Extreme prejudice

BORN FI' DEAD by Laurie Gunst, Canongate pounds 9.99 RUTHLESS: The Glob al Rise of the Yardies by Geoff Small, Warner pounds 7.99
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE rise of the Jamaican gangs from small-time Rude Boys to international drug organisations in the 1980s is a complex, brutal and terrifying story. It is also, both Ruthless and Born Fi' Dead agree, essentially political. As their excellent accounts make clear, the gangs' flowering cannot be understood other than in the context of the venomous factionalism of Jamaican politics, and of the broader politics of relations between First and Developing world economies.

Where the books differ is in questions of emphasis. Geoff Small's is more journalistic and more exhaustive. He has accumulated a vast amount of information about the gangs' evolution, such as the switch to cocaine, how they restructured to capitalise on the American market and how their extreme violence saw them fall foul of both their Colombian suppliers and law enforcement in the early 1990s. As he points out, it is striking that the gangs evaded detection for so long. Their flexible structure, mobility and skill at covering their tracks all give credence to the theory that they received some sort of Cuban and American intelligence training in the 1970s.

Laurie Gunst's history, on the other hand, is more intimate, corroborated by numerous first-hand interviews and friendships, and fuelled by a deep empathy for the "sufferers", the inhabitants of Kingston's ghettos. She tries, as far as possible, not to lose sight of the individual among the vast ranks of exploiters and exploited. Not surprisingly, therefore, 1978 is one of the turning points of her account.

At the start of this remarkable year, the leaders of the Spanglers and the Shower Posse, West Kingston's main rival gangs, announced a gang truce. The comparison with Northern Ireland is often made, and it is not far- fetched to say that this would be the equivalent of the IRA and the UVF reaching an agreement on their own initiative. A Central Peace Council was set up to organise, among other things, the One Love Peace Concert, at the climax of which Bob Marley called on stage Michael Manley, Prime Minister of the People's National Party, and Edward Seaga, leader of the Jamaican Labour Party. The photograph of him raising up their clasped hands is one of the most famous and poignant images of recent Jamaican history.

Jamaica's criminal gangs became politicised in the second half of the 1960s. In return for political patronage, which ranged from straight payment to public works contracts, access to housing and small arms - cynically known as "vote getters" - the gangs added the role of community enforcers to their other activities. Transformed into middlemen between the people and the politicians, the gang leaders, or "dons", laid down the law and oversaw most of the employment and welfare in their communities.

As the economy declined after Manley's election in 1972, the gangs multiplied, and when the PNP adopted "democratic socialism", Cuban-style revolutionaries began to fight it out with anti-Communist freedom fighters. The election of 1976 was heralded by firebombings, riots and a 10-month State of Emergency. The "Green Bay Massacre" was one of the most damaging scandals for Manley. Members of the JLP-sympathising Skull gang were lured to the Green Bay army firing range and killed, it was strongly rumoured, by officers in the Jamaica Defence Force who were loyal to the PNP.

To gang leaders, at least, this proved they were being equally exploited by both political parties. In a rare moment of political, as opposed to party political, consciousness, they declared their truce and, in a meeting with Manley and Seaga, demanded better living conditions and an end to "political tribalism" and patronage. All the hopes of 1978 are symbolised by that photograph of Marley with the two party leaders; its great pathos is that it turned out to be nothing but a photo-opportunity: within a year the truce was over, within two everybody involved in it was dead. New gunmen took their place and the 1980 election campaign was the most violent in Jamaica's history, with between 800 and 1,300 politically motivated killings.

The 1980s marked a new phase: the gangs turned towards America, and moved into the international narcotics trade. They were well served by the lessons of the 1970s, whereby power falls to those who feel free to commit acts of extreme brutality in a public and intimidating way. In their American heyday they controlled first the ganja, then the crack trade from wholesale to retail. A percentage of their profits was ploughed back into their communities in Kingston, and this drug turf, ruled by the new dons, started to reach Colombian proportions of states within states, powerful enough to dictate to the rest of Jamaican society.

The gangs' way of life provides a horrific insight into the addictive nature of gun violence, and much of the drama of Laurie Gunst's book lies in her attempt to define the limits within which this violence is understandable. It is to her credit that Trevor Phillips, the former Chairman of the 1978 Peace Council, could write to her, "My hope was always that you were, in fact, someone who really wanted to write about this sordid turn of events and give as much of the human and inhumane factors to make the picture whole."

A substantial picture emerges from both books but, inevitably, crucial questions - such as who is ultimately responsible for the links between politics, the gangs and the drug trade - remain unanswered. One lead vanished in 1993, when Jim Brown died in a prison fire while he was awaiting extradition to America to stand trial as the joint leader of the Shower Posse. Perhaps the trial of his associate, Vivian Blake, will see revelations comparable to those in Italy.

What is certain, after reading these books, is that there is little to be proud of in the British media's creation of a "folk devil", the "Yardie" responsible for all drug-related crime in Britain. While their worship of the gun has had a huge effect on criminal culture, the Jamaican gangs have never been the biggest players here. In smearing the West Indian community indiscriminately, the media ensures both that people are more vulnerable to the gangs' intimidatory tactics and that the gangs are more attractive as nihilistic anti-heroes. But, most of all, it obscures the fact that the drugs trade and its exploitation are only possible given the right economic conditions. If politicians mismanage the economy or abandon a section of society, then the result is inevitably a brute struggle for survival in which the most ruthless will have their heyday.