Jamaica Strains to Fill Void Left by Gang Bosses
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KINGSTON, Jamaica -- When the powerful don of a downtown neighborhood, Matthews Lane, was sentenced to life in prison for murder, the Jamaican government promised the residents they would not be forgotten.
Quickly, the drains were cleaned and the sewers fixed. Jobs and new housing were on the way, residents were told. The police promised to provide the security previously handled by the don, a crime boss named Donald Phipps, known as Zekes, in one of the garrison communities of Kingston essentially outside government control.
But four years later, residents still regard the police as "them" and are hard pressed to name a project completed by the government. A cadre of the don's underlings, including his son, stepped into the vacuum and asserted their power. Though they are not as effective as Mr. Phipps in providing work or security, they still control Matthews Lane -- and it is still a garrison.
"It's our culture," said Michael Petersens, 45, who grew up in the neighborhood. "Zekes not the first don or the last don."
The pattern in Matthews Lane underscores the challenges the government faces as it tries to exert influence in a neighboring community called Tivoli Gardens. State security forces raided the neighborhood last week to execute an arrest warrant for Christopher Coke, the don of Tivoli Gardens, who is wanted in the United States on gun and drug trafficking charges.
Since the fighting started, the government has asked at least 10 other dons to surrender to the authorities in what officials say is an attempt to end the reign of the criminal gangs.
Now Mr. Coke is on the run, and Tivoli Gardens is a garrison of a different sort, its narrow streets full of heavily armed soldiers, police officers and pockets of seething anger. At least 70 people were killed in circumstances that have not been fully explained. The government has not said whether any of the people killed by security forces were armed. And although almost a thousand people were arrested and detained for days, all but 10 of them were eventually released without charge.
As of Monday, the country's prime minister, Bruce Golding, who represents Tivoli Gardens in Parliament, had not yet visited his constituents.
Walking near buildings in a part of the neighborhood gutted by fire, Brizzel Nelson-Robinson, whose husband was detained for several days and their small shop ransacked in the unrest last week, summed up the changed environment. "We don't feel safe," she said.
According to Mark Shields, a former deputy commissioner in the Police Department, early attempts to help Matthews Lane after Mr. Phipps's arrest seemed hopeful. "We were able to disrupt extortion to a degree," he said, acknowledging that attention from the state quickly faded.
On a recent day in Matthews Lane, Dale Bryan, 28, sat on a sidewalk with a screwdriver and tried to fix a fan. Mr. Phipps had gotten him his first job. In a neighborhood full of semi-employed young men, Mr. Bryan was one of the few with a steady job, at the airport.
He pointed to a stretch of fresh asphalt on the road in front of him, work the city had finally completed after leaving a hole in the street for years. "That's the only thing they do," he said. "They just pass through."
Mr. Shields said: "To sustain filling the gap is costly, and my concern is Jamaica does not have the resources to sustain it. Tivoli is a bigger area. I hope there is a strong plan to fill the vacuum created by removing dons. Otherwise they will be replaced by wanna-be-dons."
In recent days, private business and church groups have promised to create new social programs in the garrison communities. An adviser close to Mr. Golding, Delano Seiveright, said the prime minister was committed to preventing a return of the dons.
"There is no doubt that the Bruce Golding government is resolute about a targeted social intervention package," he said in an e-mail message. Mr. Seiveright predicted that more resources would be "pumped into deprived inner-city communities that have for years been slipping into the hands of criminal elements."
In fact, money has flowed into those communities for decades, thanks to an arrangement in Jamaica in which politicians and dons share power. Through extortion and the drug trade, the dons provide security, and by steering contracts and other pork to the neighborhoods, the politicians count on the continued loyalty of voters.
The current unrest has shocked Jamaicans in part because it involves a politician's turning on the don in his district. Tivoli Gardens has voted for the Jamaica Labor Party, Mr. Golding's party, since the community was built in 1965 by Edward Seaga, who later became prime minister. At the time, "it was a place of opportunity," Mr. Seaga contended in an interview. "It was a pleasure to behold."
In the following decades, Tivoli Gardens and other poor neighborhoods became the headquarters of Kingston's criminal gangs, armed encampments that often fought with one another or the state. Yet they were part of the system: In 1992, when Mr. Coke's father died under mysterious circumstances, Mr. Seaga led his funeral procession.
Asked about a push to eject the dons, Mr. Seaga, a sharp critic of Mr. Golding, said: "If you say they shouldn't be allowed to operate, I'm with you. But I am not for law and order without justice. Because law and order without justice is to shoot people."
Removing the dons is not the only challenge. According to Rivke Jaffe, an anthropologist at Leiden University who has studied downtown Kingston, many dons are more than just criminals who have inserted themselves between the impoverished streets and the bureaucracy. Mr. Coke does earn money from legitimate businesses.
They have provided residents with financial help and jobs. And while the police often treat their neighborhoods as lawless enclaves, some dons, like Mr. Coke and Mr. Phipps, provided some order among people who saw the police and other institutions as corrupt and capricious, Dr. Jaffe said.
And they provide a sense of belonging, she said. The dons are celebrated in the popular culture of places like Matthews Lane, where the annual dance is still called Spanglers, for Mr. Phipps's crew. The name Zekes appears on many wall murals, including one that features President Obama and the famed sprinter Usain Bolt.
At the same time, there is no way to vote a don out of power, and no way to decline his demands for extortion money. To cross a don, or even disagree, could mean death.
"There's no way we can dismiss the dons," said Victor Cummings, a former Parliament member who is the half brother of Mr. Phipps. "We need to bring them into the system to reduce their power."
First Published June 1, 2010 2:00 am