates in the region. (Reuters Archive)

Prime Minister Andrew Holness has declared a general state of emergency on an island with one of the highest murder rates in the region as it struggles with widespread gang violence. 

Wednesday's measure applies to certain communities in the capital of Kingston as well as six of Jamaica's 14 parishes, including those where popular tourist spots like Montego Bay are located. 

The state of emergency allows authorities to arrest people and search buildings without a warrant, drawing heavy criticism from political opponents and activists who have warned against repeated police abuse and mass detentions that happened under previous states of emergency.

Holness dismissed critics, saying in a televised address that his priority is to save lives.

"That is all the government is trying to do," he said, adding that Jamaicans "have to hide under their beds, hide their daughters, can't go to church, and they see their sons and their boyfriends and husbands killed. That’s the reality."

"We have some really serious criminal threats facing us, and we have to use all the powers at our disposal," Holness added.

READ MORE: Honduras under state of emergency over spike in gang extortions

Tug of war

The vast majority of killings in Jamaica are blamed on gangs known as "posses" that have been linked to major political parties and rely on extortion, drug trafficking and lottery scams to finance their activities.

In response, Jamaica has implemented several states of emergency in recent years that have been scrutinised by human rights activists.

The nation's Supreme Court has ruled several times — most recently in June — that detaining Jamaicans for months without a trial, let alone more than a year, is unconstitutional.

States of emergency deliver only marginal results and have worrying consequences, according to Jermaine Young, an expert on emergency powers and former professor at Howard University.

"Jamaica has a sordid reputation for abusing emergency powers," Young wrote in an essay this month. The police and military "have engaged in practices that include arbitrary and unlawful mass extended detentions, extrajudicial killings and internal renditions."

On Tuesday, heavily armed soldiers stood on street corners in Kingston and occasionally checked the IDs of people walking by and stopped cars to ask drivers where they were headed. Others entered people's homes seconds after knocking.

Some residents in Denham Town, considered one of Kingston's most violent areas, said they welcomed the state of emergency and noted that authorities there had made an effort to get to know them.

"I feel very comfortable because they’re here to serve and protect our community," said Natalie Thompson.

But others like Everton Dias disagreed with the new measure: "You can't use a problem to solve a problem."

READ MORE: El Salvadoran city surrounded by 10,000 troops amid crackdown on gangs

Reducing homicide rates

Police Chief Major General Anthony Johnson noted a 64 percent decline in killings during a smaller, two-week state of public emergency last month.

The prime minister said he is aware of the concerns.

"It is not the intention of the government to abuse these powers," Holness said. "As long as it is needed, this government will use states of public emergency."

Holness left the press conference early, saying he was travelling to the US to meet with top security officials and talk about new ways to reduce violent crime.

Since late 2017, states of emergency have been declared numerous times across the island, but the enforcement of such measures has done little to alleviate the national homicide rate. 

The island of over 2.9 million people has one of the highest murder rates in the region, reporting 1,421 killings so far this year.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies